Gov. George W. Bush, who has for years referred vaguely to his "irresponsible youth," acknowledged yesterday that he pleaded guilty in 1976 to driving under the influence of alcohol when he was 30 years old and visiting Maine.
"I'm not proud of that," Bush said at a hurriedly called press conference in Chicago, where he was campaigning. He also questioned the timing of the revelation five days before the election.
Several hours after the story broke, a spokeswoman for Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, 59, said Cheney also had two driving-while-intoxicated offenses when he was in his early 20s, in 1962 and 1963. Press secretary Juleanna Glover Weiss said she did not have details. Cheney disclosed the incidents privately in 1989, when President Bush nominated him to be secretary of defense.
Bush said he had not disclosed his arrest because "I didn't want to talk about this in front of my daughters." Bush's wife, Laura, told the 18-year-old twins last night, spokeswoman Karen Hughes said.
Bush pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor and his driving privileges in Maine were suspended, although he retained his Texas license. Bush, 54, says he gave up alcohol in July 1986.
"I've oftentimes said that years ago I made some mistakes. I occasionally drank too much, and I did on that night," he said. "I regret that it happened."
The Sept. 4, 1976, incident first was reported by Fox News, based on a report prepared by a local affiliate in Maine. Bush said that he had chosen to keep the incident private, but his hand was forced by news outlets.
Suggesting that politics may have played a role in the incident surfacing now, Bush said, "I think that's an interesting question. Why now? - (five) days before the election. I've got my suspicions."
Chris Lehane, spokesman for Vice President Al Gore's campaign, said, "We had absolutely nothing to do with this."
Bush's decision not to volunteer the information early in his campaign represented a calculated political risk by a candidate for president in an era when personal information of that nature is now routinely revealed. Some Bush advisers long have known about the incident, according to a campaign spokesman, but the governor preferred to try to keep it private.
According to The Washington Post, spokesmen for two Portland, Maine, television stations said their reporters had come across the incident while covering an unrelated arson case yesterday when they overheard hallway conversations about the arrest. Reporters for the stations, WPXT-TV and WCSH-TV, then pursued the story and were able to find several documents confirming the arrest, as well as the name of the arresting officer. Other news services said only that the reporters received a courthouse tip.
Aides said the 1976 incident occurred when Bush was visiting his parents at Kennebunkport. Australian tennis player John Newcombe and Newcombe's wife were in the car, as was Bush's sister Dorothy.
For months, the GOP nominee has refused to answer questions about any "youthful indiscretions," including whether he used illegal drugs. He continued to avoid specifics last night, saying he has "been straightforward with the people, saying that I used to drink too much in the past. I'm straightforward with people saying I don't drink now."
Gore has admitted smoking marijuana in the early '70s.
Bush's campaign staff jumped into action, tracking down the arresting officer, Calvin Bridges.
Bridges said that he recalls spotting a car slipping briefly onto the shoulder.
Bush failed a road sobriety test and a second test in the police station, registering a 0.10 blood-alcohol level - the 1976 legal standard, Bridges said.
Asked about Bush's demeanor, the retired officer said, "The man was, and I say this without being facetious, a picture of integrity. He gave no resistance. He was very cooperative."
Bridges, 51, said Bush spent about 90 minutes in custody.
WPXT-TV quoted Bridges as saying that while he was working a detail in 1993, former President Bush and his wife, Barbara, "thanked me for the way I handled it." They said it was "part of the learning process" for their son, he said.
Political experts said it's not clear what effect the news will have.
"If it's something that the Bush family can be proved to have hidden in an irresponsible or an underhanded way, then maybe it will create some mileage (for the Gore campaign)," said Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
"If the Democrats really push this, I think it would probably create a sympathy thing for Bush," said Emory University political science professor Merle Black.
Fox News reported that the suspension was for two years, and that Bush's record was "cleansed" in 1993. A Texas official said that an offense from that long ago would not normally appear on a check of a Texas driver's license.
Bush was governor in 1996 when he was called for jury service in a drunken-driving case, but was struck from the panel by a defense attorney before the potential jury was questioned on their histories of drinking and driving. Reporters then asked if he had ever been arrested for drunken driving.
"I do not have a perfect record as a youth," he said. "When I was young, I did a lot of foolish things. But I will tell you this, I urge people not to drink and drive. It's an important message for all people to hear."
Material from The Dallas Morning News and The Washington Post is included in this report.