For Bush, an Ill-Timed Return to the Past

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Bush speaks about reports he had been arrested for DUI in 1976

Five days before it's over, this presidential race is taking voters back to the beginning. Thursday evening, Portland, Maine TV station WPXT reported that in 1976, George W. Bush was arrested for driving under the influence on the way back to the family house in Kennebunkport.

And so when Bush walked off the stage of an ebullient Wisconsin rally around midnight, he and his campaign found themselves in early summer all over again, facing a throng of press who wanted to know, all over again, what exactly "young and irresponsible" meant. And thanks to a reporter who'd been tipped off by a police officer who'd overheard a lawyer in a Maine courthouse, the press had a fresh reason to ask.

"I'm not proud of that," Bush told them of the DUI. "I've oftentimes said that years ago I made some mistakes. I drank too much, and I did on that night... I regret that it happened," he said. "But it did. I've learned my lesson."

To the "why didn't you tell us?" question, Bush had a fatherly response: The secrecy was because he didn't want his daughters to know — "I made the decision, that as a dad, I didn't want them doing the things I did, and I told them not to drink and drive."

And the "why now?" Well, why now indeed. "I've got my suspicions" were the governor's last words on the subject, right after reminding reporters that he quit drinking 10 years later. He stayed around only to thank Ross Perot for the endorsement. We may not hear Bush address it again.

For the rest of us, it's conversation. With all due respect to Bush's wanting to keep his daughters in the dark, was there no expectation in the Bush camp that this arrest — on the public record in a state where the Bushes have a home — was not likely to stay underground through November 7? In a presidential campaign, you lay the admissible stuff right out on the table in May. Being smart and forthcoming is good role-modeling too. Now, the daughters and the voters both know — at the worst possible time for the candidate.

Where Does It Go From Here?

Bush's campaign inner circle, who knew about this, may or may not possess answers to the journalist's follow-up — what else is there? — but they now have to update their containment plan. It is likely to be cauterization: admit it, move on, and act surprised at the idea that this could actually affect this race in its final days, a foolish misdemeanor from 24 years ago.

Could it? Maybe not if there's nothing else. No inconsistencies in Bush's version of the arrest. No Bush family fingerprints on the long-lost file. No decadent details, like scantily clad floozies in the backseat. The mainstream press will be tiptoeing, but for the hounds on the fringes, the hunt for anything deepening will be on. One more brush-stroke on this thing, and the news-cycle count goes through the roof.

First, the timing question. Bush has already raised an eyebrow, and naturally the possibility of orchestration by the Gore campaign will be eagerly looked into. But while the loquacious lawyer in the Maine courthouse was a delegate to the Democratic national convention, partisan lone-wolfing is neither nefarious nor surprising. The reporter insists she wasn't set up, and the Gore camp has denied any involvement, and loudly considers it "inappropriate" to comment on the governor's checkered past.

They will continue to do so — it will fall to the Republicans to decide whether some proactivity would be helpful or merely unwanted amplification. But there is likely to be some skilled labor this weekend for the governor's GOP surrogates. Follow their man up on the timing hints. Subtly remind the nation that Gore smoked pot a long time ago and Bill Clinton fooled around in the Oval Office not so long ago at all. Maybe even tell the politically incorrect truth in this — that if Bush's blood alcohol level was indeed .10, that is hardly a drooling kind of drunk.

Familiar Ground

For Bush himself, probably back to the stump, back to the Perot endorsement, back to the message. Let the voters shrug this off. And why wouldn't they? Yes, those who actually remember it will flash foggily back to the spring, when the journalistic assault on Bush's partying years was first launched. They may recall that it was repelled with some ominous goalpost-moving that added up to an implication of something that never took shape and never made a dent in the polls. And slipped below the radar.

Now this, a night out with the Australian tennis player John Newcombe 24 years ago that ended with a siren. Fessed up. Paid the fine. Behaved well — "The man was, and I say this without being facetious, a picture of integrity. He gave no resistance. He was very cooperative," avowed the arresting officer (whose first words when reached were "I've been dreading this day.") As Rush Limbaugh was saying by evening, "Is that all you got?"

Will It Hurt on Tuesday?

A wavering voter, in these climactic November days of a campaign so bereft of unguarded moments, could be forgiven for missing something a little more plain-spoken from Bush — a simple, human "I'm so embarrassed" could have even been heartening. Some moralists, having the proof they need to dismiss Bush as a dissolute frat boy, will simply be turned off. As for committed Republicans, some may find their enthusiasm deflated by having this to deal with. Others will doubtless see a left-wing conspiracy and fight harder than ever. In a race chronicled so breathlessly at every last turn, five days is an eternity. An attentive voter will have plenty of time to assign this to a proportionate place in his mind.

Back to the stump, where now more than ever Bush needs to avert his gaze from the national polls, whatever the overnight impact of this is. In this special race, which may now have finally made all the obligatory political stops, the battleground numbers are starting to favor Al Gore. The tepid but ill-timed revelation of a 24-year-old misdemeanor may not hurt George W. Bush in the end. But it certainly isn't going to help.