On our Twelfth Night special, I mentioned one of my very favorite lines of lyric, from "These Foolish Things":
The waiters whistling as the last bar closes...
A century ago in America, the bars were closing but the waiters weren't whistling. One hundred years ago today - January 16th 1919 - Nebraska, Missouri and Wyoming voted to go dry, and put the Eighteenth Amendment over the top: Prohibition was ratified nationwide. A century on, Americans have relaxed somewhat, to the point where presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren can safely declare, "I'm-a git me some o' that there beer." But US attitudes to alcohol are still different from the rest of the west - and not unconnected, I would hazard, to the dreadful opioid and heroin and meth addictions that so afflict my corner of northern New Hampshire.
I usually use last-call-in-the-saloons-of-the-west in a metaphorical sense, but sometimes it's worth considering it literally. So, on this centennial of a very consequential day for American social habits, here's what I had to say about the demon booze eighteen years ago, as anthologized in my book Mark Steyn from Head to Toe:
I RAISE A TOAST to Jenna and Barbara Bush. Or I would, if I could get a drink around here. The teenage Bush babes are all over the papers for attempting to buy margaritas with fake IDs at a Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas, last Tuesday night. This comes two weeks after Jenna was ordered to undergo alcohol counselling and perform community service for having been found in possession of a bottle of beer. The judge who passed that sentence has now told reporters that it could be revoked and a more serious punishment sought.
According to Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of America's leftie dronefest The Nation, Jenna Bush has "a problem". "Our DWI President" – that's Driving While Intoxicated – "has set a very, very bad example for his impressionable girls," tuts Margery Eagan at The Boston Herald. "The apples have not fallen far from the tree."
Just for the record, the apples weren't driving, weren't intoxicated, and they didn't fall near the tree or anywhere else, although they might have been walking a little unsteadily and mangling three-syllable words. But, then, so does their dad. And, if Jenna Bush has a "problem", then what does Euan Blair, passed out in his own vomit in the heart of London, have?
No, the only "problem" that Jenna has is getting a drink. She and her twin, Barbara, are 19, and, in all 50 US states, it's illegal to drink alcohol under the age of 21. Jenna can drive, vote, marry, own a house, join the army, buy firearms, hop a flight to Vermont with a lesbian, get one of the state's new "civil union" licences and spend the night having as much Sapphic sex as she wants. She can do everything an adult can except go into a Tex-Mex restaurant and wash down her incendiary enchiladas with a margarita. She can buy a gun, shoot up the liquor store and steal the beer. But she cannot walk in and purchase any.
So Jenna and Barbara are obliged to have "fake ID". To the average Telegraph reader, "fake ID" probably sounds fairly exotic - the sort of thing you see in thrillers, where the guy needs to get out of town in a hurry, meets a furtive-looking fellow in a waterfront bar, hands over $10,000 in small bills, and says he'll need it by Thursday. But, in America, fake ID is now as common as, well, real ID.
In college towns, getting a false driver's licence is as easy as getting a haircut. If you're a manufacturer of small 2x3" cards or you own a photo booth, you'll be able to retire on the swollen fake ID market. And the economic benefits don't stop there. Fake IDs have prompted the development of machines that can detect fake IDs. The shares of one such company, Intelli-Check Inc, went up 20 per cent on the news of Jenna's latest run-in with the law.
These developments are relatively recent. Until 1984, some states had a legal drinking age of 21, some of 18, and some had no restrictions at all. But then a lunatic control freak in the Federal Transportation Department decided that she knew better than anyone the age at which people could drink.
Although she lacked the constitutional authority to legislate in this area, she had some financial muscle. She informed all 50 states that she would take away the Federal Government's highway funding from any jurisdiction that refused to raise the drinking age to 21. South Dakota went all the way to the Supreme Court, but the crazed regulatory megalomaniac won and took her legal team out to celebrate, presumably with Diet Coke.
The maniac's name was Elizabeth Dole, and two years ago she resurfaced, as a Republican presidential candidate. On the stump, the helmet-haired Mrs Dole conceded that she wasn't happy with the legal drinking age of 21 that she'd forced on the nation. No, these days Nurse Ratched thinks it should be 24. Twenty-four! It would make more sense the other way round: instead of starting drinking at 24, you should stop drinking when you're 24, pick yourself up from the pool of vomit, wipe down your jacket, sober up and start going to work.
