Aide says it won't hurt campaign; Gore camp says it wasn't source
By Wayne Slater and Pete Slover / The Dallas Morning News
Gov. George W. Bush, who has for years referred vaguely to his "irresponsible youth," confirmed Thursday that he pleaded guilty in 1976 to driving under the influence of alcohol when he was a 30-year-old Midland oilman visiting Maine.
"I'm not proud of that," the GOP presidential nominee said at a quickly arranged news conference in Wisconsin late Thursday. "I've oftentimes said that years ago I made some mistakes. I occasionally drank too much, and I did on that night.
"I regret that it happened."
The incident came to light after a reporter for a Fox News affiliate in Maine received a copy of the Sept. 4, 1976, police report, which showed that Mr. Bush was pulled over during the Labor Day weekend 24 years ago near his parents' summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. A reporter for Fox News then inquired about the arrest.
Mr. Bush told reporters that he had nothing to hide but said that as a father, he'd decided not to go public about the incident. He questioned the timing of the disclosure, just five days before the election.
"I've got my suspicions," he said, not elaborating.
A spokesman for Democratic rival Al Gore said the campaign had "absolutely nothing" to do with the reports and would have no comment.
Earlier Thursday, Bush campaign spokeswoman Karen Hughes, speaking to reporters in Chicago, said the news should not slow the momentum of the Bush campaign. Some recent polls have shown the governor with a slight lead over Mr. Gore.
"I hope that a mistake that the governor made 24 years ago will not have an impact in the final days of his election," Ms. Hughes said. "It was a mistake. He has always acknowledged that he has made mistakes in the past. He occasionally drank too much in the past, and that's why he stopped drinking."
Bush story overheard in Maine
Ms. Hughes said that Mr. Bush pleaded guilty to misdemeanor driving under the influence of alcohol, was fined $150 and had his driving privileges suspended in Maine for a period of time. His Texas driver's license was not suspended.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Calvin Bridges, identified as the arresting officer by the Bush campaign and in documents made available by the campaign, said in an interview that he recalls driving home from work after midnight and spotting a car moving briefly onto the shoulder before getting back on the road.
Mr. Bridges said Mr. Bush, the driver, failed a road sobriety test and a second test in the police station, registering a 0.10 percent blood-alcohol level â€“ the legal limit at the time.
"The man was, and I say this without being facetious, a picture of integrity. He gave no resistance,'' he said. "He was very cooperative."
The retired officer said that Mr. Bush spent about 90 minutes in custody.
Mr. Bush, 54, has consistently declined to answer specific questions about his behavior during his youth but has said he quit drinking the day after his 40th birthday. Alcohol "was beginning to compete for my affections," he told interviewer Barbara Walters in September.
Mr. Bush reiterated Thursday that he quit drinking alcohol in 1986 and said that "it was the right decision to make."
"I was very up-front with the people of Texas," the governor said. "I had been drinking in the past and had made mistakes ... and I haven't had a drink in 14 years."
Mr. Bush said that he had been drinking beer on the night of his arrest and was with tennis player John Newcombe and other friends. Ms. Hughes said that Mr. Bush's sister, Dorothy, was also in the car, as was Mr. Newcombe's wife.
Asked what his father said about the incident, Mr. Bush shrugged and said, "He probably wasn't very happy about it.''
Fox News reported that the Maine license suspension was for two years and that Mr. Bush's record was "cleansed" in 1993.
In August 1999, Mr. Bush said that he could pass an FBI White House background check, an exam that asks applicants whether they have used illegal drugs in the past 25 years. He did not indicate then whether he had committed any other illegal acts during that time frame.
"Over 20 years ago ... I made mistakes, and I learned from the mistakes," Mr. Bush said at the time.
Mr. Bush was called for jury service in a 1996 drunken-driving case in Austin but was dismissed from the panel before the potential jury members were questioned about their histories of drinking and driving.
P. David Wahlberg, the defense attorney who struck Mr. Bush from the 1996 jury panel, said Thursday that he did so after the governor and the governor's lawyer asked the judge to excuse Mr. Bush.
Mr. Bush had initially said he would perform jury service, Mr. Wahlberg said. But, he said, on the eve of trial, the governor's lawyer, Al Gonzales â€“ later appointed by Mr. Bush to the Texas Supreme Court â€“ asserted that it would be improper for a governor to sit on a criminal case in which he could later be asked to grant clemency.
Ms. Hughes said that the governor had no other arrests besides the drunken-driving case, an incident in which he was cited for stealing a Christmas wreath as a Yale student, and an altercation in which he was asked to leave a college football game for disruptive behavior.
When a reporter asked whether the governor has had a problem with any other substances, her response was, "The governor has acknowledged in the past that he has made mistakes."
A year before the 1976 arrest, Mr. Bush had earned his master's of business administration at Harvard University and returned to Texas to get into the oil business at age 29.
In the summer of 1977, he met Laura Welch and married her in November. A year later, he launched an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Congress, a campaign that included television ads featuring Mr. Bush driving around West Texas.
Mr. Bush said Thursday that he talked to his daughters â€“ Jenna at Yale and Barbara at the University of Texas at Austin â€“ to tell them about the incident. He said he did not disclose it earlier specifically because he thought it was a bad example.
Political experts said it wasn't clear what effect the news would have on the presidential contest.
"If it's something that the Bush family can be proved to have hidden in an irresponsible or an underhanded way, then maybe it will create some mileage [for the Gore campaign]," said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Another expert said the news could backfire on Mr. Gore if he makes it an issue.
"If the Democrats really push this, I think it would probably create a sympathy thing for Bush," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Staff writers George Kuempel and Christopher Lee contributed to this report.