Drink tank

David Horowitz, Joe Conason and other Salon commentators weigh in on the revelation of Bush's 1976 drunken-driving arrest.

By Compiled by Salon staff

Published November 3, 2000 8:45PM (EST)

David Horowitz is an author and a Salon columnist.

As predicted at the time Al Gore was still tarring Bill Bradley as a racist, and a year before his surrogates began floating rumors that Ralph Nader was gay, the Political Murder Inc. operating out of Nashville under Gore directives is now making the final run of this presidential campaign the ugliest and bloodiest in memory.

Gore has already accused George W. Bush of killing elderly nursing home patients in Texas and running a scam on vulnerable seniors that would strip them of their Social Security benefits; at the same time he has encouraged his Democratic, race-baiting friends at the NAACP in their disgusting ad campaign to smear Bush with the lynching of James Byrd. ("It was as though my father was killed a second time.") In this context, yesterday's surfacing of a 24-year-old DUI arrest by Democratic Party activists is pretty tepid stuff. It will affect the polls adversely for a day and be forgotten.

However, among some of us it will leave this lingering thought: The same party that is trying to discredit Bush because of a youthful indiscretion in which nobody was hurt has made an icon out of a man who, as a sitting senator and the Democrats' presidential candidate in waiting, got himself drunk, drove a woman off a bridge while under the influence and drowned her, failed to report the accident (an act that might well have saved her life), bribed her parents to prevent an autopsy and then muscled the local authorities to escape manslaughter charges. At Gore's convention, Ted Kennedy had virtually his own family night, which is just one more testament to the Democratic candidate's utter lack of a moral center.

Like most Republicans, one thing I am enjoying about this last attack week is the anti-Bush rants of the desperate, substance-abusing narcissist crowd, particularly Cher. With allies like this, Gore doesn't need enemies.

Joe Conason is a Salon columnist.

It may be too late to affect this election's outcome, but once again the Republican moralizers are being hoisted on their own hypocrisy.

The entire theme of their presidential campaign has rested on the notion that George W. Bush is more trustworthy and truthful than Al Gore. As if the Texas governor's numerous prior misstatements (to put it politely) about himself, his programs and his record were not sufficient to undermine his promise to "return honor and integrity" to the White House, we now learn that he just plain lied two years ago to a Dallas Morning News reporter about his arrest record.

Attempting to dismiss Bush's 1976 drunken-driving arrest in Texas -- when he was 30 years old -- William Bennett, the pompous national expert on virtue, said Friday morning that the incident would be important only if the governor had lied. According to the Republicans' professed standards of public conduct, Bennett is right: The lie is worse than the original offense. So what will Bennett say now?

Perhaps he will try to hide behind the diversionary whining by Bush aide Karen Hughes that this revelation about her boss is a Democratic dirty trick. But if the Gore campaign had known about the DUI incident, why would it have waited until now to leak it, while Bush and his campaign were blasting Gore almost daily as a liar? That nasty attack dog Gore wouldn't have waited, would he? The story was found by a local reporter for Fox News -- not exactly the venue a Democratic dirty trickster would have chosen for a calculated media assault.

Anyway, why is telling the truth about Bush a "dirty trick"? Doesn't the public have a right to know whether a presidential candidate has an arrest record? Shouldn't Bush explain why he kept drinking excessively for 10 years after he was arrested for endangering lives behind the wheel? Imagine the reaction if Gore had been caught in this kind of embarrassment and coverup.

The Republicans have insisted for many months that every tiny, nit-picking contradiction they could detect in past statements by Gore represents a major blot on the vice president's integrity. Over time, many of those accusations turned out to be partly or wholly false, yet they served to damage Gore's reputation and image. There is simply no question about this charge or the attempt to cover up the truth -- despite the sudden claims by Hughes that the Dallas Morning New reporter is wrong about his 1998 conversation with Bush.

The DUI story certainly isn't the most serious question about Bush's fitness for office, even by Republican standards. Thursday, Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, grievously wounded military veterans who have been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, demanded that Bush disclose the entire record of his service with the Texas Air Guard. The Republican nominee has clearly prevaricated about his military record on more than one occasion, most notably in his campaign autobiography, "A Charge to Keep" (coauthored with Hughes), where he claimed to have continued flying for "several years" after he completed pilot training. What he really did during the final two years of his six-year Guard commitment remains mysterious.

