Five days before the 2000 election, disclosure of a 24-year-old ticket for driving under the influence threatened Gov. George W. Bush's front-running presidential campaign. Instead of Bush winning comfortably, the DUI news made the election so close it took more than a month — and a Supreme Court ruling — to confirm his triumph.
Had Bush disclosed the matter a year or two earlier, it likely would have been a one-week wonder, causing minimal damage.
His experience should serve as a lesson for White House hopefuls: Deal with any potential problems well before the campaign in which you're going to run. Every four years, even the savviest politicians discover that the intensity and pressures of presidential campaigns are far different from races for other offices.
In contrast, disclosures in the John Heilemann-Mark Halperin 2012 campaign book "Double Down" could, if accurate, create problems for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie unless he deals with them well before 2016. That's because Christie, or any presidential candidate, has to assume that anything damaging in one's background, even if previously reported, could become a hot disclosure — probably at an inconvenient time.
In vetting Christie for a possible vice-presidential nomination in 2012, Heilemann and Halperin disclosed, Mitt Romney's aides "were stunned by the garish controversies lurking in the shadows of his record."
According to the book, top Romney aide Beth Myers said, more than once, that Christie staff's "response was, in effect, 'Why do we need to give you that piece of information?'" Myers told her team, "We have to assume if they're not answering, it's because the answer is bad."
The issues involving Christie included:
A 2010 Department of Justice inspector general's investigation cited him as "the U.S. attorney who most often exceeded the government (travel expense) rate without adequate justification," including stays at swank hotels.
Christie's work as a lobbyist on behalf of the Securities Industry Association "at a time when Bernie Madoff was a senior SIA official — and sought an exemption from New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Act."
His alleged "decision to steer hefty government contracts to donors and political allies like former Attorney General John Ashcroft."
A 1994 defamation lawsuit against Christie stemming from a local race and a 2008 settlement of SEC civil charges in which his brother, Todd, "acknowledged making 'hundreds of trades in which customers had been systematically overcharged.’ ”
Additional concerns such as "other lobbying clients, his investments overseas" and his temperament and health.
Given the intense examinations involved in presidential campaigns, Christie would be wise to direct his aides to undertake their own careful examination now to ensure that he controls any disclosures.
Candidate George W. Bush showed what not to do, saying things like, "When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish" but declining to provide specifics. Then, on Nov. 2, 2000, he acknowledged pleading guilty in 1976 to driving under the influence in Maine, confirming a TV report there based on information from a local lawyer and active Democrat.
Bush strategist Karl Rove contended later that the disclosure cost Bush the popular vote and four or five states in an election ultimately decided by his disputed capture of Florida. "Of the things I would redo in the 2000 election, making a timely announcement about Bush's DUI would top the list," Rove wrote in his memoir, "Courage and Consequence."
The warning for 2016 candidates is clear!
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.