Gansler and the party

Give him credit for this: Maryland's top lawyer knows how to articulate the crucial question. Asked by The Baltimore Sun's Erin Cox and Michael Dresser about a photo showing him standing in the middle of a wild high school party in a rented Delaware house this summer, he said, "Assume for the purposes of discussion that there was widespread drinking at the party. How is that relevant to me? ... The question is, do I have any moral authority over other people's children at beach week in another state?"

He answers no, and doubtless many parents of teenagers might agree with him. Other parents might come to the opposite conclusion. Inadvertently, Mr. Gansler's campaign for governor is now forced to grapple with a part of Maryland culture that we tend to avoid discussing: Just what do we think is going on when we send thousands of newly minted high school graduates to the beach every summer, and how do we square that with our responsibility as parents? Because of his role, Mr. Gansler may be displaying a particularly obvious and inconvenient form of hypocrisy, but it is a hypocrisy that is shared by thousands of Maryland parents every year.

Here is what Mr. Gansler says was going on: His son graduated this year from the Landon School in Bethesda, and Mr. Gansler joined with a group of parents to rent a house in South Bethany for beach week. The parents provided two fathers to serve as chaperons each night, paid for food and set out a list of rules — no driving, no girls behind closed doors and no hard alcohol or drugs. Mr. Gansler says he was one of two parents who met with the boys to explain the rules, which conspicuously do not mention beer or wine.

On the night of the party in question, Mr. Gansler was in Ocean City for an event. He says he stopped by the house for a few minutes to arrange when he would pick up his son the next day. He says he observed that his son was not drinking and does not remember whether he saw anyone else who was but that he assumes they were. The photograph of the party shows two men, presumably the chaperons, standing in the back corner of the room and Mr. Gansler in the center of the party, holding his cell phone up aloft. (He says he was probably reading a text.)

As the attorney general and a candidate for governor, that's a problem, if for no other reason than that he has recorded public service announcements urging parents to talk to their kids to stop them from drinking underage. His involvement in the whole episode diminishes his moral authority, as it suggests that he has a casual attitude about which laws matter — already a problem for him given earlier allegations that he ordered the state troopers who drive him to speed and run red lights.

As a parent, though, things are much less clear cut. Perhaps it would have been wise as a gubernatorial candidate for Mr. Gansler to forbid his son from going to beach week altogether, but any parent of a teen-ager will tell you that's easier said than done. In the context of what many, many Maryland parents do, though, the approach Mr. Gansler and the other parents took is relatively reasonable. They sought to create an environment that acknowledges the obvious — that kids who just graduated from high school will find a way to drink if they want to — while setting boundaries designed to prevent bad choices from turning into life-altering ones. They employed what in the public health world might be called a harm reduction strategy, not altogether unlike providing clean needles and overdose prevention medications to heroin addicts. Some are now saying Mr. Gansler should have broken up the party. Of course he didn't; the party is exactly what he and the other parents had in mind when they created this environment in the first place.

If Mr. Gansler had simply texted his son to say when he would pick him up the next day, he wouldn't have been photographed at the party and would not have to hold a news conference to try to stave off further damage to his gubernatorial campaign. That would have been the wiser course for him as a politician. But was it not better for him as a parent to check on his son? In a case where political ambition and parental responsibility collide, do we fault Mr. Gansler for making some attempt to exercise the latter?

The real problem here is not Mr. Gansler or his son and his friends. The problem is the difficulty virtually all parents have in trying to ensure that their children to make good decisions about alcohol and drugs. It's a challenge that doesn't just play out at beach houses in Delaware but one parents face every weekend. Mr. Gansler may no longer be a perfect messenger on the subject of underage drinking, but he has the potential to be a very human one.

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