As the Bush campaign struggles to contain the fallout from the DUI story, once again America learns that the coverup is worse than the crime.

Published November 3, 2000 7:28PM (EST)

Panic on the plane! Fire in the hole! We know Gov. George W. Bush was arrested for drinking and driving at the age of 30. But did he also lie about it to the press?

It was Friday morning, and Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News was sitting on the Bush campaign plane as we flew from Milwaukee to Grand Rapids, Mich. Slater was telling his fellow journalists about his conversation with Bush in the fall of 1998, when he asked Bush if he had ever been arrested since 1968 and Bush said, "No."

Slater's recollection was reported in a New Republic story last year, and recounted in Salon Friday morning.

Suddenly Bush communications director Karen Hughes appeared. (Cue Darth Vader theme song.)

Her jaw was clenched. Her eyes were shooting piercing glares into Slater's amiable mug.

"That conversation was off the record, wasn't it, Wayne?" she said.

Slater said it wasn't. The mood grew even tenser. The crowd increased in size.

So Hughes tried again, explaining why she had cut off the 1998 conversation, which had left Slater with the impression that Bush was on the brink of correcting his lie before Hughes abruptly ended the conversation.

Bush "was hinting that something had happened, that's why I stepped in and stopped the conversation," she said.

Of Slater's recollection that Bush had lied to him, Hughes said, "I disagree with that. I walked up to the conversation and I stopped the conversation."

Hughes was asked again about Bush's "No."

"The governor disagrees with that," she said. "The governor does not believe he said that. He has not addressed that issue."

Hughes returned to the front of the plane.

Then, only a few minutes later, she was back.

"The governor refutes that," she said of Slater's recollection.

Slater is a respected member of the press corps, the bureau chief for more than 10 years in the Austin bureau of the Dallas Morning News -- which is generally considered a pro-Bush newspaper that recently endorsed him for president.

Then Hughes tried something new -- if characteristically audacious.

Since Slater had finished that conversation with the impression that Bush had lied to him, but was on the verge of admitting the lie, Hughes said, "Wayne acknowledges that he left that conversation with the impression that the governor had been arrested," she said. In other words, Slater left the conversation thinking Bush lied when he denied being arrested since 1968, so therefore Bush was telling the truth.

Cameras wanted to film Hughes as she hovered in the aisle. She said no cameras. They said please. So she said she was going back to the front of the plane to put on her lipstick. She didn't come back.

When we landed, Hughes gave a statement on the tarmac of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport (perhaps not an inappropriate place for fumbling and bumbling). "I double-checked the public record," Hughes said. "The only time Governor Bush has ever been previously asked if he has ever been arrested for drinking, he responded, 'I do not have a perfect record as a youth.' That was his response in October 1996 when he was directly asked this question more than three years ago." She said that last night was the "first time we've ever been asked directly about this incident," and "we immediately acknowledged" it.

"He regrets that it happened," Hughes said. "He does not believe it sets a good example for our children. And he thinks it's important that we send a clear signal to our children that they should not drink and drive."

Hughes went on to question the timing of the story, which was broken Thursday evening by Fox News Channel and a Portland, Maine, Fox station. She said she finds "it interesting that in the closing days of this campaign, the Democratic candidate for governor of Maine has now admitted that he is the one who released this information to the public and to the media in the closing days of this campaign about something that happened more than 24 years ago." (The man who leaked the story, Tom Connelly, was actually the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1998. And? Half the negative stories we get about Gore come from the GOP, and vice versa. It's pretty standard stuff, for better or for worse.)

"I think the American people are tired of this kind of gotcha politics," Hughes said. "They're tired of this kind of last-minute dirty tricks, and I think the Democrats owe the American people an explanation."

The Gore/Lieberman campaign, meanwhile, finally commented on the scandal, in the form of an attack on the Bush campaign's tar-brush tactics. "The Bush campaign and its surrogates continue to suggest that the Gore campaign is somehow responsible for the recent disclosures about Governor Bush," according to a statement released through campaign chairman William Daley. "This charge is wrong. It is made without proof or evidence. We categorically deny any involvement. Charges to the contrary are irresponsible. Just a few minutes ago, Governor Bush said that 'a leader's responsibility is to speak plainly.' As a leader, he should tell his campaign to stop making these false charges."

"It is time for Governor Bush's campaign to stop hurling charges, and start accepting responsibility. Whatever questions remain unanswered are the responsibility of Governor Bush and his campaign, not ours," the statement concluded.

When Hughes was asked about Slater's recollection of Bush's lie, Hughes said, "That was not reported and the governor disputes that."

Several reporters cried out "It was reported!" -- since Slater's recollection was featured in a story that appeared in a November 1999 profile of Hughes in the New Republic. Hughes ignored the interruption.

She continued: "We do not believe that is accurate. The reporter later told me that he was left with the impression that the governor in fact had been involved with some sort of incident involving alcohol. And therefore I think there's some illogic in that assertion."

Whoa! See if you can follow that. Hughes is saying that since Slater thought Bush had been lying, Bush had somehow been telling the truth. This from a campaign that has repeatedly made an issue out of trust, and telling the truth, and knowing what the meaning of the word "is" is.

She's a pistol, that Hughes.

More questions. Why didn't the governor tell Slater that he had been arrested after 1968?

"The governor at the time, remember the governor has twin daughters at a very impressionable age, he had made a decision as a father that he has been very forthcoming in acknowledging that he made mistakes," Hughes said. "In acknowledging that he drank too much in the past before he quit drinking 14 years ago. But he had made a decision as a father that he did not want to set that bad example for his daughters or for any other children."

Would the daughter excuse have been OK for President Clinton to use during the Monica Lewinsky scandal? Would it have been OK if Clinton had said that he lied under oath so as not to set a bad example for Chelsea?

"The only time the governor was directly asked ... if he'd ever been arrested for drinking, and he replied, 'I do not have a perfect record,'" Hughes said, completely avoiding the question. "Throughout this campaign he has been very forthcoming with the American people that he made mistakes as a youth, that he did things as a youth that he is not proud of, and he has been very open about that."

Is a 30-year-old a youth?

No answer. Later she would say, "It was before he was married, It was before he had children."

What about the fact that when the Slater story first appeared in the New Republic profile of Hughes, she didn't dispute it?

"I don't remember seeing that in print," she said of surely the one magazine cover story about her ever. "I do dispute the veracity of that. The only time the governor believes he was asked this question was in October of 1996 when he was asked if he had ever been arrested for drinking ... and he answered directly 'I do not have a perfect record.'"

You think that's a "direct" answer, Karen? You think that's a candid answer?

"I think that it's consistent with his desires as a father to set a good example for his own daughters," she said.

Is it a better example for your daughters to mislead, or to not tell the entire truth as opposed to just telling the truth outright? Wouldn't that be a better example?

"Again, Governor Bush has been very forthcoming," Hughes said. "He has always acknowledged that he made mistakes. He has always acknowledged that he occasionally drank too much in the past. He quit drinking more than 14 years ago, has not had a drink since. And he has acknowledged that he had a problem with drinking on occasion; this was one of those occasions."

End of press conference.

Off to a rally at a college that has a policy of expelling students for being gay or lesbian. There, in front of an overflow crowd of thousands, Bush acknowledged the scandal, if briefly and vaguely.

"It's become clear to America over the course of this campaign that I've made mistakes in my life, but I'm proud to tell you that I've learned from those mistakes," he said, to accepting cheers. "And that's the role of a leader: to share wisdom, to share experience with people who are looking for someone to lead."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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