BALTIMORE (AP) – President Bush is talking more openly lately about his old drinking habit, and on Tuesday 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, apparently referring to the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-steps program. Actually, it is 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 sketchy 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 particularly boozy 40th-birthday celebration — 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.

In September 2003, Bush was talking at a Houston community center on the same topic he was on Tuesday — the value of federal support for religious charities that address societal ills. "I know firsthand what it takes to quit drinking, and it takes something other than a textbook or a manual," he said.

His checkered relationship with booze comes up frequently in his conversations, but often as a joke or an aside. Bush is known to have said that the subject is never too far from his mind.

Last year, for instance, while traveling the country promoting ethanol created from biowaste as an alternative energy source, he'd often find himself in laboratories with beakers full of the alcohol-based substance. At a North Carolina plant, Bush held a container up to his nose for a mock sniff and then shook his head at the bemused reaction from his press corps. "I quit drinking in 1986," he said, laughing.

Recently, though, his talk has grown more revealing. Whether it's because he has no more elections to worry about, or has become convinced of the positive impact he could have, or some other reason, they are likely to be welcome words for those facing similar problems, coming from the most powerful man in the world.

In December, Bush cited his experience with alcohol as he encouraged young recovering addicts visiting the White House to stick with their fight. "Your president made the same kind of choice and I had to quit drinking, and addiction competes for your affection … you fall in love with alcohol," Bush said during the meeting, according to a behind-the-scenes account from ABC News.

His statements at Jericho seemed to go a little further. White House aides would not discuss the evolution.

Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said research shows that frank talk about addiction from prominent people helps enormously. Any kind of substance abuse still is so stigmatized — even though it is largely the result of genetic and environmental factors that are outside a person's control — that 85 percent of addicts don't seek treatment, she said. An admission from someone like Bush shows the disease does not discriminate and can encourage more to get help. "Very few people have the courage to say, 'I am an addict, or 'I was an addict,'" she said.

John Schwarzlose, head of the Betty Ford Center, a substance abuse treatment hospital in Rancho Mirage, Calif., said Bush's new openness might well be inspirational. But he said that is far overshadowed by his disappointment that Bush has missed opportunities as a leader and policymaker to aggressively tackle substance abuse in America.

Schwarzlose said he found the same fault with Bill Clinton, who also said he was familiar with the pain of addiction because of the drug problems of his half brother, Roger.

"I love that he (Bush) said that today," Schwarzlose said. "But where's the action? … It's really too late."