Bush stays in the clear -- for now

He keeps himself surrounded by supporters, and at least one poll shows his DUI arrest having little impact.

Published November 4, 2000 11:54PM (EST)

There are no undecided voters in this airplane hangar.

Even kids waiting for another decade to elapse before they'll be able to vote are sold on Gov. George W. Bush.

"He's a good man," says Monroeville's Andrew Patterson, 10. His sister Catherine, 8, is more specific. "He's pro-life," she says.

I ask Andrew if any of his classmates support Vice President Al Gore. "We're home-schooled," he says.

State Republicans are on stage getting the crowd juiced, leading cheers where the answer to questions about Gore or his running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., is a resounding "No!" and the questions about Bush and his No. 2, former defense secretary Dick Cheney meet with an enthusiastic "Yesssss!"

Jock jams blast from the loudspeakers: that "Are You Ready for This?" bass-blaster, and the Who's "We Won't Get Fooled Again." Ricky Martin's "The Cup of Life," a Bush campaign staple, adds some salsa to the entirely white-bread event.

"Pennsylvania is for Bush -- Big Time," reads one banner, alluding to Cheney's yes-man response to Bush's crude assessment of a New York Times reporter. No, the fight for Pennsylvania is not taking place here, but among the blue-collar Catholics in Philly and Pittsburgh, and in moderate Republican enclaves like Montgomery County outside Philadelphia. So Bush also spends Saturday in Philadelphia, where he meets with the head of the local Archdiocese, Cardinal Anthony Joseph Bevilaqua, and then holds a rally at a school in Montgomery County.

Its a new little East Coast swing for Bush; Pennsylvania's 23 electoral votes are highly contested, though recent polls have Gore leading. Bush, his wife, Laura, and former joint chiefs chairman Gen. Colin Powell are en route from Dearborn, Mich., where they all appeared with Cheney at Ford Field earlier Saturday. Thats where a local Teamsters official gave Powell an unfortunate introduction as Adam Clayton Powell, New York's long-dead, flamboyant Democratic congressman.

More notably, it was there that Cheney, the former defense secretary, took up arms on behalf of his boss, who it was revealed Thursday had been arrested in 1976 at the age of 30 for driving under the influence of alcohol. Bush's sister Dorothy, then 17, was in the car, along with another underage friend, David Bremer, Bush's friend Pete Rousel, Australian tennis star John Newcombe, and his wife.

News of his arrest had been leaked to the press by Tom Connolly, the losing Democratic candidate for governor of Maine in 1998, which Bush cited in an interview Friday with the Fox News Channel as evidence of the whole incident being an example of "dirty tricks."

Likewise, in Dearborn, Cheney -- who himself has two DUI arrests under his rather expansive belt -- called the news report "typical last-minute acts of desperation. Frankly, I think we're all a little tired of the Clinton-Gore routine."

Powell, meanwhile, ordered the crowd: "Don't be distracted by the little sniping that comes in from the flanks."

That sniping would no doubt include the point that two years ago, Bush was asked by Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater if he'd ever been arrested since 1968 -- the date of another arrest for misdemeanor theft. According to Slater, Bush said no, which is clearly a lie, though Bush disputes this recollection.

On Friday, Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes tried to argue that since Slater had been given the impression that Bush had been lying, Bush had actually been telling the truth.

"The reporter later told me that he was left with the impression that the governor in fact had been involved in some sort of incident involving alcohol," she said.

It was a remarkably Clintonian bit of parsing -- with a Bush twist. Americans should add to their already tested tolerance of political double-speak the Bush team's Madison Avenue conviction that if you repeat a phrase enough -- like "I'm a leader," or "compassionate conservative" -- the public will begin to accept the phrase, regardless of the deeds (or lack thereof) surrounding the rhetoric.

We saw a stellar example of this during a hastily scheduled press conference on Friday in Grand Rapids, Mich. There, Hughes called Bush "forthcoming" about his past five times, and asserted eight times that he had "acknowledged" his imperfect past.

Of course, the truth is that Bush has been anything but "forthcoming" about anything other than the vague idea that there's some "irresponsible" behavior in his past. He has yet to even release the military records that might shed light on his "missing year" of National Guard service. And he never "acknowledged" anything about the 1976 arrest until he was forced to on Thursday night.

Nor has he been forthcoming in this affair. The Bush campaign originally said that at the time of the arrest Bush's sister Dorothy was 18, then the legal age for drinking. But then it was pointed out that according to her birth certificate she was actually 17 at the time. The names of friends who were there have been released to the press in dribs and drabs, as were the exact events of that night.

