George Herbert Walker Bush’s death is getting rave reviews. Crass, but true. The 41st president’s approval numbers must be off the charts, higher even, perhaps, than in the closing days of the 1991 Gulf War, when they reached 88 percent.
That historic popularity tanked, of course. War verve dissipated, the economy stalled, and a young Bill Clinton showed that he could also charm the voters. By October ’92, it seemed that all but the most loyal Republicans had something lousy to say about Bush.
The outpouring of esteem for Bush 41 now isn’t likely to fade. In death we can fully appreciate the value of a man, and that of Bush is incalculable in its totality — president, vice president, CIA director, UN ambassador, China envoy, RNC chairman, congressman and U.S. combat aviator in World War II.
Now’s not the time to make the point, but one can’t help wondering whether the outpouring of gratitude for Bush springs, in part, from a thirst for the type of conduct among leaders he exemplified. If Bush represented the rendered values of his day, the current White House occupant is the suet of the Me Generation. Let’s leave it at that.
Three of my cousins and a sister worked for President Bush. Each, no doubt, has a story or 10 to tell. I worked on Bush’s ’88 campaign as an unpaid press intern, despite being a closet Jack Kemp fan, and met the president only once. It was in 1991. The president and Barbara Bush were in NYC for a fundraiser and a never-to-be-named friend on the White House advance team sneaked me into the VIP photo line. I stood in line, nervously rehearsing what I would say.
I nailed it, greeting Mrs. Bush first in a debatable etiquette call. I mumbled to the president what I had come up with, maintaining eye contact and a firm handshake, thanked them for their courtesy and stepped out of the curtained section feeling pretty darned good about myself . . .
Until I felt the hand on my shoulder halfway across the ballroom. It was the president’s. He had run me down. “Bill,” he said with a chuckle, “you left before we could take the picture.” I cherish the photo still, with a wince. I can’t help believing that as the shutter clicked, one or both Bushes was thinking, “How does this dolt have $10,000 to give away?” Neither would say it, of course. Not even to each other. That simply isn’t done.
I miss the Bushes already. I miss the old rules.
William F.B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.