By Linda Whelan Geist
for The Vandalia Leade
She’s met six presidents, the Pope, Princess Diana and George Clooney and considers Mikhail Gorbachev a friend.
Since 1994, Martinsburg native Jean Becker has served as chief of staff for the 88-year-old 41st President of the United States, George Bush.
Becker met the President and First Lady Barbara Bush when she covered the 1988 presidential election for USA Today newspaper, in addition to serving as a Page One editor.
She was assigned the responsibility of interviewing each of the 15 primary candidates and their spouses in their homes, including the Bushes.
One of her assignments prior to the general election was to obtain a weekly column from Barbara Bush and Kitty Dukakis, the wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis. She got to know the women well, and particularly liked Barbara Bush’s trademark no-nonsense, outspoken approach.
After the 1988 election, the First Lady’s chief of staff offered Becker a job as deputy press secretary. Becker had grown up a Democrat in Martinsburg, and graduated from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism with a bachelor’s of journalism and a bachelor of arts in political science during the post-Watergate years. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to take the $5,000 a year pay cut and leave a job she loved to work for the First Lady. Her father put it in perspective for her during Christmas break in her hometown. “Dad thought it was so silly that the wife of the President of the United States had offered me a job and I couldn’t decide,” she said.
Her work for Mrs. Bush would take her cross country and across the world. “For a farm girl from Martinsburg, Mo., it was an amazing experience,” she said.
When she graduated in 1974 as valedictorian from Community R-VI High School, she had enjoyed two family vacations other than trips to the Ozarks, each designed with a specific purpose in mind-to see the mountains and see the ocean.
When “41” lost his re-election bid to President Bill Clinton, she planned to take a job with the Chicago Sun-Times.
She had her plane ticket in hand, when Mrs. Bush asked her upstairs at the White House to her quarters. A prolific and insightful writer, Mrs. Bush had planned to write a book, and didn’t want a ghostwriter. She did, however, need someone to be a fact checker and researcher and Becker was someone she trusted.
The Bush team and Becker headed back to the Bushes’ beloved Houston, Texas. She helped Mrs. Bush with her No. 1 bestseller autobiography, “Barbara Bush, A Memoir” and later assisted Mrs. Bush with a follow-up book, “Reflections” published in 2003.
President Bush’s then chief of staff retired and President Bush asked Becker to take the job until he figured out what to do. She had enjoyed her summers with the Bushes at Walker’s Point retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine. Another summer of views of sailboats lazily bobbing on the Atlantic Ocean and dinner parties with lobster bisque and clam chowder beckoned her.
Apparently the President liked the way things were too and one summer led to another. “That was in 1994. I guess any day now he might walk in my office and say, ‘Oh, I’ve hired a chief of staff,’” she said.
She supervises his office operations in Texas and Maine, and helped oversee the opening of the George Bush Presidential Library in 1997. She took a leave of absence in 1999 to edit and research, “All the Best, George Bush; My Life in Letters and Other Writings.”
The Bushes and Becker live in Texas most of the year and it is home for both. “I love Texas, I love Texans. They have big hearts, big ideas, and they have this wonderful ‘can-do’ attitude. They think everything is possible in life, and it’s kind of infectious,” she said.
Like her father, President Bush embodies that ‘think-big’ attitude and he taught it to Becker. The Bushes also have shaped her political leanings to the Republican Party, although she tells the President that she has never voted a straight ticket.
There’s one thing that life with the Bushes has not changed, and that’s Becker’s allegiance to the St. Louis Cardinals. Bush 41 cannot understand why she can’t become an Astros fan. “We go round and round about that,” she says. It’s even worse when Bush 43, a Texas Rangers fan, is there.
Cardinals’ third baseman David Freese, famous for his 11th inning walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, is at the top of the list of the people she would yet like to meet. “I’d like to thank him for Game 6,” she said.
Faith, family, baseball, and patriotism are the anchors of the Bush legacy, and Becker has been honored to share in that.
One of her most memorable trips with Bush 41 followed the “Bucket List” he made on Jan. 2, 2001.