When Bush's supporters in South Carolina questioned John McCain's service record with a disgusting smear, the Arizona senator immediately responded by releasing everything. Why won't Bush do the same? What is he concealing about his failure to take a flight physical and his subsequent disappearance from duty?

Ann Coulter is a nationally syndicated columnist

Invoking the moral equivalency theory that worked so well for them during impeachment ("all politicians sell nuclear secrets to the Red Chinese in exchange for illegal campaign contributions"), liberals have taken to the airwaves to somberly compare George W. Bush's DUI 24 years ago to a president who molests interns and then commits perjury and obstruction felonies to cover it up -- all while president.

The American people may do loopy things from time to time, like make an Elmer Gantry president for laughs once the Cold War was safely won. But they're not idiots. Clinton was just a goof. Drinking is important. Consequently, all vaguely normal people have greeted the news of the Bush's DUI with utter derision. Right now, almost everyone in the entire country is thinking: "There but for the grace of God go I."

This is so bad for Gore. It just reminds everyone of what a pathetic little tattletale he is.

Without going through a point-by-point comparison of probable rapist and a demonstrable felon (how is a raisin different from a water buffalo?), let's just start with this: While most people never had extra-marital assignations (or at least never had them with fat women half their age in a closet adjacent to their taxpayer-supported offices -- that takes the Arkansas touch), boatloads of people have driven home from a party after having one too many beers at some point in their lives.

It's not like Bush was racing down an interstate in the wrong direction completely blotto. He was pulled over for driving too slowly while on vacation in a sleepy beach town after having a few too many beers with some friends and his sister 24 years ago.

That was a really long time ago. Long before the inception of various public awareness campaigns about drinking and driving, long before Bush was a public servant, and long before Bush gave up drinking altogether.

Gore hasn't given up lying, and Clinton hasn't given up committing felonies or having sex (except with Hillary).

If this election is going to be about Mothers Against Drunk Driving vs. Drunk Dads Against Lawn Darts, the drunks win. So Bush had a DUI 24 years ago, stole a hotel wreath as a fraternity prank and got rowdy at a Yale-Princeton football game in college? Fine. The entire Gore campaign is composed of people whose greatest moments on the football field involved clarinets. Let's vote.

Caroline Knapp is the author of "Drinking: A Love Story"

The one thing I had a reaction to was his claim that he didn't mention any of this publicly in order to protect his daughters. My feeling about that in general is that kids are always wise to what's going on at some point in their lives. To not be direct and forthcoming about one's drinking problem is never very useful.

I think he would be setting a better example if he said, "Even good people like me get into trouble with alcohol." What he taught them is, just don't talk about it. It falls under the general category of cultural denial: Let's not really admit that people are alcoholics, especially people we're close to.

He's been, to use his word, "fuzzy" about his drinking. He's clear that he drank too much and he quit, but does he consider himself an alcoholic? He's got an opportunity here to talk about a condition that afflicts 10 million people. He's made it pretty clear that he doesn't want to go there, so I find that unfortunate.

No, I don't see this as being relevant politically, not necessarily. I would much rather have an openly recovering alcoholic as a president than someone who's going to pretend it isn't really a problem. I think if we got rid of all the politicians with drinking problems, we'd have a lot fewer politicians. It's just, how direct are people about it in their personal lives and how direct are they going to be about it as a matter of policy?

Larry Sabato is a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.

I have a hard time believing that even a tiny percentage of Americans would vote on this basis. It's too old. If alcohol were still a problem for him, it would cause trouble. The thing Democrats have to be worried about is that this could generate a backlash. The conservatives and Republicans hate the press and they hate Clinton and Gore. There's so much hate in the mix, and this could inflame them and increase the intensity of work to turn out the vote. It's a very dangerous last-minute gambit.

If this had happened in the last five years, great. But 24 years ago? My god. I'm 48, and I can remember the days when he was arrested. Back then, a DUI was not serious. People were delighted when they found out someone was drinking rather than smoking dope. As hard as that is for people to believe, it's absolutely true. I was a student at the University of Virginia in the early 1970s, and the administration, in order to combat pot smoking, LSD, mescaline and all that stuff, used to put kegs of beer near student dormitories so they could drink. Think about that and how things have changed.

