By Jill Smolowe
June 18, 2001 12:00 PM

The President and his wife had just returned from Camp David on June 3, and an uneasy silence had descended on the White House. No one dared speak the unspeakable. “It’s not a subject anyone wants to bring up,” says a White House insider. “Nobody is broaching it.”

“It,” of course, was the celebrated march to the proverbial woodshed taken by George W. and Laura Bush with twin daughters Jenna and Barbara, 19, in tow. The girls had been cited by police in Texas just a few days earlier for underage drinking offenses in a popular Tex-Mex restaurant. No one knows what was said at Camp David, but it clearly wasn’t pretty. “It wasn’t a Kodak moment,” says the source. “The parents are disappointed and concerned.”

If White House aides aren’t discussing it, just about everyone else is. The citations were issued on the evening of May 29, when a manager at Chuy’s (pronounced chewie’s) in Austin phoned 911 to report that an underage student was trying to buy alcohol with false identification. In a college town like Austin, where faculty at the University of Texas estimate that up to 90 percent of the school’s 49,000 students drink and some 500 alcohol-related citations are issued annually to men and women under 21, such attempts are hardly a novelty—and rarely provoke a 911 call. “There are a lot of places for kids to drink in this town,” says Marshall Maher, 26, editor of the school’s Daily Texan. “And fake IDs are easy to get.” But 15 minutes after the call, officer Clifford Rogers entered Chuy’s to find two men and three women preparing to leave, escorted by Secret Service agents. Among them: Jenna and Barbara.

Until that moment Jenna, a freshman at the university, had taken the heat as the family’s free spirit, while Barbara, who just completed her first year at Yale, passed as the more studious twin. Now, gleefully branded “Party Girls!” by the tabs, the two are suffering triple woes. Each was hit with a Class C misdemeanor—Jenna for trying to pass off a friend’s driver’s license as her own, Barbara for having a margarita in a state where the drinking age is 21. Both endured the long weekend at Camp David answering to family. And both find themselves the main attraction in precisely the sort of media fuss that had made them beg their father not to seek the White House in the first place. “They knew their private lives would no longer be private,” says political biographer Carl Sferrazza Anthony. “Their worst fears have been realized.”

Hoping to quiet the tumult, the White House brought out First Grandmother Barbara Bush. The President, she quipped before a Junior League crowd in Indianapolis, “is getting back some of his own.” While the lighthearted allusion to the President’s own past drinking indiscretions drew the intended laughs, there was little merriment when Barbara and the former President arrived at Camp David. Friends say that she and her husband are fuming that the twins have been subject to such scrutiny. “Who’s making these 911 calls?” demands a family intimate. “You do get the feeling people are out to get these young girls.”

If the mainstream media, restrained until now, has leapt on this story, the twins have largely themselves to blame. Jenna drew attention in February when she sent her Secret Service detail to a Tarrant County, Texas, jail to collect her drunken pal William Ashe Bridges, 18. In April she was cited for having a beer at an Austin bar; when she showed up May 16 in community court, she wore a black tank top, pink capri pants and a toe ring to plead no contest to the misdemeanor. She paid $51.25 in court costs, fulfilled eight hours of community service by doing clerical and research work for Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum and will have to attend six hours of alcohol-awareness classes.

Though Barbara has never had trouble with the law before, Bill Coale, a former cop who works security at Toad’s Place, a bar near Yale in New Haven, says that last October Barbara tried to slip past him with a fake ID. He remembers that she was “very argumentative, but she was polite,” as she unsuccessfully demanded that he return it.

In April, Rumpus, a Yale paper, reported that Barbara gave her Secret Service detail the slip en route to a World Wrestling Federation match in New York City by rushing through an E-ZPass toll when agents stopped to pay cash.

As the stories play out in the press, previous children of Presidents (see following story, page 52), who know exactly what it’s like to live under the media microscope, can’t help but take note. “It’s unfair for the girls to be pushed into the spotlight,” says former First Son Ron Reagan. “Nineteen-year-olds buying beer is happening at campuses all over America. Can you think of anything more mundane?” Jack Carter, son of former President Jimmy Carter, counters, “When you’re a President’s kid and you go to a bar with two Secret Service agents next to you, to think that no one will notice you is just plain naive.”

Some wonder why the Secret Service didn’t stop Jenna from flashing the borrowed ID at Chuy’s. “We’re not babysitters,” one agent testily responds. Ari Fleischer, the President’s press secretary, has said that the job of the Secret Service is strictly to protect their charges from bodily harm. Others note that the President, who quit drinking in 1986 at age 40, pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in 1976. When the long-buried incident was unearthed before November’s election, Bush said, “I didn’t want to talk about this in front of my daughters.” But Bill Minutaglio, a Bush biographer, observes, “I would think you’d want to share this kind of information in some life-developmental way with your children.”

In all the hubbub it’s easy to forget that for the most part, the twins are the sort of kids who make parents proud. Jenna, who is outgoing and leads with her sense of humor, was senior-class secretary in high school, an award-winning journalist—and the classmate voted “most likely to trip on prom night.” At UT she has pledged her mother’s elite Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. Barbara, who made National Honor Society, is considered more reserved and cerebral. She played soccer in high school, where classmates voted her “most likely to appear on the cover of Vogue.” Her stylish vintage look runs to “funky dresses, weird coats and funky handbags,” says one Yalie.

Both lived in dorms and love to travel—Jenna spent part of her junior year in Spain, and Barbara studied in Italy and spent last spring break at Playa del Carmen, a Mexican beach resort. But neither has much interest in D.C. and even less in Crawford, Texas, where their parents built the western White House. After the twins complained, “There’s nothing to do out there,” their father added what he calls the “whining pool” to give the girls a place to swim and sun. Even so, Jenna plans to summer in Austin, Barbara in New Haven. Their parents have seen each girl only a few times since the Inauguration, though their mother talks by phone with them “at least every other day,” says a White House aide.

Thanks to Texas’s aggressive “zero tolerance” alcohol policy, signed into law by their father in June 1997, both girls risk stiff penalties if convicted in municipal court on June 18. As a first-time offender, Barbara faces a fine of up to $500, as much as 12 hours of community service, alcohol-awareness classes and 30 days’ suspension of her driver’s license. As a second-time offender, Jenna could be looking at the same fine but up to 40 hours of community service and 60 days without her Land Rover.

Last March the First Lady cast her daughters’ high spirits in an affectionate light, telling PEOPLE that as twins, “they kind of give each other permission to misbehave.” The question now is whether their public embarrassment will move them to reconsider—or to strain harder against the bars of the golden cage they never sought to enter.

Jill Smolowe

Michael Haederle, Anne Lang, Zelie Pollon and Chris Rose in Austin, Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C, and Christine Sparta in New Haven