The incoming chief executive found a handwritten letter on his desk.
“You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck — George”
It was Jan. 20, 1993, the day William J. Clinton succeeded George H.W. Bush as president of the United States, following a long, unpleasant election.
“That was the essence of George Bush,” said Martinsburg native Jean Becker, who served as his chief of staff after he left office.
“He was one of the most principled, honorable, smartest people I’ve ever known,” she said. “He also drove me crazy for 25 years!”
Her 2021 book, The Man I Knew: The Amazing Story of George H.W. Bush’s Post-Presidency, illuminates how he approached life in the international spotlight and in the privacy of his home.
The book topped the New York Times Bestseller List for a week and remains popular.
“I started writing it because I had so many great stories to tell,” Ms. Becker stated. “Then, as I was writing, a lightbulb came on, and I realized that something more important was at work.
“What (Mr. Bush) gave us was a blueprint for a life well lived,” she said. “He showed us how to do it.”
“41’s” post-presidency offered insights into marriage, family, friendship, philanthropy and faith.
“A good friend once asked him to share some advice for young people,” Ms. Becker noted. “What he wrote is really amazing. We’d all be better off if we’d do what he advised.”
They’re simple suggestions, such as trying to be a good person, giving back, helping people, and not trying to be a big-shot.
“And the very last one is ‘say your prayers,’” said Ms. Becker.
She repeatedly observed how faith shaped the lives and character of Mr. Bush and Barbara Bush, his wife of 73 years.
“I was very lucky to work with both of them,” she said. “I learned so much from them.”
“What is wrong with you?”
Ms. Becker and her siblings grew up on a farm near Martinsburg, going to Mass each Sunday as a family in St. Joseph Church and receiving the Sacraments there.
They attended Community R-VI schools.
Ms. Becker completed a degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and started looking for work.
“I interviewed for a ton of jobs and didn’t get hired,” she noted. “I finally went to work for the Mexico Ledger.”
A coworker there, a former employee of the Gannett newspaper chain, helped her take the next step to the Danville Commercial-News in Illinois.
Gannett founded a national newspaper, USA Today, in 1982. To help it become solvent, the other papers in the chain were expected to take turns sending a reporter to Washington, D.C., for three months.
“My turn came up and I went there in 1985,” Ms. Becker recalled. “I never came back. They offered me a full-time job.”
Her editor appointed her feature-writer for the team covering the 1988 presidential election.
“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “I interviewed all the candidates and their spouses for a series called ‘Candidates at Home.’”
After Mr. Bush, who was vice president, and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis were nominated, the paper convinced both candidates’ wives to write a weekly column.
“And I got ‘volunteered’ to be their editor,” said Ms. Becker. “I was grumpy about that. I had been doing what I wanted and loved my freedom as a feature writer. And now, I had to be in the office every Sunday night, when we got their columns.”
It wound up being “the best assignment ever.”
“I really loved both of those women,” she said.
After Mr. Bush won the election, Ms. Becker’s bosses sent her to pitch a story idea to the incoming first lady’s chief of staff.
“I took her to lunch,” Ms. Becker recalled. “And she started venting and telling me how Marlin Fitzwater, the president’s press secretary, was insisting that one of Mrs. Bush’s press secretaries needed to be someone with work experience in the media.”
“I don’t even know any former reporters,” the woman vented before suddenly looking across the table and offering Ms. Becker the job.
“I was stunned,” Ms. Becker recalled, noting that she loved her job at USA Today.
Back in Martinsburg for Thanksgiving, she talked to her dad, Joe Becker, about the invitation and her concerns.
He said: “You’ve been offered a job in the White House, to work for the incoming president and first lady, and you’re ‘thinking about it?’ What is wrong with you?”
“The best job”
Ms. Becker served as the first lady’s deputy press secretary throughout Mr. Bush’s term in office.
Mrs. Bush then asked her to move to Houston and help research and fact-check the memoir the former first lady was writing.
Ms. Becker did so for the following year.
She was about to interview with the Chicago Sun-Times when Mr. Bush asked to speak with her.
“He said his chief of staff was retiring,” Ms. Becker recalled. “He said, ‘Barbara thinks you can help out for a while. Would you be willing to stay and help keep the trains running on time?’”
Ms. Becker noted that she had never managed a staff or a budget.
The former president said “we’ll take it one day at a time” and promised to have someone permanent hired by Labor Day.
“And we never talked about it again,” Ms. Becker recalled. “Labor Day came and went. I finally got business cards printed.
“It was the best job in America,” she added.
