Holding the lead in the polls just days before the presidential election, Republican candidate George W. Bush has been forced to answer questions about a previously unknown arrest for drunken driving in 1976.
After rallying voters Thursday night in West Allis, Wis., Bush told reporters he’s “not proud” that he was arrested for driving under the influence in Kennebunkport, Maine, after drinking several beers at a bar.
“I regret that it happened, but it did,” Bush said.
The Bush campaign acknowledged earlier Thursday night, after it was reported by a Maine television station, that he was taken into custody by police near his family home in Kennebunkport on Labor Day weekend in 1976.
“I’m the first to say that what I did was wrong and I’ve corrected that,” Bush said. “And I think the people — the people of America will understand that.”
‘Something He Is Not Proud Of’
Bush, who was 30 at the time, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of driving under the influence, was fined $150 and his driving privileges were suspended.
Campaign spokesman Dan Bartlett said Bush was driving with his sister, Doro, after celebrating the visit of Australian tennis player John Newcombe, a close friend. Newcombe and his wife also were in the car. According to 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 field test (not a breathalyzer) he was taken to the station.
Under rapid-fire questioning about the incident from reporters Thursday night, Bush repeatedly cast suspicion on the timing of the report.
“It was 24 years ago and that’s the interesting thing about this: Here we are with four days to go in the campaign and we’re discussing what happened 24 years ago,” Bush said. “I’ve got my suspicions… I’ve got my suspicions,” he said later, walking away from the press conference.
Chris Lehane, spokesman for the Democratic presidential candidate, Vice President Al Gore, refused to comment on the story, though he did deny any effort to tie his camp to the story.
“This is not something the Gore campaign is involved with in any shape way or form,” Lehane said.
Asked how he could be certain after learning about the report just moments earlier, Lehane responded, “I know that’s not something the Gore campaign would engage.”
Appearing Thursday night on Nightline, Erin Fehlau, the local TV reporter who broke the story, said she was confident it was “not a setup” — though the revelation apparently originated with a lawyer who has served as a Democratic National Convention delegate.
A police officer, Fehlau said, had overheard a judge and the attorney discussing the matter. The officer asked Fehlau, who was covering an unrelated story at the courthouse, if it was true. Later, Fehlau said she sought out the lawyer, who provided her with a court document on the Bush case.
Mistakes Were Made
Reiterating his blanket response to questions about indiscretions of his early years that he refuses to discuss publicly, Bush said, “I’ve been very candid about my past.”
“I’ve said I made mistakes in the past,” he said. “People know that. They’ve thought about that. They’ve made their… they’re making their minds up now.”
The Republican presidential candidate said again that he quit drinking right after his 40th birthday in 1986.
Bush called one of his daughters to inform her. His wife, Laura, called the other. The main reason Bush cited for failing to disclose the information sooner was that he did not want to set a bad example for his twin girls.
“I made the decision that, as a dad, I didn’t want my girls doing the kinds of things I did,” Bush said.
A year before the incident, 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 wife, Laura, and married her in November. A year later, he launched an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Congress.
ABCNEWS’ John Berman and Ariane DeVogue contributed to this report.