Former Criminal Speaks Out on Bush's DUI

News & Politics

So George W. is a convicted criminal like myself?

I must admit I smiled when I heard the news last night that 24 years ago Gov. George Bush pleaded guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol. He was 30 years old at the time.

Early in his presidential campaign, the governor was asked to explain the rumors that he'd had a drug problem in the '60s and '70s. He always insisted on not talking about his past. But during his hastily arranged news conference after the news broke about his DUI conviction, he said that he'd "been straight" with the voters on this issue. "I've oftentimes said that years ago I made some mistakes."

I too made some mistakes in my youth. They're called felonies. I robbed several banks and went to prison. Today, if I fill out a job application I have to mark "Yes" to the question, "Have you been convicted of a crime?" Some ex-prisoners lose all right to anonymity when they get out of prison and have to register with their local police.

The irony, of course, is that Bush preaches "personal responsibility," a code-phrase in the Republican Party for "Punish even the tiniest crime and don't let any offender get away with anything." But until the age of 40 the governor himself was ruled by a habit that clouded his judgment, made him irresponsible and took away his volition, yet he has kept his DUI a secret until now. (His wife had to call their daughters at college to tell them.)

Don't get me wrong: I don't think that Bush got away with anything or should pay a higher price for his past criminal conviction. Frankly, I think ex-offenders like the governor and I should not be defined by our past mistakes.

However, too many of our fellow citizens are not forgiven their youthful transgressions as easily as Bush expects the public to forgive his. Nearly 7,000 college students will lose federal aid eligibility for a simple drug-possession charge in their past, under the drug-conviction restriction of the Higher Education Act passed by Congress in 1998.

Hundreds of thousands of ex-offenders have permanently lost their right to vote because of substance abuse convictions. (I haven't been able to vote since I got out of prison four years ago, but at least I get to vote after next year.) So why should youthful mistakes trail some people while those of others are easily forgiven?

My eyes glaze over whenever Bush talks about his compassion. He told us he "agonized" and thought long and hard about the fate of all the men executed in his state. But his own official schedule -- released to the public several weeks ago -- shows that he spent an average of 15 minutes on each case. He allowed more time for his naps and daily jogs.

News of his DUI conviction makes his indifference to death row inmates all the more disturbing. Most research shows that alcohol is present in 60 percent or more of all murders. Bush -- who quit drinking because he said alcohol "was beginning to compete for my affections" -- understands intimately what it means to drink and have one's judgment horribly impaired.

Yet his insistence on putting to death men whose substance abuse may have strongly influenced their criminal behavior shows a lapse in his much-vaunted compassion. I tell you that this unwillingness to forgive someone what you've been forgiven yourself is anti-compassion.

Bush talks about healing our communities and bringing people together. A symposium held by the Attorney General in 1998 on Alcohol Abuse and Crime concluded that alcohol should be included in the national dialogue about substance abuse. President Clinton recently signed a law that imposed a stricter standard for drunken driving. But the governor did not lend his alcohol abuse narrative to this important cause. Why?

A spokesperson for the Bush campaign said the governor didn't disclose the DUI episode because it "did not set a good example." But stories of redemption and change are always good examples and can, in fact, offer hope to others caught up in the same cycle of alcohol dependence. This is why Bush's silence on the issue of his substance abuse demonstrates a lack of moral leadership.

The Bible says, "Judge not least you be judged yourself." Governor Bush asks us not to hold his past alcoholic abuse against him. I say let's hold him to the same standard he uses to judge others.

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