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CAMPAIGN 2000

Spin Is Order of the Day in Wake of Drunken Driving Revelation

Campaign: Report of Bush's arrest in 1976 and his admission dominate, as aides to the governor work to deflect new questions. Both sides play to integrity issue.

November 04, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

George W. Bush's 2-decade-old arrest for drunken driving evolved into a question of credibility Friday, as reports surfaced of a 1998 interview in which the Texas governor denied the incident.

As the Bush camp worked to defuse the eleventh-hour controversy--and turn the issue against Al Gore--a Democratic activist in Maine stepped forward to say he was the source behind the story. Tom Connolly, the 1998 candidate for Maine governor, said tipping a local reporter to Bush's old arrest record was an "act of democracy."

The GOP presidential nominee largely ignored the matter as he stumped across Michigan and West Virginia. "I've made mistakes in my life," a subdued Bush said, as thousands cheered at a rally in Battle Creek, Mich. "But I'm proud to tell you, I've learned from those mistakes."

Democratic nominee Gore also distanced himself. "All I know is this: Our campaign had absolutely nothing to do with it," the vice president said in an interview with a TV station in Alcoa, Tenn. "And I'm talking about the issues."

Still, the report of Bush's arrest in 1976 and his admission Thursday night dominated the campaign day, as aides to the governor worked furiously to deflect new questions about his veracity.

Bush has made honor and integrity central themes of his campaign, repeatedly questioning the truthfulness of Gore and seeking to link the vice president to the scandals of the Clinton administration.

The danger for Bush was the implication he was less than truthful himself. But the matter was dicey for Gore as well. For the vice president, the risk was being tied to the sort of attack politics that voters profess to abhor.

Bush acknowledged Thursday that he was arrested in September 1976 for drunken driving near his parents' summer home in Maine. He was 30 at the time. He pleaded guilty, paid a $150 fine and had his Maine driver's license suspended for 30 days. There was no evidence of special treatment.

The governor confirmed the incident after details were recounted in the media. He said he failed to come forth earlier because he wanted to shield his two daughters.

But the incident took a new turn Friday when reports surfaced of a November 1998 interview with the Dallas Morning News. Bush had been arrested for a 1968 college prank involving a stolen Christmas wreath. According to an account posted Friday on the newspaper's Web site, Bush was asked in the 1998 interview if he had any other arrests and replied, "No."

Addressing the latest development in a news conference aboard Bush's campaign jet, communications director Karen Hughes suggested the governor may have been misunderstood.

The conversation was not reported at the time, but the New Republic recounted it in a profile of Hughes about a year ago. The Bush campaign did not challenge the New Republic story then, but Hughes on Friday said, "The governor disputes that [report]. He does not believe that that was accurate."

Bush refused on at least one other occasion to acknowledge the 1976 incident. In 1996, as Texas governor, he was called as a potential juror in a drunken driving case in Austin. "I do not have a perfect record as a youth," Bush told reporters when asked whether he had ever been arrested while driving intoxicated.

A jury questionnaire was released Friday in connection with that case. Bush's form was filled out for most of the personal information, but it left blank this question: "Have you ever been an accused, or a complainant, or a witness in a criminal case?"

A Bush spokesman, Dan Bartlett, said the form was partially completed by a Bush staffer. "The governor didn't focus on this document because he never even went into the courthouse in front of a judge," Bartlett said.

Bush and campaign aides, meanwhile, continued to question the timing of the revelations. Hughes asserted "gotcha politics" was the reason that the 24-year-old drunken driving incident surfaced in the closing days of the presidential race. Bush made the same argument in an interview with Fox News Channel.

"I believe that most Americans are going to come to the conclusion that this is dirty politics, last-minute politics," the GOP candidate said. "I don't know if my opponent's campaign was involved, but I do know that the person who admitted doing it at the last minute was a Democrat and partisan in Maine."

The Gore campaign responded forcefully.

"The charge is wrong," campaign chairman Bill Daley said. "It is made without proof or evidence. We categorically deny any involvement. . . . It is time for Gov. Bush's campaign to stop hurling charges and start accepting responsibility."

Both campaigns were engaged Friday in a fierce effort at damage control, which heightened the drama of the closest presidential race in 40 years.

"They want to turn it on Gore," one Republican close to the Bush camp said. "They want to say it's dirty tricks [and] the reason we're tired of [President] Clinton and Gore."

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