George W. Bush is accusing Democrats of playing “dirty politics” by leaking information about his 24-year-old arrest for drunken driving just days before voters head to the polls.
“I believe that most Americans are going to come to the conclusion that this is dirty politics,” the Texas governor said in an interview with FOX News this afternoon.
Bush publicly admitted Thursday night, after it was reported by a Maine television station, that he had been arrested for driving under the influence on Labor Day weekend in 1976 near his family home in Kennebunkport.
According to an ABC News poll, only seven percent of all likely voters say the arrest raises serious concern in their minds about whether Bush is qualified to be president, and virtually all of them favor Gore anyway. Almost no Bush supporters—one person in this poll of nearly 700—say it raises serious concern about his qualifications. Indeed, only 16 percent of Gore supporters say so.
Tom Connolly, a former nominee for governor in Maine and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, acknowledged Friday that he was the one who tipped off the press but says the Gore campaign had “zero” involvement.
Gore campaign Chairman William Daley categorically denied any involvement.
But Bush said the attorney’s Democratic ties raise suspicion.
“I don’t know whether my opponent’s campaign is involved,” the Republican candidate said Friday. “But I do know that the person who admitted doing it at the last minute was a Democrat and partisan.”
The Gore campaign has steered clear of commenting on the story except to deny any involvement in its revelation. In fact, Connolly said, he tried to tip off Gore staffers to the existence of court records on the Bush DUI case but never received a response.
“It is time for Governor Bush’s campaign to stop hurling charges, and start accepting responsibility,” Daley said in a statement e-mailed to reporters. “Whatever questions remain unanswered are the responsibility of Governor Bush and his campaign, not ours.”
Connolly, meanwhile, dismissed the Bush camp’s complaints about timing.
“Bush is the one who has been playing around with the truth,” he said. “He’s known about it for 20 years.”
In his first campaign speech since the arrest was revealed, Bush made a veiled reference to the controversy.
“It has become clear to America over the course of this campaign that I have made mistakes in my life,” Bush said this morning at a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. “but I am proud to tell you that I have learned from those mistakes.”
Reporter Denies Being Manipulated
Erin Fehlau, the local TV reporter who broke the story, said she was confident it was “not a setup.”
Fehlau said a police officer had overheard a judge and a lawyer discussing the matter. (She would not reveal the identity of the lawyer, but Connolly later acknowledged his role.) The officer asked Fehlau, who was covering an unrelated story at the courthouse, if it was true. Fehlau said she then sought out Connolly, who provided her with a court document on the Bush case.
“When I ran up to him and asked him if he had anything on it, he said, yes he did,” Fehlau said Friday on ABCNEWS’ Good Morning America. “Did he look surprised? I guess he did look a little surprised.”
Mistakes Were Made
Bush, who was 30 at the time of the arrest, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence, was fined $150 and his driving privileges were suspended.
Bush campaign sources said Bush was driving with his sister, Doro, then 17, after celebrating the visit of Australian tennis player John Newcombe, a close friend. Newcombe and his wife were in the car as were Pete Rousel — a longtime press aide to President George Bush, the governor’s father — and David Rimmer — a then 16-year-old friend of Doro Bush — the sources said.
According to Bush spokesman Bartlett, Bush was driving very slowly and swerving in the opposite direction from the arresting officer. The officer turned around to pull Bush over and, after giving him a sobriety field test, took him to the station.
Bush said Thursday he kept the arrest under wraps because he did not want to set a bad example for his children. His daughters, twins Barbara and Jenna, turn 19 on Nov. 25.
“I didn’t want to talk about this in front in my daughters,” he said. “I’ve told my daughters they shouldn’t be drinking and driving.”
As the Bush camp accuses opponents of running a smear campaign, it is also being pressed to explain a Dallas Morning News reporter’s claim that Bush answered ‘No’ when asked in 1998 whether he had been arrested for anything other than a previously disclosed college prank.
“He said ‘No,’ but then he immediately looked like he was going to correct that or say something more,” said Wayne Slater, the reporter. “Before he was able to do that, [Bush Communications Director] Karen Hughes stepped in and stopped the conversation.”
Hughes denied Bush misled Slater. “The reporter was clearly left with the impression — an accurate impression — that the governor had been involved in some incident involving alcohol,” she said.
According to a 1996 story in the Houston Chronicle, Bush was asked directly if he had ever been arrested for drunken driving. He dodged the question but did not, Hughes said, tell a lie.
“He responded, ‘I do not have a perfect record as a youth,’” Hughes said.
Bush has often said that he quit drinking right after his 40th birthday in 1986 — 10 years after the incident.
A year before being arrested, Bush earned his masters of business administration and returned to Texas to get into the oil business at age 29.
In the summer of 1977, he met his future wife, Laura, whom he married that November. A year later, he launched an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Congress.
As first reported by The Dallas Morning News, Bush was called for jury duty in a drunken driving case in 1996, two years after he was elected governor. Defense attorney P. David Wahlberg, the newspaper reported, struck Bush from the panel at the request of the governor’s lawyer.
On Bush’s jury questionnaire, the question, “Have you ever been an accused, or a complainant, or a witness in a criminal case?” was left blank. Bush strategist Karl Rove told ABCNEWS the governor’s traveling aide — Israel Hernandez, who is now a campaign staffer — filled out the form. Rove said he did not know if Bush actually saw the questionnaire before it was submitted.
Bush’s running mate, former defense secretary Dick Cheney, has acknowledged that he too has been arrested for drunken driving. Juleanna Glover Weiss, Cheney’s press secretary, confirmed Thursday that the former defense secretary was twice arrested for driving while intoxicated — in 1962 and 1963, when he was in his 20s.
Stumping this morning in Millersville, Pa., Cheney urged supporters to keep their “eye on the ball” in the closing days of the campaign.
“There’s all kinds of stuff flying around out there,” Cheney said. “ The important thing is we keep our eye on the ball and what we’re going to decide on Tuesday.”
ABCNEWS’ John Berman, Ariane DeVogue and Mark Halperin contributed to this report.