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Jewish World Review Nov. 7, 2000 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

John H. Fund

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The stink bomb that wasn’t defused -- WHEN DICK CHENEY was nominated to be defense secretary in 1989, he quickly volunteered to congressional vetters that in his twenties he was picked up twice for driving while intoxicated. Cheney handily won confirmation. He went on to become one of the architects of the victory in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and George W. Bush’s running mate earlier this year.

It would clearly have been better if Bush had followed Dick Cheney’s example. Political analyst Charlie Cook says that Bush should have picked a high school graduating class ceremony sometime last year to deliver a speech on the GOP leader’s favorite theme of personal responsibility. During the talk Bush could have mentioned some of the mistakes he has made in his life, including the driving under the influence incident in 1976. The media mavens would have flapped their gums about it for a day or so, much as they did over Al Gore’s 1988 revelation that he smoked marijuana several times. Then the incident would have been largely forgotten.

But Bush didn’t do that, so he will now have to deal with a political stink bomb thrown into the middle of his campaign by Tom Connolly, a former Democratic candidate for governor of Maine and Gore delegate to this year’s Democratic convention.

Bush says he kept quiet to spare his daughters, but by not ‘fessing up earlier he hasn’t spared voters from an ugly and vicious political finish to the campaign. While it’s clear that Bush should have gone public with this incident before, it’s not appropriate to blow the issue out of proportion. Even though there is no evidence that Bush was ever an alcoholic, I’ve no doubt some cable channel will run a weekend report on “problem drinkers” and alcoholism and how one never really recovers. Some learned expert will discuss how the stress of important jobs can often lead people back to the bottle. Records will be scoured to see if Bush ever lied about being arrested for drunken driving.

But was he really “arrested?” Remember that drunk driving back in 1976 was thought of differently than it is today. According to longtime Kennebunkport resident Peter Burr, in Maine back then drunk driving was considered a misdemeanor that was equivalent to driving 75 mph in a 35-mile-per-hour speed zone.

The penalty was about the same. Someone suspected of driving under the influence back then would not have been booked or fingerprinted. He would have been detained by being taken to a police station, where he would have been given a blood test and sent home. (No breathalyzer was in use at the time in Kennebunkport).

Since Bush was only in Maine to visit his parents, he probably returned home to Texas and simply sent in the ticket and $150 fine. His driving privileges were suspended in Maine for 30 days, but not in Texas. All in all, Bush could be excused for thinking he only got a “ticket” for drunk driving.

Of course, society’s view of drunk driving has changed over the last quarter century. Fines and penalties are much steeper, and bars are now often sued for allowing patrons to leave after they drink to excess. Bush’s conduct will be viewed more harshly today than it would have been even a few years ago. However, that doesn’t justify the media feeding frenzy taking place right now. “The American press has no sense of proportion,” says author and commentator Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. “The news is covered in World War III headlines. This is a 24-year-old event.”

But the networks are suckers for last-minute “gotcha” campaign stories. Remember the 1992 election between Gov. Bill Clinton and President Bush. On the Friday before the election, Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh indicted former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and claimed that then-Vice President George Bush had been “in the loop” on the Iran-Contra scandal decisions. The media jumped on that story and didn’t show much curiosity about whether Walsh acted properly (Department of Justice guidelines preclude pre-election indictments that could influence voting).

Of course, it’s possible there could be another shoe to drop about Bush’s “irresponsible” youth. But in the absence of proof that Bush has deceived the American people about who he is and where he came from, voters should let the media storm pass and then make up their minds pretty much the way they were before this story broke.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2000, John H. Fund