WASHINGTON -- President Bush capped an anxious day of lobbying on the telephone with members of the Senate Tuesday by making a quick call to his Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas.
'Congratulations,' White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater quoted Bush as telling Thomas minutes after the vote was finally in. 'You did a fine job.... You had the overwhelming support of the American people.'
Thomas barely enough support in the Senate. He was confirmed with just 52 votes, the narrowest margin ever for a member of the high court.
Fitzwater said, 'I don't think anybody was absolutely certain' of victory until roll call at 6 p.m., although an hour earlier it appeared as if Thomas would receive at least '51 or 52' votes.
Bush spent much of the day on the telephone, contacting senators and urging support of Thomas, whose candidacy was rocked last week by Anita Hill's allegations that he sexually harassed her a decade ago when she worked for him at two federal agencies. Thomas 'categorically' denied the allegations.
From the outset -- and to the anger of feminist groups -- Bush unconditionally backed his man, a fact of political life that may turn women against him in next year's re-election campaign.
'Loyalty is a virtue. Blind loyalty is a vice,' snapped John Katz, a member of the board of directors of the National Organization for Women.
NOW and other groups are particularly angry that Bush embraced Thomas as the one telling the truth even before Hill testified last Friday to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The White House maintained it played no role in the decision by Senate Republicans to attack Hill's credibility and to even suggest that the law school professor possibly suffered from illusions.
Deputy White House press secretary Judy Smith said that the only strategy the White House advanced had was 'to show support for Thomas' by putting out a statement each day during the Senate hearings and 'to focus on his character.'
Fitzwater said, 'I don't think there was any strategy, except to have Clarence Thomas present his case from the heart ... and that is what he did.'
Asked if the White House ever thought the Thomas nomination might be defeated, Fitzwater said, 'It was close all the way.'
Clearly, though, the White House was concerned Friday when Hill delivered detailed testimony against Thomas, who was her boss at the Education Deaprtment and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The White House declined to ever say whether it believed Hill was lying, and instead focused its comments on support for Thomas. 'He is the right man for the job,' Fitzwater said again Tuesday.
Bush, like Thomas, voiced concern about the overall Senate confirmation process. The president also said he would offer recommendations to improve it.
Fitzwater said the president and first lady watched the Senate confirmation vote on television in the White House study, and then called Thomas at his home in suburban Virginia.
The press secretary quoted Bush as telling Thomas: 'You have a lifetime of service to your coutry ahead. Well done.'
Bush took caution not to gloat about the victory, which left everyone bruised.
In a rather subdued statement, the president said: 'I am pleased that the Senate voted to confirm Judge Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. Judge Thomas has demonstrated to the Congress and to the nation that he is a man of honesty, dedication and commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law.
'The nation and the court benefit from having a man of principle who is sensitive to the problems and opportunities facing all Americans.
'I thank Senator Jack Danforth (R-Mo.) and other members of the Senate who helped guide this nomination through to confirmation.'