Jenna Bush's peccadilloes erode her parents' bid for family privacy

White House is silent as underage-drinking charges tease media

May 31, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The zone of privacy that President and Laura Bush have sought to create around their family is gradually shrinking as their daughter Jenna continues to garner national attention related to underage drinking.

Jenna Bush and her twin sister, Barbara, both 19-year-old college freshmen, were approached by police Tuesday night at a restaurant in Austin, Texas, after Jenna tried to buy alcohol with someone else's identification, police said.

The legal drinking age in Texas is 21.

Authorities were trying to determine whether Barbara also tried to purchase alcohol. Police said last night that neither sister had been arrested or charged.

The episode comes less than a month after Jenna Bush, who attends the University of Texas, pleaded no contest to a charge of being a minor in possession of alcohol. In that incident, police stopped her during a check of underage drinking in a nightclub district in Austin.

A judge ordered Bush to complete eight hours of community service, pay $51.25 in court costs and attend six hours of alcohol-awareness classes.

In the latest case, a manager at Chuy's, a Mexican restaurant known for its "swirl margaritas," made a 911 call to police and reported that Jenna Bush was trying to buy alcohol, authorities said.

Austin police said yesterday that because they did not witness the incident, they, along with the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission, are still investigating.

"Jenna attempted to purchase alcohol with a valid identification that wasn't hers," said Laura Albrecht, a spokeswoman for the Austin police.

"Her sister was there, but we're still investigating if she was attempting to purchase any alcohol. We are still investigating whether charges will be filed."

The White House declined to discuss the matter.

"Out of respect for the privacy of this young woman, we're not making any comments about this incident," said Ashleigh Adams, a spokeswoman for the first lady's office.

Underage drinking is hardly a rarity for college-age youths, and Jenna Bush has not been charged with any of the most serious drinking offenses, such as driving under the influence.

But a shroud of privacy has not quite covered her since her father entered the White House, partly because of public incidents like the one this week.

"Any news about his daughter is important symbolically, because presidents and their families have a public image that is pristine," says Robert Dallek, a presidential historian.

"The children have to walk a fine line."

The Bushes did not involve their twins in the campaign, keeping them off the stage at the Republican National Convention and out of the spotlight on the trail.

They spoke often about how they wished reporters would treat their twins with the same hands-off approach they believe was granted to Chelsea Clinton over the years.

When questions about the daughters do arise, the White House reaction has been swift and unequivocal.

After a reporter asked about Jenna's no contest plea at a news conference with Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, Fleischer chastised the reporter and told him that his question had been "noted in the building" as stepping over the line.

But with the latest underage drinking reports, the daughters' lives are lurching further into the headlines.

"When you're a president's daughter, and you're getting written up with citations, that is news - how could it not be?" said Douglas Brinkley, another presidential scholar.

"What one has to watch is, does she become the fodder for comedians connecting Jenna Bush's penchant for partying in Austin to her father's history with alcohol in the past?"

Already, late-night TV is making that association.

This month, a comedian on "Saturday Night Live" cracked: "Her father insists Jenna is going through a rebellious phase, and that, just like him, she'll grow out of it in 27 years."

The stories about drinking take on resonance because of George W. Bush's own history. He turned his rejection of alcohol, at age 40, into a campaign touchstone about his spiritual awakening.

Just before the election, it surfaced that as a 30-year-old, Bush had pleaded guilty to driving under the influence. He said he never publicly revealed his arrest, which he blamed on his "irresponsible youth," to avoid setting a poor example for his daughters.

While the Bushes' daughter Barbara has stayed mostly out of sight at Yale University, Jenna Bush has become the subject of some public attention.

The first episode occurred in February, when William Bridges, a Texas Christian University student who attended high school with her, claimed he was her boyfriend and called her from jail after being arrested on suspicion of public intoxication, the Tarrant County sheriff said.

Secret Service agents picked Bridges up from the jail in Fort Worth, the sheriff said.

In April, Jenna Bush was approached by police at the Cheers Shot Bar after they found her with a beer in her hand.

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