Gansler Should Fight Drinking Age, Says Former Middlebury College President

MADD founder disagrees, says Maryland attorney general should investigate teen party chaperones instead.

Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler meets with reporters to explain his actions during a summertime visit to a teenage house party, Oct. 24, 2013, in Silver Spring, Md.
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Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler dropped in on a chaperoned Bethany Beach, Del., party in June to speak with his son and did not object to the teen partiers evidently breaking the law by drinking alcohol. This prompted a flurry of media commentary – largely negative – on Thursday, but at least one public figure is applauding Gansler.

Former Middlebury College President John McCardell, who sparked a national debate about the federal drinking age in 2008, says Gansler, who announced Sept. 24 he is running for governor of Maryland, acted appropriately and should now consider openly flouting the age restriction.

Photographs from the party show Gansler, 50, amid shirtless teens dancing with red plastic cups nearby. In a press conference Thursday, Gansler – previously a public opponent of underage drinking – said "there could be Kool-Aid in the red cups."

"Do I have any moral authority over other people's children at 'beach week' in another state?" he asked. "I say no." He has since backtracked from those comments, saying perhaps he should have investigated further.

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McCardell is encouraging the Old Line State's top law enforcement official to adopt a slightly different response to criticism.

"The principle of civil disobedience has in the past been applied to call attention to, and ultimately to change, bad laws, and Mr. Gansler might invoke that principle, with its corollary that those who disobey must pay the penalty and then appeal the decision," McCardell told U.S. News in an email. "Were he to do that, the drinking age might get a test in court, which would be interesting. I would hope, personally, that he would choose that route."

McCardell, now the vice chancellor of Sewanee University in Tennessee, became a nationally known opponent of the drinking age when he recruited more than 100 college presidents to call for re-evaluating the 21-year-old age limit. Parental supervision, he said, could combat dangerous binge drinking. The advocacy group Choose Responsibility was formed to support his vision.

In one photo of the Delaware party, two adults are seen just off the beach bash's dance floor, The Washington Post reported. McCardell says it appears Gansler "was acting on proper and entirely understandable motives" by not attempting to break up the party, "as apparently were the hosts of the event, in seeking to acknowledge reality and minimize risk."

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"Good grief," said Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candace Lightner, who currently leads the traffic safety organization We Save Lives. "What's wrong with people? Don't they know how dangerous this is?"

Lightner helped push for the national drinking age in the 1980s after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. She notes that it hasn't been conclusively proven that the teens were drinking alcohol at the party and says Gansler might not be to blame for failing to be more vigilant.

"If I were showing up at a party and it looked like there was a bunch of kids holding plastic cups versus cans of soda, I would probably do a little investigating," she noted.

Now, Gansler "should come out and condemn underage drinking," Lightener said, "and if there was [underage drinking] I think he should pursue the chaperones. ... I think they should be prosecuted, or investigated."

The Baltimore Sun reports that Gansler was part of a group of parents who arranged a week of beach festivities at a large rented home. Twelve boys who had recently graduated from a private school in Bethesda, Md., attended, according to the Sun, and parents agreed there would be two chaperones each night and that "hard alcohol" would not be allowed. A written set of rules was acquired by the paper.

The national drinking age was established by the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which required all states to have a drinking age of 21 or lose highway funds. By 1995 all states complied. Supporters of the age limit were motivated by drunk driving accidents and point to a decrease in highway deaths since. McCardell says roadway deaths have decreased across all age groups, and he credits improved car safety, not the drinking age.