Bush's Secret Strategy

George W. Bush long has tried to avoid questions about the days when, as he puts it, "I was young and irresponsible." Before last week one of his closest shaves came in September 1996, when he was called for jury duty in the Travis County Court of Law--a jurisdiction with a heavy docket of DWI cases. Bush suggested he was raring to go. "If you're going to live in a democracy... you need to participate," he told reporters.

Privately, Bush's legal team was worried. A few days before his appearance, NEWSWEEK has learned, staffer Patricia McDaniel was called to a meeting with Bush's chief counsel, Al Gonzales. What sort of questions would Bush face as a potential juror, he wanted to know. McDaniel had worked for years as a defense lawyer on DWI cases. In court papers filed in an unrelated case last year, McDaniel said she was asked to give "legal advice regarding the possible exposure of the Governor in answering personal questions about his background."

Bush almost certainly would have faced one question: had he ever been arrested for drunken driving? Even the standard jury questionnaire, submitted by Bush's office, came close. It asked if he had "ever been accused, or a complainant... in a criminal case." The answer was left blank. Still, on Sept. 30, 1996, Bush showed up at the courthouse, again professing his eagerness to serve. The case of the day involved a topless dancer at an Austin nightclub called Sugar's. She was on trial for DWI.

While Bush chatted with reporters in the corridor, Gonzales consulted with the judge in chambers. Gonzales raised an unusual argument: as governor, Bush had a potential conflict because he one day might be asked to pardon the defendant. As a courtesy, Travis County prosecutor Ken Oden told NEWSWEEK, he agreed to let the governor off the hook. And defense attorney David Wahlberg agreed to make the motion. Reporters duly noted that the defense had bounced Bush. The governor--who aides say "never sought to deceive"--walked into the sunlight proclaiming that he was "glad to do my duty."