WASHINGTON - Reform Party founder Ross Perot endorsed George W. Bush for president Thursday, eight years after his own White House bid helped turn Bush's father out of office.
''Here is a man that I have never heard anybody criticize once for improper conduct as governor, for improper taking of political funds for payoffs for impropriety in the governor's mansion or at any time,'' Perot, who hails from Bush's home state of Texas, said on CNN's ''Larry King Live.''
The Texas billionaire's endorsement came the same night that Bush was forced to admit he was arrested and pleaded guilty nearly 25 years ago to driving under the influence of alcohol near his family's summer home in Maine. News organizations had received copies of the 1976 police report.
Of the arrest, Perot said: ''It should not have occurred. There's no excuse.'' But he also said it was ''a minor thing'' compared with goings-on in the White House during the last eight years.
Bush was asked about Perot's endorsement after a news conference in Wisconsin, in which he admitted the DUI arrest and said he regretted that it happened.
''I've taken up support from a lot of voters who aren't necessarily associated with the Republican Party and I'm proud to have him on my team,'' he said of Perot.
The interview was Perot's first about presidential politics since he last addressed the topic during a July 1999 Reform Party convention in Dearborn, Mich.
''The longer I watched and the longer I watched the things that people get away with and are not held accountable for, the more I felt I needed to speak out,'' said the 70-year-old Perot, who was his usual feisty self and barely let King get in a word edgewise.
Perot had harsh words for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore and the media. He said reporters were being tougher on Bush's drunken driving arrest than on Gore's fund-raising practices and other allegations.
''I can't take it any longer and I would like to see the press wake up,'' he said.
In 1993, Gore and Perot appeared on King's show to debate the North American Free Trade Agreement. Gore was widely believed to have outperformed his opponent.
Perot said he endorsed Democrat Ann Richards for Texas governor, whom Bush defeated in 1994. But Bush has proven himself, especially with his record on improving education in the state, he said.
Perot's advice has been sought by many former supporters who ''feel a deep obligation to go and vote but have no sense of direction of who to vote for,'' said Russ Verney, the former Reform Party chairman who remains close to Perot.
''Ross has been receiving unbelievable amounts of communication about, 'What do we do, Ross?' And I think maybe that is what's causing him to finally decide to say something,'' Verney said. ''They (the voters) are seeing the spin and they're uninspired.''
Perot used ''Larry King Live'' as the vehicle to launch his first presidential candidacy as an independent in February 1992. He received 19 percent of the vote that year, prompting many Republicans to blame him for President Bush's loss to Bill Clinton.
Perot made a second presidential run in 1996 but failed to match his previous benchmark. He received only 8.5 percent of the vote, but the showing was strong enough to earn his newly formed Reform Party about $12.6 million in federal campaign funds for this year's election.
Conservative Pat Buchanan claimed the rights to that money after a legal battle over who the party's rightful presidential candidate was - him or Iowa physicist John Hagelin. The Federal Election Commission made that decision in September, awarding Buchanan the money.
Despite pleas by supporters, Perot stayed out of the public battle over his party. He declined to respond when Buchanan accused him of masterminding a ''sabotage effort'' to destroy the Buchanan campaign.
Perot did submit an affidavit affirming his support for Hagelin.