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Will News of a 1976 DUI Arrest Hurt George W. Bush?

Aired November 3, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET



GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I've made clear to America over the course of this campaign that I've made mistakes in my life. But I'm proud to tell you, I've learned from those mistakes.


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, just four days to go: Will news of a 1976 DUI arrest hurt George W. Bush, or will it boomerang back on Democrats?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE.

On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin.

In the CROSSFIRE, Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, a Gore supporter, and Republican strategist Ralph Reed, a Bush adviser.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

While the candidates hammered home their litany of issues from campaign 2000, the press honed in on only one issue from 1976: George W. Bush's DUI. Closing out his day in Morgantown, West Virginia, a state that's voted Republican only once in 28 years, Bush stayed on stride all day, making only a fleeting reference to learning from his mistakes to a thunderous reception in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His aides were less fleeting, flat out demanding an explanation from Democrats for the last-minute revelations.

Campaigning in must-win Missouri, Al Gore pointedly had no comment, but his campaign manager denied any campaign complicity with the Gore delegate who released the Bush record to the press.

So in the final 100 hours, will Bush's ancient bust cause a current campaign calamity, or will a Democratic delegate's deed be the undoing of Gore, or is this press feeding frenzy much ado about nothing?

Bill is still spinning with Tucker Carlson in the wildly popular CNN 10:00 p.m. special, election special "THE SPIN ROOM." Closing out the week in the left seat, the esteemed Brandeis professor Robert Reich. And before we get to our spinners, let's get a view from the road, where our own beloved Robert Novak joins the Bush campaign in West Virginia.

Bob what's the mood on the ground there?

ROBERT NOVAK, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Mary, this is clearly a story that the Bush campaign did not need, not with the candidate showing signs of breaking through in the battleground states in the closing days of this election.

What bothers the Bush aides is the second-day angle, a rather ambiguous report by "Dallas Morning News" reporter Wayne Slater about a conversation with Governor Bush two years ago about whether he had ever been...


... 68. The Bush reaction to the whole thing has been to treat it minimally, just a brief morning press conference by communications director Karen Hughes...


... Grand Rapids Michigan Airport saying the governor never lied about anything, but nothing said by the candidate himself. He laughingly turned down a request at the tarmac at Grand Rapids to say something.

Bush in his first rally speech in Grand Rapids did indeed add some words, saying that he has learned from his mistakes and felt better about that. But he said nothing in his second rally speech in Saginaw. Of course, there was a decision by the campaign not to make any big deal about it.

The Bush aides, of course, complain that high-level Gore operatives, Democratic operatives in the state of Maine...


... the story. They call it a dirty trick.

In sum, the Bush campaign is peeved that their rhythm of the last few days has been disrupted and may affect the outcome of the election. And they sincerely hope there will not be a third-day story tomorrow.

MATALIN: All right, Robert Novak, looks like you're going to get ready to rock out. We don't want to interrupt your good time.

That's the Prince of Darkness, live from Bush's rally there in West Virginia.

Professor Reich, you're up.

ROBERT REICH, CO-HOST: Well, I have a question for Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition, a very morally upright organization, an upright person. Maybe you can explain something to me. It's not just that the tempo of the campaign, that is the George W. campaign has been disrupted, as we just heard. Isn't there something much more basic here? I mean, the entire campaign against Al Gore has been based upon character, on trustworthiness, on the fact that perhaps the allegation is that Al Gore has not completely leveled with the American people.

Listen to this. Take a look at this clip. This is very typical of the George W. campaign.


BUSH: My administration will provide responsible leadership. And finally, a leader must uphold the honor and the dignity of the office to which he has been elected.

REICH: Now again, Ralph, this is fairly typical. We've heard this again and again every single day with some accusation against Al Gore. Tell me honestly, doesn't this new revelation, that George W. did not reveal his drunken-driving arrest, even though it was years ago -- he was 30 years old, he was an adult -- the possibility that he lied to a reporter about it, doesn't this create some discontinuity here? I mean, how can he -- he waged his campaign on character when there is this now serious question about his own character?

RALPH REED, BUSH ADVISER: Well, that's a lot to cover, Mr. Secretary, and let me do the best I can.

First of all, let me point out point out that we have not run a campaign on anything other than the issues and the fact that Governor Bush wanted to reform taxes and provide tax relief for middle-class families with children, lower the toll booth to the middle class. We want to pass a patients' bill of rights, we want to modernize Medicare, we want to improve education. That's what this campaign's about.

