How a breath test in the Seventies became prime-time news

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The revelation of George W Bush's 24 year old drink-driving conviction leapt into the public domain just in time for peak television viewing time on Thursday night via an affiliate of NBC television in the north-eastern state of Maine.

The revelation of George W Bush's 24 year old drink-driving conviction leapt into the public domain just in time for peak television viewing time on Thursday night via an affiliate of NBC television in the north-eastern state of Maine.

The facts as they came out were these: Mr Bush was pulled over by an off-duty policeman late in the evening of 4 September 1976, about a mile from the family summer home at Walker's Point in Kennebunkport - a secluded haunt of the privileged on the southern Maine coast.

His sister, Dorothy (who is out campaigning for him), was in the car with him, as was tennis player John Newcombe and his wife. Mr Bush admitted that he had been drinking beer at a bar. He failed a breath test and was taken to the police station where he underwent a second test, which he also failed, but he was not detained overnight.

He was subsequently convicted of drink-driving - classified as a "misdemeanour", not a crime - fined $150 (now £104) and had his licence suspended in Maine for "some period". The ban did not extend to any other state, so he was able to continue driving legally in Texas, where he lived at the time.

This detailed account was provided by the Bush campaign on Thursday evening within an hour of the first television report, in line with the recommended public relations policy of getting all the information out, once a problem surfaces. The campaign also named the police officer as Calvin Bridges, now 51. Interviewed by the Associated Press, he said he had spotted the car going very slowly and saw it slip briefly on to the hard shoulder.

Asked about Mr Bush's response to being stopped, he said: "The man was, and I say this without being facetious, a picture of integrity. He gave no resistance. He was very cooperative."

While the facts of the case appear to be clear and uncontested, many questions surround the way the information became public less than five days before polling day. First confirmation came from a Maine lawyer named Tom Connolly, who was a delegate to this year's Democratic Party convention and a former candidate for state governor. But Erin Fehlau, the reporter who broke the story, said that he had not come looking for her and she did not believe she had been "set up".

She says that she was in the county courthouse in Portland in Maine as part of her reporters' duties, when a policeman mentioned to her that he had overheard a group of lawyers talking about George W Bush and a drink-driving conviction. She made checks, then happened to see one of the lawyers concerned as he left the courthouse. He gave her a copy of the arrest docket, which she verified through court records.

A spokesman for WCSH-TV, the NBC affiliate that broke the story, said that the station had not received any tip-off from the Democratic Party or anyone associated with it.

Mr Connolly confirmed yesterday that he was the immediate source of the revelation. He said he had heard the story from "a public figure", whom he declined to identify, who had heard it in turn from someone who was in the court at Biddeford, near Kennebunkport, when the case came up. This person was apparently incensed that Mr Bush was campaigning on a platform of personal responsibility and integrity while keeping his conviction under wraps with apparent success.

While the Democratic Party connection is clear, no direct link has been established with the Gore campaign. Chris Lehane, Mr Gore's campaign spokesman, insisted yesterday: "We had absolutely nothing to do with this."

From the moment the drink-driving disclosure surfaced, the ace was on in the media to establish whether Mr Bush had ever actually denied such a brush with the law, which would expose him to the same charge of lying that he has consistently levelled against Mr Gore. Aside from a general acknowledgement of a past drink problem, Mr Bush's only admitted legal problem until now was a formal warning for stealing a Christmas wreath as a student prank at Yale.

Yesterday, reporters recalled that earlier in the campaign, Mr Bush had been asked about - and denied - any arrest after 1968, but had appeared about to clarify that statement, when his spokesman, Karen Hughes, took him away from the conversation.

The Dallas Morning News reported yesterday that Mr Bush, already Governor of Texas, had been excused from jury service in 1996 at his own request. The case to be heard involved drink-driving and all jury candidates were to be questioned on their own records. Mr Bush was excused after his lawyer argued that, as Governor, he might be required to rule on an eventual clemency plea - a plea that was apparently accepted without further inquiry at the time.