“Starting a buzz”
Young Jean’s family had prayed the Rosary together every night, doing so with several neighbor families on Mondays.
“Like everybody, my faith has gone up and down over the years,” she stated. “But now, it’s stronger than ever. In good times and tough times, I always know that God is here, walking with me.”
Her brother, Father Edward Becker, is a priest of the Diocese of Orange, California, and was studying in Rome.
Mr. Bush, a devout Episcopalian, was well acquainted with Fr. Becker but had limited understanding of Catholic Church administration.
“He thought my brother should be elected pope,” said Ms. Becker.
Once while visiting with Sen. Mitt Romney, who was about to announce his 2012 run for president, Mr. Bush said, “Are you aware that Jean’s brother is a Catholic priest and very likely could be the next pope of the Catholic Church?”
“I just started laughing!” Ms. Becker recalled. “I said, ‘Ed will never be pope!’”
The former president kept bringing it up to friends and acquaintances.
“I finally had to take him aside and say, ‘Sir! You’ve GOT to quit saying that! He hasn’t even been a pastor yet!'”
“He said, ‘I’m trying to start a buzz about this,’” Ms. Becker recalled.
The story came back up on a Sunday news show when she was on her book tour in 2021.
The interviewer asked Ms. Becker to recount how Mr. Bush had tried to promote her brother for the papacy.
“We were all in Martinsburg for my Uncle Anthony’s funeral, and we were watching the show in my sister’s living room,” Ms. Becker recalled.
Throughout the segment, the news feed at the bottom of the screen read, “Will Jean Becker’s brother be the next pope?”
“Eddie was there, just dying!” she recalled. “His sisters were just dying — laughing!”
A friend, indeed
Ms. Becker said Mr. Bush’s principled impulses made life interesting.
“He would say constantly that the three most important things in life were faith, family and friends,” she recalled.
He wore his friendships on his sleeve, regardless of party.
A powerful congressman during his presidency later got convicted of mail fraud and sent to prison.
Mr. Bush said, “You know, Jean, I’d like to call him and let him know I’m thinking about him and still consider him a friend.”
“He’s in prison, sir,” Ms. Becker responded.
“Now Jean,” Mr. Bush replied, “this is when you reach out to people. When they’re down.”
So she made the call. Upon convincing the prison warden that this wasn’t a prank, the former president got to reassure his old friend over the phone.
He did the same thing when California’s then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wife announced that she was filing for divorce.
He told Ms. Becker, “Everybody likes to be friends with the winner or someone on top of their game. The time you reach out to people is when nobody else is, when they’re at the bottom.”
Even on the night in 2000 when the battle over recounts ended and Mr. Bush’s son was officially declared the winner, the elder Bush decided to call Vice President Al Gore, who had narrowly lost.
“I want to call Al and thank him for the concession speech he just gave,” Mr. Bush told Ms. Becker. “I know what it’s like to lose an election and feel like your life has ended.”
“These are a great examples of how you don’t always have to agree with other people’s views to be friends or to be friendly,” she said.
43, 42 and 41
President George W. Bush was in his second term in the White House in 2005 when a tsunami struck Indonesia, killing tens of thousands of people.
The president asked his two predecessors — the elder Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton — to work together to promote the relief efforts.
“They went into it with a common cause,” said Ms. Becker. “No matter what you thought of George Bush’s politics, no matter what you thought of Bill Clinton’s politics, they both had hearts for service.”
The former rivals became close friends, continuing their relief work after Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast later that year.
That friendship helped raise hundreds of millions of dollars for disaster relief around the world.
“Yes, the causes themselves really moved people,” Ms. Becker noted. “But their friendship also struck such a chord in people’s hearts. It’s an example of how we’re supposed to live our lives.”
“Not done with 41”
Mr. Bush, who died in 2018, would occasionally tell Ms. Becker that his recollections of his presidency were becoming more surreal with time.
Often, when world headlines were being made or an international leader was passing from this life, he would say, “It’s hard to remember that I was actually president of the United States.”
Ms. Becker has reached that same point regarding her time as his chief of staff.
“Did it all really happen?” she sometimes asks herself.
She was in New York last October, pitching several projects to her book editor over lunch.
The editor chimed in with an idea of his own.
“I don’t think the world is done with 41,” he told her.
He wants her to ask people who knew Mr. Bush — from heads of state to former staff members, “What did you learn from him?”
“It really touches me that my editor in New York still thinks Mr. Bush has untapped lessons for us,” she said.
“I think he might be right.”