What Governor Bush has said is that he believes the way leaders and elected officials comport themselves in office can have an Impact on our children and our broader culture. And I think -- you know, I just really believe, Mr. Secretary, that the American people are a lot smarter than most people in Washington think they are. They -- we trust the people. We trust the people to be able...

REICH: But, Ralph, wait a minute. You're now -- this is...

REED: Can I finish the answer?

REICH: You've provided a wonderful spin. No, no, this is wonderful spin, and...

REED: No, it's not spin, I'm answering your question. Can I just finish? Just give me another 10 seconds.

REICH: Yes, you can certainly. You may, absolutely. REED: They can weigh this 24-year, almost quarter-century-old, episode with one of America's finest governors, who cut taxes, passed a patients' bill of rights, improved education and will restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office. They can weigh them, and this pales in comparison to that record.

REICH: But, Ralph, there are -- you have to admit, there are some questions about the governor's past. I mean, after the story broke last night, Karen Hughes, the governor's spokeswoman, was asked about, doesn't -- are there anything else, is there anything else, any other issues, that we ought to know about. And she had the following to say. She said the governor has made some mistakes in the past.

REED: Right.

REICH: Some mistakes in the past? Now there were rumors about cocaine, there's the puzzling circumstance of his service in the Texas Air National Guard -- he only serve a very small fraction of the six years. Are -- what else is likely to come out here, Ralph?

REED: Well, I think that kind of question shows why the American people are ready to turn the page on the Clinton era and ready to have a fresh start in Washington. Look, I just -- I have to say with all due respect, Mr. Secretary, I wouldn't agree with your characterization of either Governor Bush's or Karen's remarks. She was specifically asked whether he had ever been arrested before other than this episode and one when he was at Yale involving a Christmas wreath, with which he was never charged, and she said absolutely not.

And let me just say this. I think this is very important. I'm a parent and a father of four small children. And I don't want someone, including Governor Bush, whom I strongly support, to run for office and have to go through some self-abnegating catalog of every mistake they've ever made in their lives. I would point out that Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Fatherhood Initiative have both said that when it comes to these kind of mistakes in your youth, when you're teaching your children and you're modeling proper behavior, you shouldn't go out there and go through every episode, because they'll say, well, Dad did it, why can't I?

I think the governor did the right thing. I think he's going to be rewarded at the polls on Tuesday with a big victory.

MATALIN: Peter, let me pick up with you on where Secretary Reich left off, because Karen Hughes today raised serious issues about the Clinton-Gore era, issues raised by the revelation here at the last minute.

Let's listen to what she had to say. While we're looking -- after that, then we're going to take a look at where Bush is rallying in Morgantown.


KAREN HUGHES, BUSH COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I think the American people are tired of this kind of "gotcha" politics. They're tired of this kind of last-minute dirty tricks. And I think the Democrats owe the American people an explanation.


MATALIN: OK, if not that, Peter -- and I hope you don't mind being overseen here by Bush's rally going on in Morgantown, but let's say that -- and Secretary Daley did say that the Gore campaign had nothing to do with this Gore delegate's release of the information, but he didn't repudiate it. Aren't -- isn't that what people are moving on in this final chapter of the campaign? They're just sick of the politics of personal destruction. If you didn't do it...


MATALIN: ... don't you think you should have repudiated it?

FENN: ... the last ad that he's running in this country. George W. Bush, goes right at the integrity, honesty of Al Gore. The whole campaign has been based on character assassination against Al Gore. The -- you know, but this isn't about whether James Lee Witt went on a plane trip to Texas.

This is an incident 24 years ago. I don't care about the incident. What I care about is in "The New Republic" that came out before this. He was quoted as saying, no, I've never been arrested after 1968. That was untrue. He has refused for a year and a half to answer any questions, any questions at all about his...


... about illegal drug use. He has refused...

MATALIN: Peter, you can shout, but you can't lie.

FENN: Let me just finish. I'm going to finish.

MATALIN: Peter, you can't lie.

FENN: I'm not lying about anything.

MATALIN: That's not true. The only quote on the record was that he has had a poor record when he was a youth.

FENN: No, sir. That is not correct.

MATALIN: That's the quote...

FENN: I'm sorry. But today, Slater was asked about this. He said that he had a confrontation on the airplane with Karen Hughes, and he said he told me no.

MATALIN: Slater didn't write that.

