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The larger issue the Bush campaign has been forced to deal with is whether its candidate was honest about the incident. "He was always very forthcoming in acknowledging that he drank too much in the past," says Hughes. The reason he did not disclose the D.U.I. arrest specifically, she says, is that he did not want his behavior to set a bad example for his twin daughters, now freshmen in college--an excuse that struck some listeners as similar to one that President Clinton gave for lying about Monica Lewinsky.
But was Bush affirmatively misleading about the D.U.I. incident? Slater had interviewed Bush about a different arrest, in 1968, when Bush and his Yale fraternity brothers were charged with stealing a Christmas wreath in what they described as a prank. Slater says he asked Bush whether he had been arrested since that incident, and Bush said no. Bush then seemed to want to amend his answer, Slater recalled, but spokeswoman Hughes prevented the interview from going further, leaving his answer as a denial. Hughes has disputed Slater's account, saying Bush insists he didn't answer no to the first question; by leaving Slater with the "impression" that there might have been another arrest in his life, she suggested, Bush was being straightforward. Slater didn't write about this exchange, but he described it to another writer, who included it in a profile of Hughes that appeared in the New Republic in November 1999.
Reporters quickly began searching for other evidence that Bush might have given misleading answers about the arrest. When he was called for jury duty in 1996, Bush did not answer a question on a juror questionnaire about whether he had been involved in a previous criminal case. The Bush campaign says the form was filled out by an aide, who also did not answer several other questions. And there were suggestions in some press reports that when Bush got a new driver's license, with the number 00000005, after he became Governor in 1995, his intent might have been to hide the trail to his D.U.I. conviction. But Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett insisted that low-digit VIP license numbers are a tradition among Texas elected officials. Reporters asked the campaign whether Bush had admitted to his D.U.I. arrest on any of the questionnaires that most Americans are required to fill out when they apply for jobs or loans or security clearances. The campaign said Bush had never had to fill out such questionnaires.
At the same time, Gore's surrogates were stepping up their attacks on Bush on another front: his service in the Air National Guard. They alleged that Bush, who signed on with the Guard during the Vietnam War, missed months of drills when he moved to Alabama to help run a U.S. Senate campaign. The Bush campaign has maintained that its candidate attended his required drills in either Texas or Alabama.
The D.U.I. episode reminded everyone of a lesson from Campaign Strategy 101: get the bad stuff out early--and on your own terms. If Bush had mentioned the arrest months ago, perhaps buried deep in a speech about finding religion and giving up drinking, it would have lacked any 11th-hour drama. But by avoiding it, the campaign made itself vulnerable. Whether it is a calculating partisan or an inquisitive local reporter, there's always someone in the final days of a presidential campaign who is more than happy to yell, "Surprise!"