At the top was a trip to ChiChi Jima, a remote Pacific island where he was shot down while serving as a World War II naval aviator. Bush and Becker were flown to the volcanic island by a Japanese helicopter pilot and were welcomed by crowds of excited and fascinated Japanese.
The day’s events were emotional for Bush, and those who watched, as he mourned the loss of his two crew members by placing a memorial wreath into the water at the spot where their jet fighter and that of six others were shot down.
President Bush’s “Bucket List” year was marked by 9-11 and watching his son lead the country through unprecedented waters.
Becker remembers the day well. She was in Washington, D.C. to attend a meeting. She called the Secret Service to find out where the Bushes were, since she knew they were flying at the time one of the planes hit the Twin Towers. The Secret Service could not reveal their location as she had called on an open line, but they assured her that the Bushes were in a secure location. Likewise, the Bushes were trying to make contact with her to check her safety. Her hotel was on lockdown and the National Guard allowed only medical personnel and people trying to reach small children to leave. Later that evening, the Bushes were able to get through on her cell phone and told her they were staying at a Hampton Inn outside of Milwaukee. “I was shocked. I told him I thought they were in a secure location. He told me it felt pretty secure!” she recalled. The next day she rented a car, and offered rides to others who were going to Philadelphia, part of a carpooling recommendation made due to shortages of rental cars as many fled the city. “I drove through New York City. When I saw Ground Zero, I had to pull over to the side of I-95 and cry. I was not prepared to see the billowing smoke where the World Trade Center stood,” she said.
The tragedy was one of several Becker has experienced in her job with the Bushes and also as a reporter. Her big break at USA Today newspaper came when a string of tornadoes struck the Ohio River Valley and destroyed a string of communities, including a large group of Amish settlements. Her editor tried to reach others on that Sunday morning, and Becker was the first to answer. “I didn’t have a clue on how to get there. I had never bought a plane ticket or rented a car,” she remembered, but her J-School background and rural roots led her there, and helped her to allow the Amish to tell their story.
She became USA Today’s disaster editor after that and also reported on the weather. Known for her ability to read radar maps, President Bush calls her daily to ask for a weather report, especially on days when fishing appeals to him. “He knows not to doubt me,” she said.
In 1986, Becker was assigned to cover the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster when the shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, leading to the deaths of its seven crew members. She was rushed onto the, private plane of the owner of USA Today immediately, without packing, and was there for two weeks, in what she calls her “Challenger clothes.” During a meeting at the Kennedy Space Center, she looked at the launch pad, and “it was bathed in white light,” and she began crying. She lists that experience as the most profound of her life.
Her most exciting story was when she covered Nancy Reagan’s trip to Moscow, Becker’s first trip abroad. Traveling on the White House press plane with network reporters and being with First Lady Reagan in the Red Square and at Leningrad (St. Petersburg) were career highlights. “That was an amazing thing to get to do,” she said.
Despite being retired, President Bush was not one to sit idle.
He forged a friendship with President Bill Clinton, and the two are affectionately called “The Odd Couple” by Mrs. Bush. The presidents have teamed up on many causes, including their 2005 visits to four countries destroyed by an Indian Ocean tsunami.
It was on those long flights that President Clinton taught Becker to play the card game, “Oh Hell.” The trip and card games were the beginning of longstanding friendships between Becker, the Clintons, and their staffs.
President Bush enjoys the friendly banter with President Clinton, who is known for his larger-than-life persona. Coming from a small-town, Becker sometimes is still overwhelmed by those who surround her daily life. She related an event in the news recently when a world leader was rumored to be dead. She and the staff talked about a report made by the French press, and decided to tell President Bush that despite their efforts, they had not been able to confirm the reports. “Let’s give him a call. I think I have his cell phone,” the President said nonchalantly.
“Are you dead or alive?” he asked. “There are rumors that you are dead.” Following the call, he said, “Put the word out he’s still alive.”
Read the rest of the story by purchasing an electronic edition or purchasing a copy of this week’s issue.