Fallout From A Midnight Ride
An old arrest for driving under the influence revives the issue of Bush's "irresponsible youth"
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
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
The D.U.I. 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. Opponents also argued 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, critics charged, he did not trust the people 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 D.U.I. 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 D.U.I. 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 beer 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 sobriety test.
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--his alcohol level was 0.12, over Maine's 0.10
legal limit--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 D.U.I. conviction in Maine. Fehlau
spotted the lawyer, Tom Connolly, walking out of the courthouse.
Did he know anything about a Bush D.U.I.? Yes, he said. And he
had a copy of the docket in 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 D.U.I. 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 D.U.I. 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
website 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 in his younger days. Four years before the Maine D.U.I.,
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 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. Bridges told the Boston Globe that Bush's father thanked
him, 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 D.U.I. 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. He
was 30 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 its 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
D.U.I. 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
But was Bush affirmatively misleading about the D.U.I. 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 has disputed Slater's account, saying 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 D.U.I. 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 D.U.I. 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 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 in
either Texas or Alabama.
The D.U.I. 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 11th-hour drama. But by avoiding it, the
campaign made itself vulnerable. Whether it is a calculating
partisan or an inquisitive local reporter, there's always someone
in the final days of a presidential campaign who is more than
happy to yell, "Surprise!"
--Reported by Jay Carney with Bush, John F. Dickerson/Austin and
Viveca Novak and Elaine Shannon/Washington