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Why I cherish photo with the Bushes

William F. B. O'Reilly worked on Bush's '88

William F. B. O'Reilly 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 just after Desert Storm. The president and Mrs. Bush were in New York for a fundraiser. Credit: Handout

George Herbert Walker Bush’s death is getting rave reviews. Crass, but true.

The 41st President’s numbers must be off the charts; higher even, perhaps, than in the closing days of the hitchless 1991 Gulf War when they reached an astounding 88 percent.

That historic popularity tanked, of course. War verve dissipated, the economy stalled, Ross Perot ginned up a populist revolt and a young Bill Clinton showed that he could also charm the pants off voters. By October ’92, it seemed that all but the most loyal Republicans had something lousy to say about Bush 41.

The outpouring of esteem for the late president now isn’t likely to fade. In death we can finally and fully appreciate the relative value of a man, and that of Bush, to his nation and the world at large, is incalculable in its totality — president, vice president, CIA director, U.N. ambassador, China envoy, Republican National Committee chairman, congressman . . . and, oh, at age 18, youngest U.S. combat aviator in World War II; shot down, fished out and returned to the skies.

Bush’s resume — his compilation of extraordinary daily deeds — has been there all along, but only with his passing can we stand back properly and say, “wow!” Or, as Shakespeare did, “This was a man.”

Bush was something else, too: a classic New England blue blood who personified patrician values that used to be admired. What’s now called white privilege, the Connecticut Bush Family, and others like them, viewed as sacred obligation. To those whom much is given, much is expected. That unspoken code of noblesse oblige came with behavioral duties, too — truthfulness, industry, humility, temperance, honor. If you erred, you atoned for your mistakes and corrected them. Remember that?

Now’s not the time to make the point, but one can’t help wondering whether the outpouring of gratitude for Bush 41 springs, in part, from a thirst for the type of personal 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 cousins and a sister did work for President Bush. My cousin Christopher served as a speechwriter, John and Aloise were campaign press officers and my sister Patricia worked on a Bush TV ad team. 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 just after Desert Storm. The president and Barbara Bush were in New York for a fundraiser and a dear, never-to-be-named friend on the White House advance team insisted on sneaking me into the VIP photo line. Presidents are giant figures, but Bush seemed especially gigantic after the Gulf War. I stood in line, Luca Brasi-like, nervously rehearsing what I would say.

I nailed it, greeting Mrs. Bush first in a debatable etiquette call. I mumbled to the president whatever I had come up with, taking pains to maintain 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 great 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 ever 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.