BALTIMORE - President Bush is talking more openly lately about his old drinking habit, and yesterday he offered perhaps his most pointed assessment yet by saying plainly that the term "addiction" had applied to him.
"Addiction is hard to overcome. As you might remember, I drank too much at one time in my life," Bush said during a visit to the Jericho Program, a project of Episcopal Community Services of Maryland that helps former prisoners deal with problems such as drug addiction so they can find jobs and reintegrate productively into society.
Bush spoke to reporters after meeting privately with two men who have graduated from Jericho's program and dealt with drug problems. During that session, which the White House allowed one reporter to attend, Bush spoke frankly about himself.
"I understand addiction, and I understand how a changed heart can help you deal with addiction," he told the two men. "There's some kind of commonality."
He asked Adolphus Mosely and Tom Boyd how they stopped using drugs - and then answered his own question.
"First is to recognize that there is a higher power," Bush said. "It helped me in my life. It helped me quit drinking."
"That's right, there is a higher power," Mosely said.
"Step One, right?" Bush said, referring to the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps program. Actually, it's the second step.
When the president spoke publicly, flanked by both men, it was plain that it was a powerful subject for him personally. Bush grew unusually somber and fixed an unbroken gaze on the cameras as he related the similarities between himself and the men in this East Baltimore neighborhood who are struggling to put their lives back together.
"These are men who were, in some ways, lost and lonely and found love and redemption at Jericho," Bush said. "Proud to be with you."
He hailed them for now being "reunited with their daughters." "Girls love their dad, especially a redeemed dad," said Bush, father of 26-year-old twins Jenna and Barbara.
The 61-year-old president decided to quit drinking the day after a 40th-birthday celebration on July 6, 1986. He has often credited both his Christian faith and vigorous exercise with giving him the discipline he needed to execute that decision and to keep to it since, with nonalcoholic beers the only indulgence he says he allows.
But when he was first running for president in 2000 and during his earlier years in office, Bush stuck to almost quaint code words when on the topic. He has never said publicly whether he was an alcoholic.
As was typical, Bush said during a November 2000 news conference in which he admitted pleading guilty in 1976 to drunken driving that he merely "occasionally drank too much" as a younger man. He told an interviewer that same year that alcohol "was beginning to compete for my affections" before he quit.