WASHINGTON -- President Bush savored his 'finest hour' in delivering a triumphant address Wednesday to a joint session of Congress hailing a victory in the Persian Gulf War that has catapulted his personal popularity to record levels.
Bush, addressing a packed House chamber, was interupted by applause from senators and House members from both parties 22 times during his speech just seven weeks after he barely managed to scrape up enough votes in Congress for authorizing military force to dislodge Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Twice during his appearance, Republican lawmakers chanted 'Bush, Bush, Bush,' as the president beamed from the podium.
'It was the president at his best,' said Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the assistant House GOP leader. 'I think that he clearly felt the speech emotionally. I think that he believes deeply in what he said.'
Many congressional Republicans, in a none-too-subtle reminder of the strong Democratic opposition to authorizing the war, added an additional partisan edge to the affair, wearing large yellow buttons reading 'I voted with the president' and emblazoned witha tiny American flag.
In addition to standing as a huge military victory for the United States and its coalition allies, the war has given Bush a huge political boost, with the president enjoying approval ratings hovering around 90 percent -- a 40 percent increase since October and the budget fiasco. And this comes less than a year from the first party primaries and caucuses of the 1992 presidential race.
'I don't think the American people are interested in politics,' said Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., House democratic leader. 'I think they're interested in unity, they're interested in celebrating this achievement and they're interested in moving together, if at all possible, to solve the domestic and foreign challenges the country now faces.'
Senate GOP leader Robert Dole of Kansas said, 'The smashing victory in the Persian Gulf crisis is President Bush's finest hour ... Congress stood as one to congratulate him for a job well done.'
Bush spread the congratulations, lauding Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Desert Storm, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. After the speech, Bush embraced Powell, who was sitting in the front row.
Bush was invited to address the Congress by House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., and Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell of Maine, who had led the effort against the Jan. 12 resolution authorizing military force against Iraq, instead pushing a resolution relying on continued economic sanctions to strangle the regime of Saddam Hussein. The Senate approved the use of force by a narrow 52-27 vote, with just 10 of 56 Democrats siding with Bush. The House endorsed military force 250-183 with greater bipartisan backing.
The Democrats opted against delivering their usual televised formal response to Bush's speech. Mitchell said 'no response is necessary' on such an 'extraordinary occasion.' In his introduction to the Congress, Foley offered Bush 'warmest congratulations' on the 'brilliant victory.'
Democratic leaders offered no apologies for their Jan. 12 votes.
'I am perfectly comfortable with the vote I cast,' Foley said. '.. . I feel no sense of regret about it ... I feel very confident that in the same circumstances I would do that again.'
But Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said, 'Let's put it this way: on the most important vote in 40 years, every democratic leader in the House and the Senate opposed the president after he had gotten the support of the whole civilized world, the Soviet Union and the U.N. ... I think they're going to answer for that vote.'
'There is no question the president is receiving very strong, actually record levels or near record levels of support in the country -- and there is nothing wrong with that,' Foley said. '... But the election is a long way off and there are many other problems that need to be addressed, both by the president and by Congress, between now and then.'
Some Democrats criticized partisan posturing in the aftermath of the war. Earlier Wednesday, one Democrat who voted for the use of force, Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, went to the Senate floor to accuse some Republicans of firing off 'cheap shots' against Democrats in order to earn a 'fast political buck off one of the nation's finest moments.'
Gingrich called Gore's charge 'very silly,' saying, 'How can you have what may be the most important vote in a member (of Congress's) career and not say that that's a vote the member has to be able to explain. If the war had gone badly, I can assure you that every liberal Democrat would have been attacking us for it.'
The evening marked Bush's second appearance before a joint session of Congress in five weeks.
Security in and around the Capitol was somewhat looser than the unprecedented measures imposed for the president's Jan. 29 State of the Union address two weeks into the Persian Gulf War when police, guarding against a terrorist attack, sealed off several square miles around the Capitol and had gas masks ready outside the House chamber.