WASHINGTON, Aug. 22, 1991 (UPI) -- President Bush hailed as a hero Boris Yeltsin, once dismissed by official Washington as a clown and a lush.
Congressional leaders Wednesday dubbed the president of the Russian republic the Soviet Union's new power broker.
The remarkable rehabilitation of the image of the Moscow maverick was capped when Bush publicly and warmly praised Yeltsin's ''tremendous courage'' in defying the leaders of the Kremlin coup.
Only two years ago, Bush avoided an Oval Office meeting with the visiting Yeltsin, who was hustled in and out of the White House through a side door.
Yeltsin managed only a brief chat with the president in the office of National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.
Bush did meet with Yeltsin here two months ago but the administration downplayed the significance of the meeting in order to avoid offending President Mikhail Gorbachev.
But after Yeltsin climbed atop an army tank in Moscow to lead the resistance to the coup attempt by communist hardliners, it was Bush who wanted to talk to him. So Bush phoned Yeltsin in his besieged government building to offer his moral support.
Bush then staged a news conference to tell the world that Yeltsin has ''enormous stature'' and evidently enjoys the support of the Soviet people.
Asked about Gorbachev's future, Bush said, ''Well, who knows?'' but added that Yeltsin supported his restoration to power.
Bush later told reporters that he had spoken with Gorbachev, who assured him ''freedom and democracy have prevailed.''
If that turns out to be true, the leaders of the world's two superpowers can thank Yeltsin, whose career has been a series of attention-grabbing moves that constantly rival those of Gorbachev, his former mentor.
Some observers, noting Gorbachev's growing unpopularity, see Yeltsin as the only leader capable of salvaging Soviet democracy.
It is a remarkable politicial comeback for Yeltsin less than three years after he was booted out of top Communist Party posts for speaking up to Gorbachev. He quit the party last summer.
There were disputed press reports charging that Yeltsin went on a drinking and spending spree through the United States.
And Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin claimed Yeltsin was found wandering, dripping wet, in an area of elite private dachas outside Moscow, saying someone had tried to assassinate him.
Soviet citizens laughed off the story, and gave Yeltsin the largest vote of any candidate for the Russian Republic's Parliament.
A bear of a man with a shock of gray hair, Yeltsin had become a sharp critic of Gorbachev, blamed for the nation's economic woes. But Yeltsin has insisted he is not after Gorbachev's job.
But, for better or worse, the political careers of Yeltsin and Gorbachev, born 29 days apart in 1931, appear to be irrevocably linked.