George W. should lead dialogue on alcohol

Most students are aware of the legal troubles of Jenna and Barbara Bush, the daughters of President George W. Bush, who are also college students. The twins were both charged with alcohol offenses when Jenna was caught using a fake ID and Barbara was found in possession of alcohol as a minor at a popular Austin, Texas, restaurant.

Jenna already pleaded no contest in April to a charge of underage drinking, a charge that was deferred. Friday. Texas courts handed down $600 in fines and a 30-day suspension of Jenna’s driver’s license in response to the two incidents.

Despite the media attention focused on the first daughters’ drinking, or more likely because of the intense coverage, the White House has refused to offer substantive comments on an important issue. Adult teenagers, those who are 18 and over, drink alcohol. Not many people would dispute that fact – some even encourage or at least abet the practice. In light of the gap between what Americans preach and what we practice in regard to alcohol, now is the perfect time to reexamine society’s attitudes toward America’s most popular drug.

The Bush twins did nothing unusual in ordering a drink and trying to pass a fake ID. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of students do the same thing every weekend in D.C. alone. Alcohol is pervasive and readily available. And a fake ID can be had for about $50 almost anywhere in the country. The law – no matter how stiff the penalties – is powerless to stop underage drinking.

Instead, minors have become more sophisticated in their attempts to circumvent regulations prohibiting their use of alcohol. No amount of holograms, watermarks, pictures, stamps, seals or other devices will completely prevent ID counterfeiting. About two years ago in Thurston Hall, Metropolitan Police and the Secret Service broke up a sophisticated fake ID ring, whose final product was nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. A sting operation led to arrests and federal charges. The ringleader faced more than 50 federal counts of forgery.

Clearly the stakes are high for creating, distributing or passing a fake ID. But whatever consequences government attempts to attach are not deterring the demand. Underage students still drink and still use fake IDs, as University Police Department crime figures illustrate.

The phenomenon of underage students drinking alcohol and using fake IDs to obtain them is not new – just ask Tim Bannon. The laughable story of Bannon’s transformation into “Everett B. Ford,” recounted in a Time magazine essay by Gary Trudeau, began April 12, 1964 when his friend George W. Bush took over the Andover intramural stickball league.

Bush’s comic coup enjoyed enormous student support mainly due to his promise to issue membership cards that could double as fake IDs. The membership cards, complete with false names and birth dates, made their rounds through Andover “officially certified” and signed in bright red ink by “Tweeds” Bush.

In an age when government-issued IDs were primitive compared to the complex cards employed today, Bannon’s new persona worked every time. Perhaps it worked too well, though. Bannon was expelled from Andover under a zero-tolerance policy when he was caught with alcohol. Despite that bit of bad luck, Bannon apparently continued passing as “Everett B. Ford” until he turned 21 and retired his fake ID. Even expulsion from the most prestigious prep school in the country did not deter Bannon from using his fake ID.

Curious how none of this was admitted by Bush’s handlers. Rather than do the responsible thing and point out how poorly the law works, whether in the 1960s or in 2001, Bush is content to deny his past and ignore an important issue.

When a popular activity is banned, rarely does prohibition actually prohibit people from indulging. Al Capone and Joe Kennedy knew it, and they both made fortunes in the 1920s as a result. Rather than preventing the problem, laws prohibiting the use of alcohol force the issue underground. Instead of learning to use alcohol in a responsible manner, young people are left unsupervised with a readily available supply of the drug, which leads to destructive behavior and alcohol poisoning.

Two generations of Bush teens have flouted the law and used fake IDs to facilitate underage drinking. In almost 40 years, very little seems to have changed. Solutions to such an intractable problem are neither easy, nor close at hand. But finding them can only begin with a serious dialogue on the role alcohol plays in American society. Who better to lead the discussion than a president with so much experience with the issue?

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