Bush girls found to be un-American

This week, the main talking point across America has been, inevitably, the British election. Streets came to a standstill when the BBC Panorama special was aired here; truck drivers pulled in to watch it beamed in especially to their diners; bars with televisions quickly filled up. The United States, in other words, has been agog to know the fate of, say, Ann Widdecombe - whose fan websites are proliferating wildly.

Not, as all my friends here under the age of seven would rejoin. I doubt, in fact, whether one in 50 Americans even knows that Britain has been to the polls. Memorial Day was on the same day as the last British bank holiday, and that is Americans' official imprimatur that summer has arrived. In one of the more absurd (albeit unquestioned) American cultural habits, most schools are already out for the summer - until official notification of the end of summer comes with Labor Day, in the first week of September. For most schoolchildren, therefore, the long, dreamy days of summer are already here. Few Americans ever pause to wonder why they have such a woeful education system, but could it be anything to do with most kids spending more days of the year out of school than in one?

A kind of stupor thus overtakes the US by this time of the year. Although the work of the newly Democrat-controlled Congress carries on, along with executions and other vital government business, minds turn to holidays and the media slip into the silly season. With an unconscious oxymoronic puritanism that is uniquely American, a New York Times front-page headline pronounced last Tuesday: "In this bare-it-all age, bikinis are back." The article was illustrated with the obligatory colour picture of what Rupert Murdoch's papers would call three bikinied babes.

The newspapers, indeed, are full of ads for suntan oil, deckchairs and barbecues; kids go off to summer camps and the privileged whites of DC head for "Europe" (which can include countries as diverse as France, Denmark, Turkey - quite chic this year, for some reason, and presumed to be in Europe - or Britain). Or they flee to their cooler summer homes in Maine.

So, along with news of executions on page seven and the Nepalese riots (relegated to page nine), Americans learn that Millie, a cloned cow, suddenly dropped dead in a field in Tennessee. They hear how Boy George and Kid Brother Jeb keep showing audiences pictures of each other as babies with no clothes on. (What a mature sense of humour these Bushes have!) And they discuss the hot gossip of the day: the behaviour of Boy George's two 19-year-old daughters, who tried to use a fake identification card to buy and drink margaritas in a Texas restaurant. What fate, radio talk shows speculate endlessly, should befall these two young women?

Only a country where there is such ingrained puritanism, naturally, could seriously ask itself questions like that. A 19-year-old can die for his or her country, can vote, marry, produce children, blow smoke from carcinogenic cigarettes in other people's faces all day long, and so on. But a margarita? Good heavens, no! That would be as un-American as actually having topless babes on the front page of the New York Times. And so Jenna and Barbara Bush ("Jenna, in particular, is a disaster waiting to happen," a Bushie friend confided to me last week) are waiting to see whether the zero-tolerance laws that their father signed as governor of Texas will merely mean their knuckles being rapped, or whether (just conceivably) they will land them in jail.

That last detail gives anti-Bushies a quiet chuckle, but it tells only part of the story. Whether the Dubbya twins have a genetic predisposition to alcohol is a question that not even top geneticists can answer; forensic psychiatrists, likewise, can only speculate as to whether the twins' early exposure to their father's alcoholism (he stopped drinking when they were aged about four) has affected them. What clearly is genetically inherited, however, is their stupidity: for them even to think that the two most prominent teenagers in the country could get away with illegal drinking in their home town is all too redolent of their dad's combination of haughtiness and idiocy.

But much more interesting is the reason why Boy George and 49 other US governors signed those "zero-tolerance" laws on to the statute books. It was not (as is widely assumed) because of puritanical prohibition laws - but, unusually and by no means uniquely in the US, as a direct result of the work of a pressure group. Madd - Mothers Against Drunk Driving - was started in California in 1980 after a 13-year-old girl was killed by a drunk driver. Ronald Reagan became involved and, by 1984, laws were introduced to make 21 the minimum drinking age; by 1988, that was the law in all 50 states. Ten years later, threatened with cuts in federal funding unless they did so, every single state in the country had signed "zero-tolerance" anti-drinking legislation on to the statute books.

The ferocity of America contrasts here, I think, with the relative benignity of Britain. In London, the 16-year-old son of the Prime Minister is found drunk and incapable in Leicester Square, but is given nothing more than a ticking-off by a copper. Here, the offspring of the president - three years older, and not drunk but merely trying to buy alcoholic drinks - face the full force of Texan law, including certain community service, likely fines, and a possible spell in prison.

The former, I wager, is less likely to develop a drink problem than the latter: that which is prohibited becomes so much more seductive, especially to teenagers denied something they badly want.

That's America, folks.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, There are years of fun to come