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Guest Commentary: “Great But Also Good”

Pennsylvania’s Treasurer on the passing of his friend and mentor, George H. W. Bush

Pennsylvania’s Treasurer on the passing of his friend and mentor, George H. W. Bush

When I first got to know George H. W. Bush, I said that he was the most decent public person I’d ever met.     

After a few years of knowing him, I eventually revised that to delete the “public” qualifier:  he might be the most decent person I’ve ever met, period.

I was head of the young National Constitution Center in 2007, my second stint in the job. I’d been brought back for round two with a specific purpose: find a new Chairman to replace the long-serving and legendary Jack Bogle, who was pulling back.

After weeks of brainstorming ideas, we came up with what we thought of as a moonshot: former president George H. W. Bush. For the Constitution Center, it would be a coup, instantly vaulting a young and insecure institution into genuinely national stature.

I like to think God has us live in the times and places where we’ll do the most good. But maybe the same thing is true of our dying. Maybe our going, as well as our coming, is for a purpose.

Trouble was, for Bush, it made absolutely no sense. He had just announced that, in his 80s, he was done with board service. He’d had some visits to the Constitution Center, but no deep obligation. There was no Bush donor or family member as our secret weapon. We were in Philadelphia, he was in Houston and Maine. He hated fundraising, which was much of what we needed.  

And yet…it intuitively seemed worth a shot. So we crafted our most persuasive letter, arguing simply that his lifetime ethic of service perfectly embodied our message, and we needed his help to shape a new generation of citizens. We conspired a little (maybe a lot) behind the scenes with his chief of staff, Jean Becker. And against all odds, I eventually found myself getting on the phone with a former Leader of the Free World, making our pitch.

I was stunned when he said, “Yes.” Because there was literally no good reason for him to agree.  Except…that to his core he completely agreed with everything we said about citizenship, thought the country needed what we were offering, and thought he could help.   

That was George H. W. Bush. When the bell of duty rang, he showed up, no matter what the hour or who was ringing it. The guy who lied about his age in World War II not to get out of service, but to get into it. The guy who liked to say “We” instead of “I.”

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For the Constitution Center, it worked out just as planned, totally changing the trajectory of the institution. He blew right through all the limitations on his role we’d proffered as inducements, diving into every aspect of the place, cheerfully doing all the things we promised he’d never have to.   

We’d told him, of course, we expected only his time, not his money. But at the first board meeting, there was a report on contributions by trustees. I saw his face cloud, could almost see him thinking “Well, I’m supposed to be the leader here, and leaders set an example….” At the coffee break, he hustled to his office, and came back to press a significant check into my hand.

For me, it was a remarkable experience of a remarkable man, who was so different from the caricature I’d known as a 25-year old voter in 1988.

Instead of tongue-tied syntax, he was effortlessly insightful and often eloquent.

Instead of a buttoned-up patrician, he was open and funny. I mean wickedly, hilariously, can’t-repeat-most-of-it funny. He once described a Prominent Historical Figure’s unpleasant personality as “just always seemed to have a pickle in the ass.” We shared a passion for fishing, and he once sent me a photo once of himself, posing in a tee shirt with a picture of a fish and the words, “Does this shirt make my Bass look fat?”

Instead of the starring-in-my-own-play vibe that comes with most pols, he was intrigued by life outside of any sense of himself. I’d given tours of the Constitution to scores of VIPs. George H. W. Bush was by far the most genuinely curious of them all, seeing all that history with an awestruck kid’s sense of wonder, not the “Where am I in this story?” take you’d expect.

But most of all, he was kind beyond measure, with a caring and decency that was profligate and indiscriminate.

Bush was wickedly, hilariously, can’t-repeat-most-of-it funny. He once described a Prominent Historical Figure’s unpleasant personality as “just always seemed to have a pickle in the ass.”

Once he called our office after hours to leave a message. He spoke with a staffer he hadn’t yet met and, of course, had a chat. He learned her father had died a few weeks prior. Within days, he sent her a handwritten condolence note.  

We had a board meeting at his library in College Station. I remember him standing in the Texas heat, 100 degrees at least, 7 pm at the end of a very long day, sweating through his suit. Why? Hours after the trustees and donors had left, he wanted to make sure all the Constitution Center staff had taxis to the airport.

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Larry Kent was our board vice-chair to Bush. He and I would have occasional working lunches with Bush to go over board business. They were usually at divey restaurants, where 41 always knew the names of the owner’s kids—and would make sure to send food over to his Secret Service detail.   

For me, it was the beginning of a friendship—and mentorship—that changed my life, and how I think about service. At first, I couldn’t figure out why George Bush was so gracious to me, a lifelong Democrat, and certainly nobody a former president needed to worry about. But that was before I really knew what made him tick.

I left the Constitution Center to run for federal office. And the Republican 41st President of the United States would regularly reach out to give me, the Democrat, advice and encouragement.   News that the Republican incumbent in my race had switched parties to become a Democrat brought my short-lived campaign to a strange and surreal end. That day, I couldn’t get many of my political “friends” to answer my calls.  

I’d given tours of the Constitution to scores of VIPs. Bush was by far the most genuinely curious of them all, seeing all that history with an awestruck kid’s sense of wonder, not the “Where am I in this story?” take you’d expect.

But George Bush? I didn’t have to call him; he was the first person to call me, within 10 minutes of hearing the news, to commiserate.

In the aftermath, he invited me to visit him to kick around my next step, shared that after a similar disappointment he tried diplomacy for a while, thought I should too, and said he wanted to help.    

I took the advice, and found myself being nominated by Barack Obama to serve as Ambassador to the UN for Management and Reform. 41 was delighted and then, when some prominent voices on the right started reflexively attacking me, pissed off. Another call: “I want to write a letter supporting you to the Senate.”

Who does this!? In what world does a former Republican president write a public letter on behalf of a Democratic nominee?  

George H. W. Bush, that’s who, whose world was all about country above party, about service above self, and about human connection and decency above all. A world where a defeated president, and a proud man, becomes friends with the upstart who beat him…to raise money for hurricane victims.

I’ve been thinking about that world a lot since Friday night. Maybe it’s not as lost and far away as we think.

The knowing of George H. W. Bush made me a better person. As the SNL version of him might have said “Not gonna be perfect. But better. Kinder. Nicer. Humbler.”

The having of George H. W. Bush made us a better country. The verdict of history on his presidency will be, I think, very kind. The masterful end to the Cold War, the generous spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the national unity and statecraft of the first Gulf War—his legacy is secure.

And maybe the dying of George H. W. Bush can make us an even better country still. I like to think God has us live in the times and places where we’ll do the most good. But maybe the same thing is true of our dying. Maybe our going, as well as our coming, is for a purpose.

If in this turbulent and noisy and angry moment of our history, the passing of this American, who was great but also good, causes all of us to honor him by resolving to be a bit more like him…to live a little more in his spirit of kindness, and character, and humility, and above all, decency…then George H. W. Bush will have done his last, and finest, public service to the country that he loved so much and so well for so long.

Joseph Torsella is the Pennsylvania State Treasurer for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Courtesy of Joseph Torsella

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