Bush is now saying that he doesn't remember if he had been handcuffed, or whether he purchased alcohol for his sister or her underage boyfriend. In his Friday interview with Fox News Channel's Carl Cameron, Bush didn't even answer the question as to whether there were any other brushes with the law that the public has yet to hear about.

And, as the Boston Globe reports on Saturday, in 1978, when Bush attempted to regain his driving privileges in Maine suspended as a result of his DUI, he portrayed himself as a casual drinker. Writing that he drank only "infrequently" and had an "occasional beer," Bush seemed to contradict his admissions that he was a problem drinker until 1986.

Are these nit-picky questions? Maybe. But they're certainly at least as important as how much Al Gore's mother-in-law spends on prescription drug medication -- Gore's fibs, which consumed media attention for a week and helped to send his Democratic Convention-buoyed poll numbers spiraling downward.

Andrew and Catherine's mother, Carol, 45, claims that it "wasn't necessarily a lie to a reporter. It was an abstention." She says she supports Bush because "he's trustworthy." The Patterson brood does phone-banking for the Bush-Cheney ticket. Catherine "dials the phone, he [Andrew] does the stats, and I do the talking," she says.

Jerry Narrow, 55, an electronics technician from Hopewell, Penn., is assuredly the only rally attendee wearing both a sticker that says "Sportsmen for Bush" and a yarmulke. "I was in Israel over Yom Kippur when they were attacked," Narrow says, citing the unrest in the Middle East as evidence as to why it's important that he have the right to own firearms in Hopewell. Of Gore, the Republican committeeman says, "I can't believe anything he says" -- and not just about guns, he says.

A cheer erupts when it's announced that Bush's plane has landed. The 757 creeps into view from behind a powder-blue next-door hangar, lumbering slowly like a brontosaurus out for a Sunday stroll.

The plane swivels around so that its front door is visible.

Bush, his wife and Powell emerge to cheers.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, thought to be on Bush's short-list for veep until Cheney picked himself for the job, greets them warmly.

Bush delivers his standard stump speech, apparently unrattled by any of the events of the last few days, kicking back into his strategy of projecting confidence so as to self-perpetuate his ordination. After his Fox News Channel interview on Friday, Bush went for a run on Saginaw Valley State University's track. Outside a hotel in Saginaw, Bush offered a whimsical little skit, tossing an imaginary coin up in the air, waiting dramatically for the coin to return to Earth.

There is something indisputably charming about his positive nature. At Fairmont Senior High School in Morgantown, W.Va., late Friday night, Bush emerged from the school greeted with cheers and applause from several local fans who were milling about the press corps.

Bush's eyes widened. "I appreciate the press corps applauding," he said as he approached the scrum.

Then, as the local backers approached to shake his hand, Bush realized that it hadn't been members of the press applauding at all. "You're not in the press corps," he said. "I thought you were in the press corps."

He walked away, and a reporter joked good-naturedly, "What an optimist you are."

Bush turned back to the small crowd.

"Well-spoken," he said. "Very well-spoken."

Will any of this have an effect on the election? Will there be a backlash against the media, or against Gore since a Maine Democrat leaked the tale? Bevilaqua has forgiven Bush for his South Carolina primary trip to fundamentalist Bob Jones University, where he cozied up with a faculty whose teachings have compared the pope to the antichrist -- an issue that Arizona Sen. John McCain attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to use against him during the GOP primaries.

America can be a forgiving place, especially if one apologizes and owns up to one's misdeeds.

"He made no excuses, he owned up to it, he paid the price," says Patterson. "This administration, on the other hand, has continually passed the buck and never owned up to anything." Patterson's a Republican stalwart, of course, but few Americans probably are even remotely aware of the many ways Bush has been less-than-forthright about this issue. And thats no thanks to the media -- the New York Times didn't even mention Slater's contention that Bush had lied to him about not having been arrested.

A Friday night poll by ABC News showed 83 percent of the public saying the DUI in Bush's past is irrelevant to the election in three days. Most of those who think it an issue are predisposed against Bush to begin with. Five percent of all voters say the arrest makes them less likely to vote for Bush -- but 4 percent say it will make them more likely to vote for him.

The prevailing wisdom on the press plane seems to be that Bush will skate on this, as he has skated on everything throughout his life, the luckiest man in the world.

In Michigan on Friday, Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., sums up the prevailing wisdom rather pithily: "There are many people who have been stopped while driving. I think that the question is, you know, I mean, I don't know."

By Jake Tapper

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

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Al Gore Dick Cheney George W. Bush Joe Lieberman Pennsylvania Tom Ridge