In the closing days of a presidential race that’s tighter than a wetsuit, Americans suddenly learned last night that Governor George W. Bush was arrested for drunk driving at age 30 near his parents’ home in Kennebunkport, Maine. He pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, paid a $150 fine, and temporarily lost his driving privileges in Maine.
”I occasionally drank too much, and I did that night,” Bush told reporters at a late-night press conference in West Allis, Wisconsin. “I regret that it happened. I learned my lesson.”
Arresting officer Calvin Bridges told the Associated Press that Bush at the time “was a picture of integrity. He gave no resistance. He was very cooperative.”
Bush’s reaction to news of the September 4, 1976, incident is a window onto his character. He quickly admitted to reporters that what happened was true. He accepted responsibility for it and explained that he has not had a drop of alcohol since the day after his 40th birthday, 14 years ago. What is so refreshing in the waning days of the Clinton-Gore era is that Bush neither hid from the media, issued a false, finger-wagging denial, nor claimed that there was “no controlling automotive authority” in Kennebunkport.
Note also that at the time of his arrest — when Gerald Ford was president and Mao Tse-tung had five days to live — Bush did not seek special treatment as the son of a prominent public official. By 1976, George Bush the elder had been a congressman, United Nations ambassador, Republican National Chairman and director of Central Intelligence. A call to his father might have made the whole affair blow off shore. Instead, Bush faced the music on his own and accepted the consequences of his misdemeanor.
The most interesting question, and where this story should go, is how this 24-year-old incident erupted into the headlines just five days before the general election. While Gore-Lieberman spokesman Chris Lehane said, “No one with this campaign had anything to do with it,” coincidences like this rarely happen.
The Associated Press reports that this story’s self-identified source was Tom Connolly, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor of Maine in 1998. “It’s not a dirty trick to tell the truth,” Connolly told the AP.
Erin Fehlau, the reporter who broke the story for Fox News affiliate WPXT-TV in Portland, Maine, said today on ABC’s Good Morning America that she learned of the arrest from “a local criminal defense attorney here in Portland” — presumably Connolly. She explained, “I don’t even know him that well. I just knew him from sight.” The attorney, she continued, “said that he did have some docket information, a docket sheet, which indicated that he [Bush] had pled guilty to this. And brought it back to me. He also indicated to me that he was a delegate to the Democratic Convention.” Fehlau said the attorney returned to his office, retrieved the paperwork, then handed it to her.
The attorney, Fehlau said, was discussing the Bush arrest adjacent to a Portland courthouse. She added: “I also think that he may have known that other people were overhearing his conversation” with another lawyer and a judge. In fact, a police officer heard the attorney’s statements and shared them with Fehlau.
Fox News Channel’s Carl Cameron reported that Maine attorney Kenneth Curtis was a Democratic convention delegate, too. Curtis happens to work in a law firm with Erin Lehane, the sister of Gore-Lieberman spokesman Chris Lehane, also of Kennebunkport, Maine.
It strains credulity to believe that Connolly — all on his own — casually mentioned a 24-year-old case five days before balloting begins, thus exploding a bombshell over the Bush campaign. Bush’s docket sheet was not a computerized file discovered on the Internet, but a paper document that had to be excavated from deep within an archive of government records.
The convenient release of information embarrassing to opponents is a classic tactic in the Clinton-Gore playbook, especially when facing serious adversity. Consider:
- Kathleen Willey appeared on 60 Minutes on March 15, 1998, and accused President Clinton of groping her in the Oval Office. The very next day, the White House undercut her story by releasing friendly personal letters she wrote to the president after the alleged episode. As Clinton confessed to a federal grand jury on August 17, 1998: “When 60 Minutes came with the story and everybody blew it up, I thought we would release it.” These letters, the president noted, “shattered Kathleen Willey’s credibility.”
- In the middle of Zippergate, the Defense Department leaked confidential information from Linda Tripp’s personnel file to New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer on March 13, 1998. These records also concerned a long-ago run-in with the law — namely Tripp’s 1969 police detention for involvement in a youthful prank for which she was exonerated. The releases of Willey’s and Tripp’s papers may have violated the federal Privacy Act and are the subject of a lawsuit by conservative legal watchdog group, Judicial Watch.
- Former Village Voice media critic Doug Ireland wrote an article entitled “Of Closets and Clinton” in the March 30, 1998, issue of The Nation, a liberal opinion journal. He interviewed three Washington reporters who “confirmed to me that Sidney Blumenthal, the White House media counselor, had indeed been spreading” stories on “the same-sex orientation of a member of Starr’s staff.” Two said they discussed this with Blumenthal directly while a third reporter said he witnessed Blumenthal making such comments to another individual. Ireland added that, “Two of the members of the media I spoke to about the Starr allegations also said Blumenthal had described at least two other media figures to them as gay.”
Blumenthal called this story a “complete lie.” Still, Ireland defended his sources as “reputable members of the Beltway media.”
Governor Bush should have avoided this ninth-inning headache by revealing it in an interview, say with the de-fanged Larry King of CNN or a sympathetic syndicated columnist such as George Will. That said, the disclosure of Bush’s arrest reeks of a Clinton-Gore-style stink bomb. It’s the perfect metaphor for the eight years past, and prologue, perhaps, of what Americans can expect if Team Gore prevails next Tuesday.