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Assessing Bush's Convictions


Saturday, Nov. 04, 2000

The current flap over George Bush's 1976 DUI conviction is a perfect window onto both the sorry state of our political culture and how it is covered in the press.

Here we have a story about a candidate for the most important office in the world having been convicted of a misdemeanor 24 years ago. One might have thought that those covering the story would have been most interested in some of the following questions:

1) Should the conviction of a crime involving a reckless disregard for the safety of others be a factor in assessing Bush's presidential candidacy, or do the many intervening years and Bush's conversion to abstinence negate the importance of this incident?

2) Do we care that Bush has hidden this conviction from public view, even as he has lambasted his opponent for being insufficiently honest and forthright (Remember that line about "no controlling legal authority")?

3) And what about the hypocrisy factor — ever present, it seems, in modern politics? Bush fashions himself as the candidate of "personal responsibility." That's an admirable notion. But what kind of example does it set, hiding a criminal conviction while running for President?

But, no, with a press corps more focused on process than substance, these questions take a backseat to the question of who leaked Bush's criminal record and whether this is some sort of "dirty trick" by the Democrats. Even if Vice-president Gore's campaign did plant the story (and it appears not to have been involved), how can this be a "dirty trick?"

As with so many matters in public life today, the cover-up of an embarrassing event inevitably becomes far more importance than the event itself (Just ask Bill Clinton). Most fair-minded people would probably agree that a 24 year-old DUI conviction is newsworthy and reflects negatively on a candidate, but frankly it isn't that big a deal. Somewhat more troubling is Bush's self-conscious choice not to reveal this information early in his candidacy.

But the darkest cloud looming over Bush's head — one which may long post-date the campaign — is whether Bush lied about his criminal record in any sworn documents, such as insurance forms or business license applications, to name two of many possibilities. No doubt, as the press exhausts its interviews with the source for the DUI story, they will descend on this angle next. I can already envision the first special prosecution of a Bush Administration.

Furthermore, Bush's I-did-it-for-my-kids excuse doesn't wash with the other main theme of his response to the DUI story: that there's really nothing new or important about the revelation of his conviction. After all, he's admitted making mistakes; this is just one of them. Well, if the DUI is no big deal, why couldn't Bush explain the situation to his kids?

The moral of this story, of course, is the moral of every petty scandal these days. If only Bush had come clean at the outset and simply relied on the forgiving nature of the American people, everything would have turned out better. Perhaps on Tuesday they will show their unforgiving side.

Edward Lazarus is legal correspondent for Talk Magazine and also a FindLaw columnist.

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