"The Man I Knew" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
As an homage to her old boss, Jean Becker has written an enjoyable historical account of George H. W. Bush’s post-presidential years. Becker was deputy press secretary for Barbara Bush during the Bushs’ 4-year term in the White House.
When Bush 41 lost the election to Bill Clinton in 1992, he was devastated but soon began to search for a chief of staff to help him rebuild his post-presidential life. Barbara highly recommended Jean Becker as an efficient, caring person. George interviewed her, was impressed and hired her. She served until his death.
The narrative clearly demonstrates Becker’s admiration of the former President and includes many favorable and flattering comments. She notes at the beginning of her memoir that she will not be writing about politics and that certain family conversations were off-limits. For example, when President George W. Bush called his father, she always exited the room so their phone calls could remain private.
The elder Bush was known for his friendliness and congeniality throughout his life. He reached across party lines to opponents of his policies regularly. His close “adopted son” relationship with Democrat President Bill Clinton is legendary and his support for Democrat President Barack Obama throughout his two terms in office is well documented.
As a former President, HW used that position to become a strong advocate for charities. He made public appearances and raised large sums of money for a wide variety of causes. Becker portrays him as an honest, likable humanitarian. She also wittily depicts some of his more unusual octogenarian activities like jumping out of airplanes. She poignantly relates his expressions of joy when two sons became governors of their states and when one moved on to become President of the United States.
The author also writes admiringly of how 41 learned to adjust to life in a wheelchair after spending most of his active life at a fast pace.
Some of the most interesting anecdotes in the book take place at the Bush’s summer home, Walker’s Point Estate. The former President had an open-door policy at this Kennebunkport, Maine retreat, to the chagrin of his wife who often was surprised by the person(s) they were hosting.
The couple often entertained celebrities and world leaders and sometimes humbled the beautiful and powerful by taking them on a hair-raising run on the rough Atlantic Ocean in Fidelity IV, HW’s sailboat.
Each week members of the Bush extended family arrived for a vacation there, with some of the grandchildren staying for a lengthy time. Stories about the Bush clan fill the reader with a range of emotions, from the sorrow suffered by Barbara and George due to the loss of their daughter Robin to their delight in reading in bed with their young grandchildren. Their travels around the world provide many remarkable tales about the places they visited and the influential people they met.
“The Man I Knew” gracefully tells the story of what happens when George H.W. Bush transitions from being the most important and powerful person in the world to a private citizen. Becker presents an honest, insightful and never-boring portrait of Bush 41’s post-presidency. She recounts the time she spent at his side when he died in November 2018 and the frenetic tempo of activities that followed as she planned his state funeral.
Even though Becker stated at the beginning of the book that she would be silent about politics, a little bit still creeps in when she includes HW’s “10 rules for Former Presidents”—e.g. “Get out of Dodge-- fast. You are history.... Stay out of the way, out of Washington, out of the news, away from press conferences, off TV.”
The book ends with the six eulogies given at Mr. Bush’s state funeral. In general, they speak about his accomplishments as President but also about how he succeeded in rebuilding his life as a private citizen during the 26 years following his term in office.
About the Author.
Before her professional association with Barbara and George Bush, Jean Becker was a newspaper reporter for 10 years. In 2020, she wrote a book about Mrs. Bush, “Pearls of Wisdom.”