It is not every day that you get a tour of a presidential office, and even less common to get one from a presidential chief of staff. But on a busy Wednesday in the middle of summer, LEAP students had just that opportunity: Jean Becker offered a wonderful two-hour tour of former President George H. W. Bush’s office in Houston, TX. Coincidentally, the tour occurred on Barbara Bush’s birthday, one of many connections we would make over the course of an educational afternoon.
Although we didn’t personally know Ms. Becker, we felt like we did from discussions with Professor Yawn and our reading of her book, “The Man I Knew.” And in the conversational, warm manner of her book, Ms. Becker welcomed us with open arms and was full of enthusiasm upon our arrival.
One of the first stories she shared with us was about the christening of the USS George H W Bush. Ms. Becker stressed how important it was to President Bush that the christening happen while his son (George W Bush) was still president. While the Navy said that this wasn’t possible, being a former President (and father of another) has its perks, and with a few phone calls, Ms. Becker was able to make it happen. The office is full of photos, and each photo has a story, and no one is better at bringing these stories to life than Jean Becker.
Another treat of the afternoon was having the opportunity to sit in the chair that President Bush sat in during Cabinet meetings in the White House. Each of us took our turn in the chair, and all of us enjoyed looking over the items that President Bush had on his desk. For a moment, we felt a bit presidential.
The conversation with Ms. Becker ranged across many topics, from international security to the friendships that President Bush developed over the years. One of those with an unlikely individual: Bill Clinton. This is somewhat surprising, of course, because President Clinton beat President Bush in the 1992 election, so one might expect some animosity. But following an international emergency in 2004, President George W. Bush asked his father and Clinton fundraise to help those affected by the disaster. This sparked a friendship that lasted until President Bush’s death.
While we learned a lot about the man President George H.W. Bush was, we also learned about how Ms. Becker came to be his Chief of Staff and how her life was drastically changed. She grew up in a small town, went to college in her home state, and upon graduating, worked her way up with various newspapers to USA Today. In 1988, she was assigned to cover the wives of the presidential candidates. When George H. W. Bush was elected, she was offered the role of Deputy Press Secretary to the first lady.
When this job ended following President Bush’s loss in 1992, he offered her the position of his “interim” post-presidency chief of staff. The interim position lasted for more than 25 years–until his death in 2018.
In a very relatable way, Ms. Becker shared many thoughts about her career, offering us valuable advice for our own careers. In particular, she reminded us it was okay to stray away from our “plan,” which is what she did when she was offered a job at the White House.
We were there for more than two hours, and time flew by. When we left, we all agreed that we could have listened to her all day, if schedules and time permitted. She was a wealth of knowledge, we absolutely enjoyed every second of it, and we were impressed by her example of hospitality and generosity.
Side Note: It wouldn’t be a LEAP trip, if we didn’t learn something about art. So it was interesting that, when we entered the building, we encountered a bust of George Bush done by Huntsville artist David Adickes.
Moreover, we also saw a work by George Rodrigue, an artist LEAP is familiar with through trips to Austin and New Orleans. Here the work was on President Bush’s wall, and it was signed to him by George Rodrigue!