WASHINGTON -- President Bush angrily denied yesterday that he had taken part in secret Paris meetings to exploit the Iranian hostage crisis for political advantage and he pleaded with reporters to stop "rumor-mongering."
"Was I ever in Paris in 1980? Definitively, definitely no," Mr. Bush declared when quizzed about the allegation during an Oval Office photo session.
He refused to elaborate or to take further questions about whether the Iranians had met with others active in the 1980 presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan, with whom Mr. Bush shared the Republican ticket as the vice-presidential nominee.
"That's all I'm going to tell you," he snapped. "But please print it. Let's try and stop this rumor-mongering that's going on. . . . Stop repeating rumors over and over again. It's sickening."
Mr. Bush has often denied similar allegations in the past, but his touchiness yesterday appeared to signal frustration that the charges are being revived long after he thought them put to rest.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater echoed the president's impatient tone with broadsides at Gary Sick, onetime aide to President Jimmy Carter who leveled the latest charges, and at congressional Democrats considering whether to launch a full-scale inquiry.
"Gary Sick is the Kitty Kelley of foreign policy," Mr. Fitzwater told reporters in an unflattering reference to the author of several gossip-laden exposes, including a current best-seller on Nancy Reagan.
Mr. Sick contends there is strong circumstantial evidence to support decade-old suspicions that Reagan campaign officials persuaded Iran to delay the release of 52 U.S. hostages it was holding until after the November 1980 election in order not to bolster the political standing of Mr. Carter, whom many voters blamed for failing to win the hostages' freedom.
Mr. Bush's alleged involvement included attending meetings in Paris in October 1980 at which the Iranians agreed not to release the hostages before the Nov. 4 election, according to information Mr. Sick said he discovered during two years of painstaking research.
As it happened, the hostages were not released until moments after Mr. Reagan was sworn in January 1981.
"It's all trash," said Mr. Fitzwater, who warned that Congress would "look foolish" if it pursued Mr. Sick's charges.
"The president was on the campaign every day of that period," Mr. Fitzwater said. "He had a press corps with him. He never went to Paris, and if anybody wants to give me a date, I can prove it."
The spokesman asserted that Mr. Sick, a National Security Council staff member during the Carter years who is now on the faculty of Columbia University, owes Mr. Bush "an apology."
President Bush and his spokesman, having generally refused to discuss the topic in the past, chose to offer their comments in the wake of publicity generated by Mr. Sick's appearance on Capitol Hill Thursday, where he discussed his findings at a private meeting with Democrats.
Two congressmen have already requested a formal investigation of the charges, and House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash, said he has asked some colleagues to advise him on whether such a probe should be launched.
Such an inquiry could have enormous political consequences if it revealed impropriety by Mr. Bush, but it could also boomerang just as forcefully on the Democrats if it appears to be a baseless partisan attack on a popular Republican president.