Bush admits to drunken-driving arrest

His past catches up with him on the campaign trail. Gore takes some parting shots against the Texas governor, and Nader's raiders stay put.

By Alicia Montgomery

Published November 4, 2000 6:14AM (EST)

George W. Bush looked poised to pull away from Al Gore in recent polls, but now a 1976 drunken-driving conviction could put the brakes on his campaign. The Smoking Gun Web site has posted a copy of the arresting officer's report, which shows that Bush was stopped a mile from his family's summer house in Kennebunkport, Maine, on Sept. 4, 1976. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor DUI charge, which cost him a $150 fine and led to the suspension of his Maine driver's license.

So sorry
Bush owned up to the crime hours after the press got the news. Reuters reports that he was half-apologetic, half-defensive. "I'm not proud of that. I've often said that years ago I made some mistakes," Bush said to a swarm of reporters. When asked whether he smelled a rat in the timing of the revelation, Bush declined to accuse Al Gore directly of dirty tricks, saying only, "I have my suspicions." As for questions about the late timing of Bush's confession, the Texas governor said he kept the news quiet out of deference to his family. "I'm not trying to get away with anything," he insisted. "I didn't want to talk about this in front of my daughters."

The Gore campaign didn't want to talk about it either, according to spokesman Chris Lehane. "The Gore campaign had nothing to do with this, and this is just something that we're not commenting on," said Lehane. "It would be inappropriate to comment on this."

Don't ask, don't tell
Before his impromptu confession at the press conference, Bush spoke at a Wisconsin campaign rally. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that those who had gathered to listen found the candidate's performance intoxicating. In his standard campaign pitch, Bush blasted Gore for duplicity in claiming to be opposed to "big government" during one of the presidential debates. "I could barely contain myself," Bush said of the moment when Gore praised smaller government. "I thought I was going to fall down on national TV." Attendee Dean Holloway left the rally impressed. "I think he'll win in a landslide," Holloway said. "The potential is there."

Of course, no one mentioned the drunken-driving arrest to the crowd. But one local expert believes that it wouldn't have made any difference. Though the arrest could become an unwelcome distraction for Bush, Charles Jones, a University of Wisconsin at Madison political science professor, doubts it will do more damage. "It would surprise me if it ended up influencing very much how people are going to vote," he said.

Gateway to the battleground states
The vice president hopes that his top-speed tour will influence voters in tossup territories to swing his way. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that Gore tried to pump up his numbers in Missouri by casting himself as the best guardian of Social Security before a gathering of senior citizens. The enthusiasm seemed to carry away state Rep. Betty Thompson, who repeatedly muffed her introduction of Gore's running mate. "With Al Gore and Bob Lieberman, we will win," she said. The audience tried to correct her by chanting "Joe, Joe, Joe, Joe. It's Joe," but it was to no avail. "Bob has picked up the flag," Thompson continued. "I introduce to you the next vice president of the United States, Bob Lieberman." Joseph Lieberman kept a sense of humor about the error. "Bob. Joe. You know we're all together," he laughed. "Call me what you will, but just make sure you elect Al Gore and me next Tuesday."

Your final answers
For those still unsure of whom to vote for Tuesday, USA Today has published interviews with both the major-party candidates. Gore used a few of his last words of the campaign to take some extra shots at Bush. Even when being self-deprecating, Gore made sure that the tail of his answers stung his opponent. He managed to cram an answer about his thoughts in the waning days of the campaign with slams against Bush on healthcare, the environment and Social Security. A question about his greatest fears netted an anti-Bush barb as well. Gore said it wasn't turnout that concerned him most, but that he was worried about "getting through newspaper interviews without serious missteps. That's why Gov. Bush has refused to talk to the press anymore," he said. "They're trying to hold the ball and run out the clock."

Bush did handle the interview as if time were on his side. "I am cautiously optimistic," Bush declared, denying that he planned to sit on his slim lead. "I'm going to work as hard as I possibly can between now and Election Day to continue to rally our supporters, to invigorate the grass roots so that they will then go into their communities and turn out the vote." Asked what he would remember as the deciding factor in a Bush election victory, the Texas governor said, "I believe that people, should I prevail, will have wanted a change. A change to a reform agenda and as well they will have ended up trusting my judgment, trusting my capabilities, trusting my ability to lead this nation." As for what he would conclude about the nation should Gore win, Bush replied, "I don't think he's going to."

The tiny Texan returns
If Bush needs additional deep-pocketed patrons to make sure his election prophesies come true, he has earned another ally very close to home. Reform Party founder Ross Perot gave his 11th-hour endorsement to Bush during an appearance on "Larry King Live." His support was a reversal of his previous opinion of Bush. In 1994, Perot backed Bush's gubernatorial race opponent, Gov. Ann Richards. Among his objections at that time was that Bush had "no background or significant business experience."

By endorsing the Republican, Perot spurned the advances of Pat Buchanan, his successor as Reform Party standard-bearer. During that party's raucous convention, Buchanan asked Perot to "give us a hand ... It's your party as well as ours." Aside from disappointing Buchanan, Perot's nod to Bush may not be worth much politically. "Perot's political days are pretty much behind him," said Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist from Iowa State University. "He's an interesting man, but he's no longer politically interesting."

Gore gets a "Dear Al" letter
Many Democrats feel that it's time for Ralph Nader's campaign to fade into the realm of political trivia. But Nader's raiders show no signs of letting up. On behalf of fellow lefties, Nader supporter and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has told Gore to kiss off. "Look, Al, you have screwed up -- big time," Moore writes. "By now, you should have sent that smirking idiot back to Texas." Moore has particular disdain for Democrats' calls for Nader to quit "stealing" votes from Gore, saying it's patronizing to assume that the consumer rights advocate could "wave a magic wand" and send his voters to Gore. Moore asserted that Gore's attention to the left has come too late, ending the epistle on a semihopeful note with a request for the vice president's speedy reply.

Look for special election editions of Trail Mix this weekend.

On the trail
Bush: Michigan and West Virginia.
Buchanan: North Carolina, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
Gore: Missouri, Iowa and Tennessee.
Nader: California.

Presidential poll positions
Major-party candidates:

  • Bush 47 to Gore 43 (USA Today/CNN/Gallup Oct. 30-Nov. 1).
  • Bush 45 to Gore 42 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 30-Nov. 1).
  • Bush 49 to Gore 45 (ABC News Oct. 30-Nov. 1).
  • Bush 48 to Gore 45 (Washington Post Oct. 30-Nov. 1).
  • Bush 44 to Gore 43 (CBS News/New York Times Oct. 29-31).
  • Bush 47 to Gore 43 (Pew Center for the People and the Press Oct. 25-29).
  • Bush 45 to Gore 42 (Newsweek Oct. 25-27).

    Third-party candidates:

  • Nader 4 to Buchanan 1 (USA Today/CNN/Gallup Oct. 30-Nov. 1).
  • Nader 5 to Buchanan 1 (Reuters/MSNBC Oct. 30-Nov. 1).
  • Nader 3 to Buchanan 1 (ABC News Oct. 30-Nov. 1).
  • Nader 3 to Buchanan 1 (Washington Post Oct. 30-Nov. 1).
  • Nader 4 to Buchanan 2 (CBS News/New York Times Oct. 29-31).
  • Nader 3 to Buchanan 1 (Pew Center for the People and the Press Oct. 25-29).
  • Nader 4 to Buchanan 2 (Newsweek Oct. 25-27).

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  • Alicia Montgomery

    Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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