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Missing the DUI Story
by Brent Cunningham
January/February 2001
Columbia Journalism Review

Six biographers missed the story, even though one believed it was out there. So did some of the country's best reporters, despite nearly two years of digging. One reporter was close enough to know he missed something, and another had the story, but allowed an editor to talk him out of running it.

Finally, five days before the election, a prominent Maine Democrat leaked the story to a Portland television reporter who put it on the air. That was how the country learned about George W. Bush's drunk-driving arrest in 1976. The impact of the story is debatable. It knocked Bush off message for forty-eight hours, but the story came late in the contest and thus did not get the attention it would have earlier. And given all we know -- thanks to those biographers and reporters -- about Bush's drinking before he quit at age forty, news of a DUI arrest wasn't exactly shocking.

Regardless of the impact, the various ways this story was missed make a curious, and perhaps cautionary, tale.

Among the rush of scandalous rumors that flooded Bill Minutaglio as he cranked out First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty in eleven months was a tip on a drunk-driving charge. Minutaglio, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News, says he and his researcher blew time and money running down these rumors -- including the DUI. Most of them turned out to be untrue. "We ran court record checks in nearly every place Bush had ever lived for any length of time," he says, "Boston-Cambridge, cities in Alabama, Texas."

But not Kennebunkport, Maine, where the Bush family repairs each August to its seaside mansion. "We talked about going to Kennebunkport," Minutaglio says, "but we assumed the Bushes owned that town and there was no way a police officer would be bold enough to pop the son of the town's most prominent resident. It would be like busting the son of the Wizard of Oz."

Had Minutaglio searched the records at the courthouse in Biddeford, Maine, without a docket number or dates he would have found the going rough. Misdemeanor case files in Maine are generally destroyed after five years, and all that remains is the official case history. None of this is computerized. So even if you knew the arrest happened in the mid-1970s, it would require searching the indices of a hundred or so docket books, says Jeff Henthorn, a regional court administrator in Maine. At the Maine Secretary of State's office in Augusta, reporters might not have fared any better. Driving records are available to anyone who has the name and birth date of their subject. But reporters would have had to know to ask specifically for Bush's complete driving history to find evidence of the twenty-four-year-old charge. Otherwise, they would get the office's standard ten-year report.

*

Still, there was an easy way to get the story: walk into the Kennebunkport police station and ask Chief Robert Sullivan if he had anything on George W. Bush. "We have a record of our charges, but not the full case file," says Sullivan. "A phone call is all it would have taken." Ted Cohen, a twenty-five year veteran of the Portland Press Herald, was the only reporter who did that. He had the story cold back in July. "Nothing more than instinct got me started on this," Cohen says. "With all the questions about his cocaine use, I wondered if he had ever gotten into trouble in Kennebunkport." But Cohen's editor spiked the story, claiming it was too old and irrelevant in light of Bush's teetotaling since 1986. Cohen did not protest the decision, but says now he wishes he had. "I guess the lesson is, print the damn news," he says.

Wayne Slater, the Austin bureau chief of The Dallas Morning News, thinks he nearly had the DUI story straight from Bush's mouth back in 1998, when Bush was running for re-election in Texas. Slater wrote about Bush's arrest for stealing a holiday wreath while a student at Yale. Soon after that story ran, Morning News reporters turned up a document from Bush's National Guard days that indicated he had been convicted of a crime. Slater asked Bush about it, and was told it was the wreath incident. He pressed, asking Bush if there were other arrests. Bush told him there were not. But then, Slater says, Bush started to elaborate. "He said something like, 'Well, let's talk about this.'" That's when Slater says the Bush spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, cut him off. "It was clear to me that he wanted to amend his answer," Slater says. "But at some point after that they made the decision to not talk about it."

The Bush camp's silence about the candidate's past gave reporters fits. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times reporter who wrote ten lengthy pieces on Bush's life, says he was surprised to learn how much a candidate can keep hidden about his life before entering public office if he, his family, and friends close ranks. "There are a lot of things -- even important things -- that can elude biographers and reporters," he says. For example, Kristof says he had been investigating Bush for months when he got a call from someone who asked what he thought about Bush's summer in Alaska. "I said, 'What are you talking about? He never spent a summer in Alaska.'" But in fact, Bush spent the summer between his two years at Harvard business school working for a small airline in Fairbanks. "That was an entire three-month period that was just lost," says Kristof. "So the notion that a one-hour DUI thing slipped by doesn't surprise me at all. I think there are still things we don't know about George W. Bush."

No one interviewed for this article is happy the drunk-driving story was missed. But none considered it an unpardonable sin that they had not gone to see Chief Robert Sullivan in Kennebunkport, either. Ultimately, a profile is an imperfect attempt to draw someone broadly, through anecdote and observation. Drinking was a major issue in Bush's life, and the political press clearly showed us this. Minutaglio says the drunk-driving story "validated the reporting I had done on the patterns of drinking in his life that were often unflattering and at times dangerous." But, he is quick to add, the story should have been known.

Cunningham is CJR's associate editor.

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