Maine police officer Calvin Bridges, now retired, had been expecting this call for 24 years. "I knew," he told the caller, "that someday it would come out." Erin Fehlau, an enterprising young reporter for WPXT-TV in Portland, had already obtained the docket sheet and the driving records. But with that confirmation from the arresting officer, she had a third and conclusive source for her scoop: that over Labor Day weekend in 1976, George W. Bush had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.
When the Portland station broke the story at 7 p.m. on Thursday, it sparked a media frenzy. "We're a small operation, and every media outlet in the country was calling here," says WPXT-TV news director Kevin Kelly. As the Bush campaign shifted into damage-control overdrive--contacting Bridges and persuading him to talk to the press--things were only getting worse. Wayne Slater, a Dallas Morning News reporter traveling with the Bush campaign, said that two years ago, he had asked Bush if he had been arrested during the relevant time period and that Bush had denied it.
The D.U.I. bulletin came a few days too late to meet the technical definition of an October surprise, but otherwise it was a classic: a last-minute disclosure with the potential to change the outcome of an election. Thursday night's news hit the Bush campaign on two vulnerable fronts. It reminded voters of how long it had taken Bush to mature, at a time when Al Gore has sought to raise doubts about the Republican's preparedness for the presidency. Opponents also argued that the incident undermined one of the pillars of Bush's campaign: that he is trustworthy and that Gore, like Bill Clinton, is not. On issues ranging from taxes to Social Security, Bush has asserted, "I trust the people." Yet, critics charged, he did not trust the people to understand and put in context this blot on his record.
Bush and his supporters emphasized that he has talked openly about the drinking problems he had before he gave up alcohol in 1986. They saw the D.U.I. story as a suspiciously timed sucker punch, aimed at manipulating voters in the final days of a breathtakingly close race.
The incident that led to the D.U.I. arrest was hardly dramatic. Bush, then 30, was driving down Kennebunkport's Ocean Avenue after midnight on the way to his family's summer compound. He had been drinking beer that night with his sister Dorothy, Australian tennis star John Newcombe and Newcombe's wife. Officer Bridges, just getting off duty, saw Bush's car slipping briefly onto the shoulder before getting back on the road. Bridges stopped the car and asked Bush to take a sobriety test. Bush readily admitted he had been drinking, Bridges said, and made no attempt to evade the consequences. Bridges placed him under arrest. After failing a second alcohol-level test at the police station--his alcohol level was 0.12, over Maine's 0.10 legal limit--Bush was released on $500 bail. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a $150 fine and had his driving privileges temporarily suspended in Maine.