FENN: And then she said, oh, gee, oh, gee, well, wasn't it off the record? And he said, no, absolutely not, it was not off the record. But the point is George W. Bush's truthfulness is being called into question and it should be, because he has not been truthful about the National Guard and how he leapfrogged 500 people to get in, whether -- what he did when he ran a campaign in Alabama.

MATALIN: This is your great closing message, tearing down the other guy.

FENN: No, no.

MATALIN: If you're so -- feel so positive about your issues and your message and your vision, why are you ending the campaign tearing Bush down?

FENN: Let me read to you -- let me read to you the co-chair -- the co-chair of the Republican National Committee, Pat Harrison, was asked on an online chat. "Can you tell the American people if Governor Bush has anything to hide to the American people and can you give your word that we, the American people, won't find out anything before the election?" This was two days ago.

She says: "Governor Bush believes so strongly that it is a time for a leader to tell the truth, he ends every speech by promising to uphold the honor of the office. He has nothing to hide."

Uh, sorry, Mary, wrong.

MATALIN: Jeez, this is a losing closing argument, but you can get in all of this. Tonight's online audience vote is Bush's 1976 DUI -- is Bush's 1976 DUI arrest a relevant campaign issue? Tell us at Watch for the results a little bit later when we come back. Believe it or not, there is other political news going on, and as we go to this break, let's hear what the candidate's father has to say about this 11th-hour revelation.


GEORGE H. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look, I didn't ride in here on a watermelon truck. Something like this four days before an election, come on, give me a break here.

This man is strong, he's honest. I heard what Gordon said about him, and this little hiccup here at the end of this campaign. Stood up, took responsibility, changed his life.




REICH: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Robert Reich, filling in for Bill Press tonight. The topic tonight is integrity, character, whether it is relevant that someone did not disclose an arrest for drunken driving 24 years ago when they were 30 years old. It's the buzz of Washington, the buzz of the press, perhaps the buzz of the nation: the most and closest race we have seen for president in 40 years. Something like this just might tip the balance.

And our guest tonight discussing whether there is any relevance to this, whether it does cast doubt on the dignity and character of George W. Bush, our guests tonight, Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition and Bush adviser, and also Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist and a Gore supporter.

And Ralph reed, simple question for you this time. Would you advise -- you are an adviser to George W. -- would you advise George W. to do a -- a Checkers kind of 1952 Richard Nixon mea culpa? If this storm doesn't die down, if this goes on through Sunday, should George W. stand up there in front of America and say, look, I'm sorry I did it, I should have disclosed it earlier, I didn't, it's not big deal? Should he do that?

REED: Well, the advice that I give is obviously confidential, but let me just say generically that I don't think this story has those kinds of legs. This is an episode that is almost a quarter of a century old. This is a man who had a significant change of -- life- changing experience at the age of 40 when he gave up alcohol for good, hasn't touched a drop since, had a very transformational faith experience that he speaks about very eloquently and very transparently. It's made him a great father, a loving husband, and one of America's most outstanding public servants.

I have to tell you, Mr. Secretary, I don't think it's going to be necessary. What was necessary is what he did last night. He told the truth. He accepted responsibility, and he said let's get back to the issues. And I think that's what the American people are hungering for tonight. I think there's a lot more buzz about this in the Boston to Washington corridor than there is out there in the heartland of America. And I'm confident they're going to elect him next Tuesday, because they want to restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office again.

REICH: Well, we will find out very shortly, Ralph. In fact, we'll find out what the polls are going to show very shortly, if there's any -- if there's any consequence here. By the way, your former organization, the Christian Coalition, has endorsed some fairly tough drunk-driving laws, as I understand it.

REED: Yes.

REICH: But here's something I find very peculiar, and maybe you can explain it to me. Now, the vice presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, Dick Cheney, has publicly admitted to two arrests for drunk driving. We have now the revelations that the presidential candidate, George W. Bush, has been arrested for drunk driving. You know, drunk driving is a serious matter, is it not? I mean, should we take this seriously?

REED: Yes, I think we should take it seriously, but I think what we ought to do is we ought to rely on the authorities and the experts in this area. And that is that if you're trying to make sure that young people do the right thing, and don't drink and drive, then the important thing is to send that powerful message, both with tough laws, with education that teaches them responsibility in schools. That's why Governor Bush wants to triple federal funding for character education. That's why he wants to increase the amount of money that we spend on abstinence.

And finally, we need intact families that reinforce that message at home.

