Workhorse at the White House

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Class of ’88 | Jon Decker C’88 G’91 walks down some stairs, navigates a narrow hallway, and ducks into a closet-sized office just as the phone rings.

“I’m doing what’s called a two-way with one of our affiliates,” he explains. Then, without looking at notes, he answers some rapid-fire questions about the big news in his current orbit: Bernie Sanders visiting the White House for a meeting with President Barack Obama and pledging to work together with Hillary Clinton to defeat Donald Trump W’68 in this year’s presidential race.

As Fox News Radio’s White House Correspondent, that’s Decker’s job in a nutshell: to parse and deliver news, without bias or opinion, from the White House, where he’s been a member of the press corps for more than 20 years. “That was Morgantown, West Virginia,” he says after his two-and-a-half-minute spot concludes. “On a typical day, I’ll do as many as 10 to 14 of them with the different affiliates.”

Firing off salvos of radio segments each day, often with small-town affiliates, might strike some aspiring journalists as tedious. And even Decker will admit that his command center—a tiny, isolated radio booth—is far from glamorous.

But the location is prime—just a hallway and some stairs away from the White House Briefing Room, the West Wing theater where the press secretary, and occasionally the president, field questions from Decker and the rest of the press corps. (That room, like the nearby offices for journalists, is also smaller than you might think—at least compared to what you see “on TV and the movies,” Decker says.)

The decorations inside his “silo” confirm just how cool he considers his job to be. Three framed political photos hang on a wall across from a tennis-racket-shaped mirror and four clocks showing the local time at each of the four Grand Slam tournaments (yes, Decker is a huge tennis fan). One is a side-by-side shot of the five living US presidents: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, the first three of whom Decker covered. Another is a famous photo of Richard Nixon shaking hands with Elvis Presley—because why not. The last is a sweeping shot of Obama’s final State of the Union address. Decker cheerily points himself out in the foreground of that one, which represents just one of the memorable moments of a job that continually amazes him.

“You walk in and you see the White House and what it represents and it’s always a thrill,” he says as he sits on some stairs outside the Briefing Room on a considerably calmer afternoon than the previous day (Obama is away, attending his oldest daughter Malia’s high-school graduation). “It never gets old. It’s exciting to be able to report on what the leader of the Free World is doing and how it’s impacting not only Americans but the entire world. I’ve had the opportunity now for 20 years, and I look forward to—whoever the next president is—covering that president as well.”

Decker traces his ability to stave off political cynicism back to his two stints at Penn. As an undergrad, he figured he’d follow the lead of some of his Wharton friends into the financial sector, and prepared by interning at Lehman Brothers in addition to his classes and early morning lightweight-crew practices. But after he graduated, it only took a year on Wall Street to realize that his heart wasn’t in it. He quickly changed gears, returning to Penn to get a master’s degree in international relations while working as an aide for Pennsylvania Senator H. John Heinz III, who was killed in a 1991 freak plane crash over Lower Merion Township, just outside Philadelphia.

“That was really a defining moment in my life,” Decker says of the tragic accident, “because at that point I really decided I wanted to pursue my passion.”

And so, with a growing love for politics and a desire to explain it to an audience, he got his first job in journalism at Philadelphia’s KYW NewsRadio, quickly took another radio gig in Miami, then landed in Washington in late 1995 as a correspondent for the PBS show Nightly Business Report. He’s been in the nation’s capital ever since, serving as the White House correspondent for Reuters Television, SiriusXM Radio, and now Fox News Radio.

During that time, Decker has covered the impeachment of President Clinton, Bush v. Gore in the Supreme Court, and the death of Osama bin Laden. Other memorable moments include traveling with Obama to Cuba for his historic visit earlier this year [see “Googling Cuba” on page 60] and a much more somber journey on Air Force One for the funeral of Beau Biden C’91, son of Vice President Joe Biden. Along the way he has reported from Athens, Brussels, London, Paris, Frankfurt, Geneva, Jerusalem, the West Bank, Luxembourg, Madrid, Milan, Montreal, Panama, Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei, the Bahamas, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“Going on Air Force One is always a thrill, to say the least,” he says. “Besides that, I think that when we get the opportunity to be here for a visit from the Pope or a head of state or a congressional Medal of Honor winner or even a Super Bowl-winning football team, it’s always an interesting day here.”

For all the serious issues he’s covered, Decker might be best known—at least to the many followers of YouTube and Google—for his encounter with Barney, George W. Bush’s late Scottish Terrier. Two days after Obama won the presidency in 2008, Decker had just recorded a piece on the White House lawn when he saw Barney and reached out to pet him. Barney responded by “taking a nip out of my index finger that required immediate attention by the White House physician,” says Decker. The incident, which was caught on video, made headlines around the world. It also prompted a personal card from then-First Lady Laura Bush, who told Decker that “Barney’s now in the doghouse.” At the White House Christmas party later that year, Decker’s wife told President Bush that her husband was the reporter on the other end of the bite heard ’round the world.

“Yeah but it was good for ratings,” Bush responded, then let out a laugh that Decker perfectly mimics to this day.

On top of his day-to-day work at the White House, Decker serves as an adjunct professor of journalism at Georgetown University, where he advises students to follow their passion, just as he did. In case that’s not enough of a workload, he earned a law degree from George Washington University this past year after going to evening classes for almost four years—not to become a lawyer but because he wanted to be the “go-to guy when it comes to constitutional issues and the Supreme Court” and thus “distinguish myself from my colleagues” as the only member of the White House press corps with a law degree.

Yet for all the competitive fire, Decker also works tirelessly on behalf of his colleagues as a newly elected board member of the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA). One of his most important responsibilities is to ensure that access for White House reporters doesn’t diminish further—an issue that recently came into sharp focus when Trump banned The Washington Post, among other outlets, from his campaign events.

According to his colleagues, Decker is perfectly suited for the volunteer job. Christi Parsons of The Los Angeles Times, a former WHCA president, calls him “one of the friendliest” people in the Briefing Room and “a fierce advocate for the press corps.” C-Span’s Steve Scully describes him as a “consummate professional” and a “tenacious reporter,” adding: “There are a lot of people in this town who are showboats. Jon is not one of them. He’s a workhorse, and I think that’s why he’s succeeded so well on the White House beat.”

That, and the fact that he just flat-out loves what he’s doing.

“There’s always something new that happens here,” says Decker. “And that’s why even though I’ve been doing it as long as I have—it really doesn’t get old.”

—Dave Zeitlin C’03
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