Rap Sheet Blues

. George W. Bush ponders a question from a reporter about his arrest and guilty plea for driving under the influence of alcohol in 1976, after his rally at the Wisconsin State Fair Cattle Barn in West Allis, Wis., Thursday, Nov. 2.
AP
One thing seems clear on Day Two of George W. Bush's admission that he was picked up for driving under the influence of alcohol in 1976: Neither Bush nor his rival, Vice President Al Gore, will be the one to make an issue out of it.

At a Friday campaign stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bush told supporters, "It has become clear over the course of the race that I have made mistakes in my life. And I am proud to tell you, I have learned from those mistakes."

With the exception of that oblique mea culpa, nothing's been said on the stump, or in campaign advertisements, about the "DUI" conviction, at least not by the two principals.

Bush's DUI is burning up the chat boards. Join the fray!

So far, it's the Republican team that's keeping the story alive.

At Saturday rallies, Bush's lieutenants tried to turn the story around on the Democrats, insinuating a dirty trick. Bush's running mate Dick Cheney called the reporter's tip from a Maine Democrat "desperation tactics" and Colin Powell called it "sniping."

So how will it shake out?

Rahm Emanuel, a former advisor to President Clinton and a 1992 Clinton campaign strategist, predicted the public will "protect" Bush on the DUI story if the press prosecutes the case against him too zealously.

"The American people will react based on how the press reacts," he says. "If they think the press is playing a game" or "pushing too hard," they will "counter-push," Emanuel says.

But there could be more trouble for Bush, depending on what reporters find when they review all the governor's public statements about his younger days and suss out old leads and unsubstantiated rumors.

"Forget this moment," Emanuel says. "Were his past descriptions accurate, or misleading? That, to me, is where he is going to get into problems."

Dallas Morning News reporter Wayne Slater told CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker that Bush flat out denied an arrest in an interview two years ago. Slater remembers: "I asked him, 'Were you ever arrested after 1968?' and he aid no."

Reporters also questioned a 1996 Bush statement.

Released from jury duty in a drinking-and-driving case while he was governor, Bush was asked by reporters if had ever been arrested for DUI.

Bush's reply was worthy of Bill Clinton. "I do not have a perfect record as a youth," he said. (Inexplicably, Bush campaign spokeswoman Karen Hughes cited the remark as an example of Bush's candor).

Presidential historian and biographer Bob Dallek of Boston University thinks Bush finessed the issue effectively in his hasty press conference Thursday night by explaining that he had kept the secret for fear of setting a bad example for his twin girls.

"His line so far is brilliantly conceived--a sort of old Richard Nixon 'Checkers' line: 'I didn't want to hurt my daughters… No matter what they say about me I'm not giving that dog Checkers back.' People find that understandable ... People have things that they hide from their kids. That's the chord he shrewdly strikes with families. Like Reagan, he has a kind of intuitive feel for handling these things," Dallek says.

Dallek and political analyst Norm Ornstein of American Enterprise Institute think the Sunday morning talk shows may influence how much significance voters assign to the story.

"I can't imagine significant numbers of people voting differently because of that incident," says Ornstein who cautions that the tight race may be decided "at the margins."

The bigger problem for Bush, he says, is "What dominates the discourse for the final week?"

For Bush, who is running on a promise to restore integrity to the presidency and usher in new social compact he calls the "Responsibility Era," the news that he has been unforthcoming - and even misleading in his interview with Slater - compromises one of his core messages.

Ornstein says the DUI story comes at the worst possible time for Bush.

In the remaining time before the election, Bush "wants to nail down the sale by making it clear there are real differences in integrity, leadership and trustworthiness, and this doesn't allow him to make that message," Ornstein says. "It does more than muddy it."

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