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Tuesday, June 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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E.J. Dionne / Syndicated columnist

Bush daughters' story deserves short shrift

Syndicated columnist

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WASHINGTON - The story about President Bush's two teenage daughters and their attempts to buy alcohol seems to be fading. This is good news, and it was inevitable.

It was inevitable because there is absolutely no case for wide public scrutiny of two 19-year-olds who did not themselves choose to run for office, have not sought to cash in on their father's fame, and seem inclined to preserve their privacy.

The question of whether journalists should cover the children of politicians is often miscast. The choice to minimize coverage is often said to be a way of "protecting" the politicians. It is nothing of the sort. It is a way of protecting their kids. Deciding to run for office does not mean you waive your kids' rights.

In fairness, both Bush and former President Clinton have been careful not to exploit their children nearly as much as some politicians have. But even in the worst cases, if the media use such exploitation as an excuse to violate the privacy of those children, we are merely compounding the exploitation.

In the case of Jenna and Barbara Bush and their being cited for alcohol violations, the press had no choice but to cover the facts. This was a public act involving public institutions, the police and the courts. The real journalistic questions are how the story is played and then how it is embroidered over the next days and weeks.

Cheers should go to publications and news broadcasts that gave the story short shrift. Jeers should go to anyone who invented creative social and psychological reasons for keeping the story alive and hyping it.

Examples: Isn't teenage drinking a major problem and doesn't the tale of the Bush daughters "shed important light" on this crucial social issue? Isn't it fascinating to ponder the daughters' troubles in light of their father's admission he once had a problem with the bottle? How hard it must be for politicians' children to grow up in the "harsh glare of publicity" - and by the way, let's turn the lights way up to make the glare as harsh as possible.

On this sort of story, I have more respect for the tabloids, which are more or less honest about exploiting whatever juicy, personal tidbit comes along. Newspapers and broadcast outlets that think of themselves as "respectable" should be ashamed of inventing highfalutin excuses for going down the tabloid road.

Two new arguments have been offered for throwing the journalistic book at the Bush daughters. The first: Bush has received remarkably soft coverage. Why should he get to duck this story, too? The second: Democrats know in their bones that had Chelsea Clinton done anything like this, the Clinton-haters would have been in full cry over her "terrible" parents.

The first argument is easily disposed of. If Bush deserves tougher coverage, it should focus on his public actions. It's wrong to even the scales at the expense of his daughters.

The second is more interesting. A letter to The Chicago Tribune last week charged the paper with being "biased" because "reporting of Jenna Bush's problems" was "hidden back on Page 16." The writer went on: "I would bet my next paycheck that if the same thing had happened to Chelsea Clinton during the Clinton presidency (or even now) we would be subjected to front-page pictures and stories."

Now, even Bill Clinton's worst enemies largely stayed away from Chelsea - and, to her credit, she gave them little to work with. But assume the letter writer is right. Those who opposed Clinton's impeachment on the ground that there's a distinction between a politician's public and private lives should be more sensitive than anyone to the privacy rights of Bush and, especially, of his daughters. If you believed that too much attention was paid to Clinton's personal life, surely you must believe that Bush's daughters should get all the breaks now.

Regular readers of this column know it gives me no particular pleasure to agree with Ari Fleischer, Bush's top spokesman. But Fleischer is correct that there is no public right to know what Bush told his daughters about their recent troubles. Most journalists believe this. That's why, absent new fuel, this story will flicker out.

To make Bush's life more difficult because of what he's doing on taxes, the environment, energy, judicial appointments and a slew of other matters is honorable. To make his daughters' lives more difficult is not.

E.J. Dionne's column appears regularly. His e-mail address is postchat@aol.com.

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