Here's the very special story of a tennis champion and a future president of the United States who spent an evening binge drinking and got caught by the cops. That was in 1976 - John Newcombe, 32, was in the twilight of his career, while George W. Bush, 30, was far from seeing himself in the White House a quarter of a century later.
Early November 2000. We were a few days away from the U.S. presidential election and the fight was fierce between the Democratic clan, led by Al Gore, and the Republicans and their candidate George W. Bush. The election promised to be tight and it certainly delivered: Bush won in controversy after more than a month recounting the votes and many legal remedies for only a handful of votes. "W" came out of it quite well, especially as the story of an evening of binge drinking which took place 24 years earlier nearly took him down. Because the press found out that, in his youth, the candidate had problems with alcohol, even to the point of being arrested drunk driving…
A press conference and media in dire straits
How did the information reach the press? No one knows. The Democrats promised that they had nothing to do with it. But still remains that Bush, up against the wall, was forced to organize a last minute press conference to confess: yes, he drove one evening in 1976 under the influence of alcohol and no, he’s not proud of it. He even told the media the identity of his drinking buddy. His name: John Newcombe. Far from unknown, the Australian, who won seven Grand Slam titles in the 60’s and 70’s, has one of the most celebrated track records in the history of tennis. A true legend of the yellow ball; famous for his generous “Tom Selleck” moustache and for his status as a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1986.
A few hours before the Bush press conference, Newcombe received a call in his office from a mutual acquaintance, a certain Peter Roussel, former Press Secretary to George Bush Sr., another man who was part of that infamous evening. He warned him that the information was going to come out. Newcombe said: "I called Angie (his wife, also present in 1976, Ed), I told her to prepare a few bags and that in 20 minutes, I would be back home, ready to leave for our ranch in the Hunter Valley" a remote corner of Australia, far from the media pressure. The retired champion had reason to be suspicious, “an hour later, there were already three teams of American journalists stationed in front of my residence". Leaving to take refuge in the countryside, Newcombe didn't reveal to the media how he ended up spending the evening with George W. Bush drunk driving.
A $150 fine and a suspended license
The details of the story emerged later, after the election of the 43rd President of the United States was confirmed. On the 6th of September 1976, it was Labour Day and the Bush family was in Kennebunkport, Maine State, where they have a summer residence. A tennis fan, Bush Sr., then head of the CIA, invited John Newcombe to come and hit a few balls. The champion and "W”, who was almost the same age, got along so well that they decided to go for a few drinks in the local pub in the evening. Dorothy, the youngest of the family, then aged 17, was also there. A few beers later, it was time to return to the residence. Angie, the wife of John Newcombe, who drank less than the two men, proposed that she drive. "No, I'm fit to drive," replied George.
"George wanted to show how a Texan could out drink an Aussie" Newcombe told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2010. Going, back to 1976, there's only one possible road - a road where a local policeman is waiting. The late hour is perfect to catch drunk drivers in flagrante delicto. Including the offspring of one of the most powerful families in the country. Newcombe: "When the cop realized who he had stopped, it was too late, the ticket was already issued.” Because Bush obviously failed the balance tests and was fined $ 150 and had his license suspended.” "George was very cooperative," remembers his Australian friend, a fellow partygoer who remained silent on this story until he was specifically asked. Until that crucial month of November 2000, when this old story almost changed an American presidential election…
By Régis Delanoë