What we don't need, Mr. Secretary, is to turn our politics into a "Peyton Place" where we line decent and good men and women up and put a gun to their head and force them to reveal every single mistake, every single episode from their past.

I think the American people are...

FENN: Let me -- if I can get in...

REED: I the American people are sick of it, and they're rejecting...

FENN: I agree with Ralph. I agree with Ralph.

MATALIN: Peter, let me....

FENN: But let me just make one point on this.

MATALIN: Peter, make it quick, please.

FENN: I'll make it very quick. If he does not tell the truth to "The Dallas Morning News" reporter, what would he do if he had to fill out his own job application in Texas.

A Texas friend of mine sent it...

MATALIN: He didn't -- oh, please stop, Peter. You know what? You're too good for this.

FENN: Have you ever been arrested? If yes, please explain.

This is his application...

MATALIN: He did not lie to a Dallas reporter.


Peter, Peter...

FENN: The Dallas reporter says he did. My point is he asks precisely these questions on his application...

REED: Wait a minute. If he said that, why didn't he report it?

FENN: ... for work in Texas.

REED: Why didn't he report it when the conversation took place, though?

FENN: It is reported -- it is reported in the...



FENN: ... in the paper last week, "The New Republic."

REED: No, there's only one -- there's only one published report where he was asked the question. It's "The Houston Chronicle"; he said, I didn't lead a perfect youth.

FENN: He has been ducking, ducking, ducking this whole time. He has tried to make personal issues.


REED: You're desperate.

MATALIN: If you're not desperate...


FENN: He's not telling the truth about a patients bill of rights, which he vetoed. He doesn't tell the truth about his social security plan where a trillion dollars is pulled out.


MATALIN: No, that's a flat-out lie, Peter. Let's just move on to another subject because I disagree vehemently with Robert Reich that is the only buzz in the interplanetary system.

Last night on "LARRY KING LIVE" a very, very big notification from Ross Perot that he endorses a man whom he did not endorse in 1994, that Bush, and he gave My bush big fits in 1992. And here's why he's endorsing a man whose family he's been against many years. Let's take a listen from "LKL" last night.


ROSS PEROT, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Looking at both of the candidates, I have included because he has demonstrated the ability be a person who knows how to administer and governor and have the responsibilities at the state level that the president has at the national level.


MATALIN: Bush gets re-elected in Texas by 70 percent of the vote. Gore is in Tennessee his home state the second time in ten days. The people who know him best like him the least.


FENN: For 220,000 kids, instead of giving them health, he gives an emergency tax rebates to the oil companies. Look, here's a guy, poor Ross Perot, he didn't do very well on the debate on this network with Al Gore. He doesn't like Al Gore. He called that Mickey Mouse. You know, it didn't effect his decision at all. If that didn't affect his decision, this is not a political talk show.


MATALIN: That's the end. That's the end, boys. We appreciate your being here on a Friday night. Clearly, Peter Fenn going down in flames. Thank you Ralph Reed. May the best man win. And when we come back, we'll give you the results of our online poll and your thoughts on whether or not this issue is relevant.

Stay tuned for that and Professor Reich's and my closing comments and we'll be bumping out with live shots of Governor Bush's Morgantown, West Virginia Rally.


MATALIN: Now for the results of tonight's online audience vote. Earlier we asked you whether Bush's 1976 DUI arrest is a relevant campaign issue: 68 percent of you said no while 32 percent of you said yes, and that might just make Professor Reich, your total vote count in the end here.

People are saying loud and clear here it's time to end the era of politics of personal destruction. And what Gore should have said today, he should have said there's no place in 21st century politics for this kind of last-minute, irrelevant revelations.

This is about the issues. This is the biggest election and vote in our lifetimes. I mean he should have repudiated that Gore delegate instead of continuing this era of the politics of personal destruction. People are not with you, professor.


REICH: Well, wait a minute. I agree with you. We should not have an era off personal discussion. But what galls me is that you have these Republicans who for years have been sanctimonious, holier- than-thou, looking at Clinton and then at Gore, and saying you guys have no moral authority at all.

You are untrustworthy. You have not disclosed this. You haven't disclosed that. And then suddenly, when there is a finding of a failure to disclose, oh, it's terrible, you should never do anything like that. It is character assassination. From the left, from the lugubrious left, Robert Reich is here, and thank you, good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And from the righteous right for good reason, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again. Have a wonderful weekend. And join us again next week for more election CROSSFIRE.



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