To me, it's a non-story. The story is the story -- the coverage of it, not the substance of the allegations. Yes, I guess they should have put it out there a year ago. But it's all a matter of proportion. If you do what most of the print media did, which was to put it as a small article inside the paper, that's fine. If you do what the broadcast media have done -- which is to convert this into World War III -- then that's a problem. It's totally blowing it out of proportion. I can't imagine that's going to beat George W. Bush. I can't imagine any sensible person deciding to vote against him. Instead, I can see more people deciding to vote and work for him on account of it.

Barbara Ehrenreich is author of the forthcoming book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in Boom-Time America."

I'm surprised that the Gore people aren't at least saying that this opens up questions about Bush's credibility. Obviously, he can't go crazy, since it's not that big a deal, but I would have thought that by now some surrogate would have stepped in and asked: If Bush was not going to be forthcoming about this, can we trust the man? They're being too restrained.

I don't think the DUI is the issue, since it happened so many years ago. I think it's more disturbing that in the context of saying "I used to be a drunk," he didn't say he had been arrested.

Robert George is a New York Post editorial writer and columnist for National Review Online.

While it's obvious that this came from a Democrat in Maine, the jury's still out as to whether it was pushed directly by the Gore camp -- though Gore's press secretary, Chris Lehane, has connections in the state.

But the downside to the vice president on this is pretty big. Not only would there be backlash if it is connected to him, but frankly the media frenzy knocks him off message as much as it does Bush. In fact, if Bush rides this out without any more developments, he'll look pretty good -- the victim of an underhanded, last-minute political attack. Gore will look like the vicious slash-and-burn artist that he is reputed to be.

As to the "lying," can Wayne Slater's recollection be taken over the Texas governor's? "Fuzzy interpretation," anyone?

Having extolled Bush's virtues on occasion, this story leaves me disappointed that Bush didn't put it out there a year ago, when it was least damaging. It shows rather questionable political judgment. In this day and age, it's impossible to keep something secret -- especially if there's a public record. With Clinton's and Gore's fearsome reputation for playing dirty pool, how could anyone think this wouldn't surface?

Millie Webb is president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Drunk driving is the nation's most frequently committed violent crime. Three out of every 10 Americans will be affected by impaired driving at some time in their lives. As a victim, it is always disheartening to hear that anyone, whether average American or national celebrity, has been involved with drunk driving.

As Gov. Bush's arrest happened nearly 25 years ago, we hope that the experience had an impact on his life and helped him to realize the devastation that can result from getting behind the wheel after drinking alcohol. We recognize that people can change. We appreciate Gov. Bush's support of anti-drunk-driving legislation in Texas and are likewise grateful for Vice President Gore's backing of such lifesaving legislation. Each year nearly 16,000 people are killed and 600,000 others are injured as a result of alcohol-related crashes. The new president will have the responsibility to protect the citizens on our nation's roadways and should be a leader in the fight against drunk driving and in efforts reach our national goal to reduce alcohol-related traffic deaths to 11,000 by the end of his term in 2005.

Elizabeth Evans is the author of the critically acclaimed novel "Carter Clay," about a horrific drunken-driving accident that shattered a family.

I think it's ancient history. All the stuff that's going on between these two guys is pretty smelly. It makes me cringe to think of George W. Bush as our next president, but this happened more than 24 years ago. If Bush's campaign could have brought up something today that would have been used to make Gore look bad, it would have done the same thing. It has nothing to do with honor.

But I don't think a DUI arrest should keep someone from becoming president. If it had happened fairly recently, I would have felt differently. If it had happened five years ago and he had done something about his drinking, I'd still feel like it wasn't a problem. He's a clean and sober guy now. And my guess is that the majority of people feel this shouldn't be brought up now. It could help him in the end, unfortunately. There are many people out there who have had convictions or who have narrowly escaped them.

That said, I'm in favor or arresting people for drunken driving. If they get in an accident and hurt somebody, I'm very comfortable seeing them go to jail with long sentences. But this happened way, way back when, and Bush should be thankful he didn't hurt anybody.

Compiled by Salon staff

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