WASHINGTON — President Bush, declaring the American flag a "unique national symbol," today called for a constitutional amendment to set aside last week's Supreme Court decision and forbid flag desecration.
"As President, I will uphold our precious right to dissent, but burning the flag goes too far, and I want to see that matter remedied," he said at a news conference.
His announcement came as efforts were advancing in Congress to condemn last week's 5-4 decision extending First Amendment free speech rights to protesters who burn the flag.
Bush, who made patriotism, the flag and the pledge of allegiance a central theme in his 1988 presidential campaign, asserted, "I think respect for the flag transcends political party, and I think what I've said here is American. It isn't Republican or Democrat, it isn't liberal or conservative."
He said adding an amendment to the Constitution would be the only foolproof way to set aside the Supreme Court ruling, which nullified flag-desecration laws in 48 states.
The process is a lengthy one, however, requiring two-thirds votes in both House and Senate and then ratification by no fewer than 38 state legislatures. In the Constitution's 200-year history, thousands of amendments have been proposed but only 26 have been ratified.
House Republican leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois said he supports Bush's call even though he harbors an "instinctive conservative's dislike" of amending the Constitution.
The court decision "leaves me with no alternative," Michel said.
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), one of numerous lawmakers to propose constitutional amendments to overturn the decision, said, "With the President's backing I intend to move forward expeditiously. This egregious decision by the court must be corrected."
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), who has criticized the court decision while voicing objections to amending the Constitution to overturn it, reacted angrily to suggestions that Republicans could make flag burning a partisan issue if Democrats fail to support a constitutional amendment.
"I'm sure people will play politics with any emotional issue," Foley said. But he added that anyone who does so with the flag issue would be "playing the most cynical politics . . . for the most base and crass political purposes."
In his 1988 campaign, Bush frequently blasted Democratic opponent Gov. Michael S. Dukakis for vetoing a Massachusetts law requiring public school teachers to lead their classes in the pledge of allegiance.
Bush said during the campaign that, if he had been governor, he would have found ways to make the law stick. He reinforced his theme by visiting a flag factory.
Today, asked if he had used the flag for partisan purposes during that campaign, Bush responded: "Everything I did last year was for the purpose of advancing my--everything I did politically--advancing my election. But I didn't put it on the basis that Republicans are for the flag and Democrats are not."