KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- President Bush angrily denounced yesterday as a "lie" an allegation that he once had an affair with a top aide.
"I'm outraged" even to be asked such a "sleazy" question, Mr. Bush told a reporter who sought his comment on the long-standing rumor, recycled in a recently published book. "I don't like it, and I'm not going to respond other than to say it's a lie."
Later, in an interview broadcast last night, Mr. Bush refused to respond when asked pointedly if he had ever had an extramarital affair.
It was the first time he has been publicly confronted with unsubstantiated allegations of infidelity, and specifically with a report that a now-deceased U.S. ambassador claimed to have helped arrange a tryst for Mr. Bush and his appointments secretary in Switzerland in 1984.
The new allegations are contained in a soon-to-be-published biography of a Washington lobbyist, "The Power House," by Susan B. Trento, which contains a passing reference to Jennifer Fitzgerald, now 60, as "Bush's longtime companion." A footnote suggests the two had a romantic liaison in Geneva in 1984, when Mr. Bush was vice president.
The president was stone-faced and furious when the issue came up at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that concluded their very friendly two days of talks here.
Barbara Bush, who was standing nearby on the grounds of the family's oceanside compound, at first looked puzzled, then intent, then incredulous and finally disgusted.
"In this kind of crazy climate we're in, why, I expect it," Mr. Bush said, referring to the atmosphere of a re-election battle he has often described as ugly. "But I don't like it."
In fact, the Bush campaign has been expecting a question of this nature for some time. Mr. Bush was dogged with similar rumors in 1988. And Hillary Clinton, wife of Democratic nominee Bill Clinton, made a veiled reference to rumors about the president's personal life several months ago when her own husband's fidelity was being questioned.
In the book, the information on the alleged tryst was credited to an interview with Louis Fields, a former U.S. ambassador to the disarmament talks in Geneva, who died in 1988. Mr. Fields reportedly claimed to have made the arrangements for Mr. Bush to share adjoining bedrooms with Ms. Fitzgerald at a guest house while Mrs. Bush was back in the states on a book promotion tour.
"It became clear to me that the vice president and Ms. Fitzgerald were romantically involved and this was not a business visit," the late ambassador was quoted as saying. The book's allegations had largely been ignored by the news media until yesterday, when the New YorkPost repeated the account under banner headlines. Other news organizations then picked it up.
On "CBS This Morning," co-host Harry Smith asked Mary Matalin, a senior Bush campaign aide, about accusations that Mr. Bush "had an affair with an assistant while he was on a mission in Geneva."
Two hours later, Mr. Bush was confronted by CNN White House reporter Mary Tillotson during his news conference, which the worldwide cable network was carrying live.
"Mr. Bush, as uncomfortable as the subject is, I would think it's one which you'd feel the necessity to respond [to], because you've said that family values and character are likely to be important in the presidential campaign," said Ms. Tillotson, who went on to refer to the story in the Post.
"I'm not going to take any sleazy questions like that from CNN. I am very disappointed that you would ask such a question of me," the president responded.
Later, after Mr. Bush returned to the White House, he was questioned again about marital infidelity, this time in an interview with NBC. Asked directly whether he ever had an affair, he refused to answer.
"I'm not going to take any sleaze questions," Mr. Bush said. "You're perpetuating the sleaze by even asking the question, to say nothing of asking it in the Oval Office. And I don't think you ought to do that and I'm not going to answer the question."
Mr. Clinton has taken a similar tack on the infidelity question, while specifically denying the claims of Gennifer Flowers, an Arkansas woman who says she had a longtime affair with him.
Mr. Clinton told reporters yesterday that he did not believe questions about adultery had any place in a presidential campaign.
"I didn't like it when it was done to me and I don't like it when it is done to" Mr. Bush, the governor said.
Ms. Fitzgerald, now deputy chief of protocol at the State Department, was traveling yesterday in Ecuador on government business and could not be reached for comment.
But Bush campaign officials accused the Clinton campaign of planting the new round of attacks, though they failed to supply any proof. Clinton aides denied the claim.
"Now we know who is in the sleaze-peddling business," charged Torie Clarke, press secretary for the Bush campaign.
She was alluding to a flap last week in which Mr. Bush had to disavow the comments of Ms. Matalin, his deputy campaign manager, after she highlighted allegations of marital infidelity against Mr. Clinton.
Ms. Clarke said Clinton supporters had been "faxing around for weeks" excerpts from "The Power House."
The Bush campaign pointed to an Aug. 3 newscast on CNN, which reported that unnamed Democrats "not connected to the Clinton campaign" were distributing material from the book alleging past "sexual indiscretions" by Mr. Bush.
For more than a decade, various news organizations have investigated unsubstantiated allegations that Mr. Bush had an affair with Ms. Fitzgerald, a divorcee who began working for him in the mid-1970s. Until recently, few publications spread the allegations or mentioned her by name, though a number have addressed the question of Mr. Bush's fidelity to his wife.