Come to think of it, for anyone over 24, the opportunities for social drinking in most parts of America are already pretty minimal. In my corner of New Hampshire, they're virtually non-existent. My mother, who's Belgian and partial to a Stella, was here last year and we swung by the local diner for lunch. She asked for a beer. The waitress looked at her like she was a crack whore. No alcohol. If we'd wanted to, we could have driven 50 miles to the nearest "sports bar" and sat in a windowless basement with guys with no teeth.
I would say that my small town of a few hundred souls is fairly typical: one third are "alcoholics", another third are "recovering alcoholics" and the remaining third are divided between abstemious natives who drink sugary soda and abstemious incomers from downcountry who drink herbal teas in ever more implausible flavours (elderberry pepperoni, etc).
The "alcoholics" buy a case of Bud, drive their trucks deep into the woods and drink it alone sitting on a rock, which is about the only place they won't be given disapproving looks.
The "recovering alcoholics" meet at the library once a month, when they put a big sign out on the road saying: "Alcoholics Anonymous Meeting Tonight 7pm". It's not terribly anonymous - everyone can see Earl's truck parked outside - but then these days most "alcoholics" don't want to be anonymous. All kinds of folks now claim to be "recovering alcoholics", even though, in a typical week, they never drank what the average Telegraph columnist gets through by 11am. William Hague would be unelectable here. Okay, I know, he's unelectable over there, too. But what I mean is, if a 14-pints-and-proud-of-it guy entered a presidential primary, he'd get marginally better press than a serial paedophile.
Everyone talks glibly about "the failure of Prohibition" - meaning the years from 1920 to 1933, when the 18th Amendment criminalised booze and got nothing to show for it but organised crime. But, if you look at the broader picture, the Prohibition movement, which began in the early 19th century, has been a stunning success. Americans today drink far less than they did in 1800, when beer was affectionately known as "liquid bread" and every farm made its own hard cider. The products that especially exercised the Prohibitionists - rum, gin and other "hard liquor" (or "spirits", in the more convivial British designation) - are headed for extinction.
American alcohol consumption is lower than almost any other industrialised nation - lower than New Zealand, Britain, Australia; barely half that of Spain, Germany, Ireland and France. On the other hand, America has 164 alcohol-related support groups per million citizens, 20 times the number of support groups as France. America isn't addicted to alcohol, it's addicted to alcohol support groups.
I have lived in both Britain and America and I have no wish to go down the Anglo-Celtic route, where villages that no longer support a store, post office or church have four packed pubs. I don't miss the baying, mooning, urinating and pavement pizzas. But immaturity comes in different guises. In America, adulthood is so deferred that many Americans exist in a state of perpetual childhood, 300lb toddlers waddling down the street sipping super-sized sodas from plastic bottles with giant nipples. It's at least arguable that it's healthier for Jenna and Barbara to have a couple of glasses of wine than the sugary Pepsis and Mountain Dews that the law all but forces them to drink. Excessive late-teen soda intake may well be the reason why so many chipmunk-cheeked, perky-breasted high-school cheerleaders are bloated lardbutts by 22.
As New Hampshirites know, it doesn't have to be like that. Just across the border in Quebec, they have the same relaxed attitude to alcohol that distinguishes the Catholic countries of Continental Europe. You can drink at 18, the bars are open till 3am, and the danseuses nues weigh under 250lbs. The jurisdictions that have the least alcoholism are those in which drinking is most socially acceptable and integrated into family life. In Quebec and France, they enjoy drinking. In England and Ireland, they enjoy getting drunk. In the United States, they enjoy getting drunk on insane stigmatisatory excess.
It's obvious that Jenna Bush is going to be hounded by the press every time she's within a hundred yards of a cocktail olive. So she may as well become a role model, not for victims of alcoholism, but for victims of the Dole terror. According to polls, the majority of 18- to 21-year-olds have broken Dole's Law in the past month. Mrs Dole's discriminatory, targeted mini-Prohibition deserves to be overturned. Jenna Bush doesn't need alcohol counselling or community service. After the past month, she needs a good stiff drink. And, if she's ever in this part of New Hampshire, I'll happily drive her over the border to Magog, Quebec, and buy her one.
~anthologized in Mark Steyn from Head to Toe, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore - and if you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club don't forget to enter your promotional code at checkout to enjoy special member pricing on that and over forty other Steyn store products.
What's more fun than drinking Bud Lite on a tree stump all alone in the middle of the woods? Coming to see Dennis Miller and Mark Steyn on their first-ever stage tour together. Next month they'll be in Reading, Pennsylvania and Syracuse, New York - and with VIP tickets you not only enjoy the best seats but get to meet Dennis and Mark after the show! More details here.
Steyn has a busy Wednesday afternoon on the radio coming up: