Fallout From a Midnight Ride

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Damage control at a Thursday-night press conference

Maine police officer Calvin Bridges, now retired, had been expecting this call for 24 years. "I knew," he told the caller, "that someday it would come out." Erin Fehlau, an enterprising young reporter for WPXT-TV in Portland, had already obtained the docket sheet and the driving records. But with that confirmation from the arresting officer, she had a third and conclusive source for her scoop: that over Labor Day weekend in 1976, George W. Bush had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.

When the Portland station broke the story at 7 p.m. on Thursday, it sparked a media frenzy. "We're a small operation, and every media outlet in the country was calling here," says WPXT-TV news director Kevin Kelly. As the Bush campaign shifted into damage-control overdrive — contacting Bridges and persuading him to talk to the press — things were only getting worse. Wayne Slater, a Dallas Morning News reporter traveling with the Bush campaign, said that two years ago, he had asked Bush if he had been arrested during the relevant time period and that Bush had denied it.

The DUI bulletin came a few days too late to meet the technical definition of an October surprise, but otherwise it was a classic: a last-minute disclosure with the potential to change the outcome of an election. Thursday night's news hit the Bush campaign on two vulnerable fronts. It reminded voters of how long it had taken Bush to mature, at a time when Al Gore has sought to raise doubts about the Republican's preparedness for the presidency. What was worse, though, was that the incident undermined one of the pillars of Bush's campaign: that he is trustworthy and that Gore, like Bill Clinton, is not. On issues ranging from taxes to Social Security, Bush has asserted, "I trust the people." Yet he did not trust them to understand and put in context this blot on his record.

Bush and his supporters emphasized that he has talked openly about the drinking problems he had before he gave up alcohol in 1986. They saw the DUI story as a suspiciously timed sucker punch, aimed at manipulating voters in the final days of a breathtakingly close race.

The incident that led to the DUI arrest was hardly dramatic. Bush, then 30, was driving down Kennebunkport's Ocean Avenue after midnight on the way to his family's summer compound. He had been drinking beers that night with his sister Dorothy, Australian tennis star John Newcombe and Newcombe's wife. Officer Bridges, just getting off duty, saw Bush's car slipping briefly onto the shoulder before getting back on the road. Bridges stopped the car and asked Bush to take a balloon test. The result: an alcohol level over Maine's 0.10 legal limit. Bush readily admitted he had been drinking, Bridges said, and made no attempt to evade the consequences. Bridges placed him under arrest. After failing a second alcohol-level test at the police station, Bush was released on $500 bail. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a $150 fine and had his driving privileges temporarily suspended in Maine.

Despite countless news stories, profiles and biographies of Bush, word of the incident had apparently sat undisturbed for years in the Cumberland County court records. That changed last Wednesday when reporter Fehlau showed up at the courthouse to cover an arson trial. A policewoman told Fehlau she had heard a lawyer and a judge talking about a Bush DUI conviction in Maine. Fehlau spotted the lawyer, Tom Connolly, walking out of the courthouse. Did he know anything about a Bush DUI? Yes, he said. And he had a copy of the docket back at his office.

Connolly — a well-known gadfly who gave interviews last week wearing a fishing cap and seated in front of a human skeleton he keeps in his office — says he learned about Bush's DUI through a round of old-fashioned small-town gossip. According to Connolly, an elderly man seeing his chiropractor had mentioned that he was in a courtroom on a DUI charge 24 years ago, and that Bush had been there too. The chiropractor, realizing the significance of that news, called a Democratic public official in Portland. And that official — whom Connolly won't name — told Connolly.

Bush blasted the disclosure as "dirty politics, last-minute politics," and he attributed it to Democratic maneuvering. "I don't know if my opponent's campaign was involved," he told Fox News the day after the story broke. "But I do know that the person who admitted doing it was a Democrat and a partisan." Connolly was a Democratic candidate for governor two years ago (finishing third in a five-way race) and a delegate to this year's Democratic National Convention. There he handed out anti-Bush buttons proclaiming W Is for Wiener, and he has a web site bearing the same slogan. Yet he insists he had no contact with the Gore campaign. "It's not a dirty trick to tell the truth," he says.

The incident adds more detail to the picture of Bush's drinking habits as a younger man. Four years before the Maine DUI, in an incident reported more than a decade ago, 26-year-old Bush was driving home after a party in the Washington area along with his 15-year-old brother Marvin. Bush had been drinking, and he ran over a neighbor's garbage can and dragged it noisily down the street, which led to an angry confrontation with his father. Officer Bridges has described an encounter with Bush's parents in 1993, while he was working a detail for the former president and first lady. Bush's father thanked him, Bridges told the Boston Globe, said the arrest was "the best thing that could have happened" to his son — and gave Bridges a tie clip.

The Bush camp portrays the DUI arrest as a piece of ancient history from his "irresponsible youth," according to his frequently used phrase. "I've oftentimes said that years ago, I made some mistakes," Bush said after the arrest was revealed. Bush was 30 years old at the time of this mistake, but Bush campaign spokeswoman Karen Hughes pointed out that it occurred before he was married and had children. The campaign also noted that it came long before he became a born-again Christian and gave up alcohol. While many voters may be forgiving of such an old incident, the offense has acquired more of a stigma lately, as the country has become more sensitive to the perils of drinking and driving.

The larger issue the Bush campaign has been forced to deal with is whether their candidate was honest about the incident. "He was always very forthcoming in acknowledging that he drank too much in the past," says Hughes. The reason he did not disclose the DUI arrest specifically, she says, is that he did not want his behavior to set a bad example for his twin daughters, now freshmen in college — an excuse that struck some listeners as similar to one that President Clinton gave for lying about Monica Lewinsky.

But was Bush affirmatively misleading about the DUI incident? Slater had interviewed Bush about a different arrest, in 1968, when Bush and his Yale fraternity brothers were charged with stealing a Christmas wreath, in what they described as a prank. Slater says he asked Bush whether he had been arrested since that incident, and Bush said no. Bush then seemed to want to amend his answer, Slater recalled, but spokeswoman Hughes prevented the interview from going further, leaving his answer as a denial. Hughes disputed Slater's account, saying that Bush insists he didn't answer no to the first question; by leaving Slater with the "impression" that there might have been another arrest in his life, she suggested, Bush was being straightforward. Slater didn't write about this exchange, but he described it to another writer, who included it in a profile of Hughes that appeared in the New Republic in November 1999.

Reporters quickly began searching for other evidence that Bush might have given misleading answers about the arrest. When he was called for jury duty in 1996, Bush did not answer a question on a juror questionnaire about whether he had been involved in a previous criminal case. The Bush campaign says the form was filled out by an aide, who also did not answer several other questions. And there were suggestions in some press reports that when Bush got a new driver's license, with the number 00000005, after he became governor in 1995, his intent might have been to hide the trail to his DUI conviction. But Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett insisted that low-digit VIP license numbers are a tradition among Texas elected officials. Reporters asked the campaign whether Bush had admitted to his DUI arrest on any of the questionnaires that most Americans are required to fill out when they apply for jobs or loans or security clearances. The campaign said that Bush had never had to fill out such questionnaires.

At the same time, Gore's surrogates were stepping up their attacks on Bush on another front: his service in the Air National Guard. They alleged that Bush, who signed on with the guard during the Vietnam War, missed months of drills when he moved to Alabama to help run a U.S. Senate campaign. The Bush campaign has maintained that its candidate attended his required drills either in Texas or Alabama.

The DUI episode reminded everyone of a lesson from Campaign Strategy 101: Get the bad stuff out early — and on your own terms. If Bush had mentioned the arrest months ago, perhaps buried deep in a speech about finding religion and giving up drinking, it would have lacked any eleventh-hour drama. But by avoiding it, the campaign made itself vulnerable. Whether it is calculating partisans or inquisitive local reporters, there's always someone in the final days of a presidential campaign who is more than happy to yell, "Surprise!"

— Reported by Elaine Shannon and Viveca Novak/Washington and Jay Carney and John F. Dickerson with Bush