Pubdate: Mon, 06 Nov 2000
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2000 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Contact:  200 Liberty Street, New York, NY 10281
Fax: (212) 416-2658
Author: David Frum, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of
"How We Got Here: The 70s" (Basic Books, 2000).


Don't let anybody tell you we live in a permissive society. True, radio
stations happily broadcast songs that would once have cost them their
licenses. But tell an ethnic joke or toss a cola can into a plastics
recycling bin and the disapprobation of society falls on you with a force
that would have impressed Cotton Mather. And as for alcohol, well, George W.
Bush has just received a sharp lesson on how far and fast opinions about
that have changed.

On Friday, the "Today" show devoted a segment to an earnest examination of
the report that in 1976 Mr. Bush was fined $150 and had his license
suspended for driving under the influence of alcohol. "Today" is broadcast
by NBC -- the same network that signed Dean Martin to one of the most
lucrative contracts in the history of television, as host of a variety show
held together by the running gag that Martin was too drunk to stand. Martin
smoked on the air, too. The show wasn't cancelled until 1974.

Moral spasms come and go in cycles. In the 19th century, temperance had been
regarded as a crusade every bit the equal of abolitionism. Indeed, it was
often difficult to tell the two movements apart, since the preachers who led
both movements constantly analogized the South's enslavement of black bodies
to alcohol's enslavement of the drunkard's soul. Yet by the 1920s, both
abolition and temperance had come to seem faintly comical: Up-to-date
history books championed the Southern view of the Civil War and
Reconstruction, while up-to-date journalism celebrated booze and mocked

For the next half a century, boozing was glamorized by Hollywood and
indulged by the authorities. When Frank Sinatra called for "one for the
road," nobody thought he was inviting fans to engage in civil disobedience.

Alas for Mr. Bush, at the time he was following the Chairman of the Board's
advice, America's mores were shifting radically for the second time in a
century. Americans had ceased worrying so much about their souls after World
War I; after Vietnam, they began worrying a whole lot more about their

The federal government took over the job of regulating ladder construction.
States adopted compulsory seatbelt and helmet laws. The country was
convulsed by food scares. And in 1980, a small group of women in California
organized the most effective temperance organization the country had seen
since Prohibition's repeal: Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Within a decade,
drunk driving had been transmuted in the American imagination from a foolish
indiscretion to a violent crime.

Nobody can dispute that MADD was right. Thanks very largely to that
organization, U.S. highway fatalities have declined steadily and sharply.
Mr. Bush himself signed legislation stiffening Texas's drunk-driving laws.
He has also become America's best known teetotaler. Nevertheless, Mr. Bush
now finds himself on the wrong side of a grand cultural shift.

All of which would be easier to bear if Al Gore were not at the same time
benefiting from a cultural shift in the opposite direction. Back in 1976,
pot-smoking was regarded by most voting-age people as a vastly more serious
offense than drinking and driving. Lying was even worse -- Jimmy Carter won
the 1976 election by promising never to do it. Yet in this same election
season that has been convulsed at the last minute by Mr. Bush's DUI
incident, the American media have shrugged off reliable information that Al
Gore was speaking untruthfully when he acknowledged only occasional
marijuana use in the 1970s. In fact, according to one of his closest friends
at the time, for a prolonged period after he left the army, Mr. Gore was a
heavy and regular toker.

But that, of course, is completely different. After all, many of the same
formerly young people who rolled their eyes at Dino still chuckle at the
memory of Cheech & Chong, whose pothead comedy "Up in Smoke" was one of the
big hits of 1978. Mr. Bush's problem with the media isn't that he got stoned
in 1976 -- it's that he got stoned in what they regard as the wrong way with
the wrong kind of friends: with booze not marijuana, with jocks not hippies.
But who knows? That may turn out to be the reason that the rest of the
country forgives him.
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