Editor’s note: This column first published in The New York Times on Oct. 19, 2017.The other morning, after too little sleep and with too much to do, Jenna Bush Hager found herself dragging, and kicked herself for it. “I almost called myself Low-Energy Jenna,” she told me.
Ring a bell? Low-Energy Jeb was Donald Trump’s taunting nickname for her uncle during the 2016 campaign. I asked her and her twin sister, Barbara, what they made of that.
“A bit like bullying on the playground,” Jenna said. “We’d seen it before, but we were in the first grade.” She smiled, then winced, wondering aloud if she’d just been too political, given her job on the “Today” show.
“I don’t know,” Barbara said. “I’m not with NBC.”
Jenna the irrepressible blonde. Barbara the reserved brunette. In that one exchange, the only two people alive who are both children and grandchildren of American presidents played to the stereotypes that they were assigned long ago.
But not during the rest of a recent lunch near their homes in downtown Manhattan. It was Barbara who told me with little hesitation that she’d voted for Hillary Clinton and Jenna who demurred. Jenna’s answers were often the thoughtful mini-essays while Barbara naughtily thrust her smartphone at me to display the text messages that their father, the second President Bush, routinely sends them.
Those missives included memes: a cartoon bunny that blew kisses before the words “I Love You” exploded like a Roman candle; a snippet of Jason Alexander as George Costanza in “Seinfeld.” There were long, silly strings of colorful, silly icons. From George W. Bush, who had always worked so hard on that Texas swagger?
“He has gone deep into the emojis,” Barbara said. In her contacts he’s identified as Popsicle. In Jenna’s he’s Jefe, which is Spanish for “boss.”
We only think we know the people who wind up, intentionally or not, in the spotlight. We categorize them. Trivialize them. That’s maybe the main plaint and preoccupation of a joint memoir, “Sisters First,” in which Jenna and Barbara each present reminiscences that alternate with the other’s. It will be published Tuesday.
“What we wanted to write about in the book was the nuance of people that we love,” Barbara said, and they’ve done just that, charting the distance between public image and private reality. The stories that they tell are often self-serving, and they skim over the failures and wages of their father’s presidency. But they do make you question the caricatures that we blithely traffic in, the assumptions that we breezily make and our reluctance to allow for how much the objects of our curiosity can change.
Their father’s late-blooming obsession with painting: Even they didn’t see that one coming. He skipped the trips to art museums that their mother, Laura, took them on when they were kids.
But after his presidency ended in 2009, he got an iPhone, Barbara said, and “discovered this little drawing app and would do little sketches and send them to us.”
Jenna added: “We would say, ‘Hey, Dad, Happy Sunday, what are you up to?’ And he would stick-figure a little airplane.”
“With his little face waving out of it,” Barbara chimed in. That meant that he was flying somewhere.
The book is stippled with insider anecdotes, my favorite of which recounts a meal that Barbara and her mother shared with Silvio Berlusconi in 2006, when he was Italy’s prime minister and Barbara was 24. (She and Jenna are now 35.) Berlusconi complimented her on her blue eyes, told her that she should mate with his son and, for good measure, announced: “If I was younger, I’d have children with you.” Barbara’s loss, obviously, but she has somehow soldiered on.
I told her that when I read that part, I immediately thought of Trump, and of his various comments over the years about the hotness — in Daddy’s eyes — of Ivanka. She didn’t take the bait.
They’re careful, she and Jenna. They have made clear over the years that they’re not perfect political overlaps with the rest of their family, which is the Republican Party’s great modern dynasty. Barbara, for example, appeared in a video endorsing same-sex marriage back in 2011.
But that’s not the kind of attention they usually court, and during our hours together at Café Altro Paradiso, where Jenna had ricotta dumplings and Barbara swordfish, they repeatedly registered their disgust with the divisiveness of our national conversation. They don’t want to add to the ugliness, which pains Jenna all the more, she said, because she has two daughters, Mila, 4, and Poppy, 2.
“This moment, as a mother, feels a little frightening, because I’m nervous to have the TV on to hear some of the rhetoric that is coming from the highest position,” Jenna said, conspicuously not uttering the syllable “Trump” itself. “The way I speak about elections and the way I speak about everything has changed, because I’m now a role model to two little humans who I want to teach about love and empathy and compassion.”
She and Barbara, who is single, woke up together in Jenna’s bed on the morning after election night, because Jenna’s husband, Henry Hager, was away, and Barbara had come over to watch the returns, which were still being counted into the wee hours. Jenna wouldn’t say if those results disappointed her, but she and Barbara both expressed a fierce wish to see a female president soon.
“One hundred percent,” Jenna said, and again mentioned her girls. “Mila, the other day in the car, goes, ‘Mommy, Poppy rules the world,’ about her baby sister. And I go: ‘Well, Poppy could rule the world. Maybe one day she could be president.’ And Mila goes, ‘But, Mom, presidents are men.’ She said that.”
From mid-1999 to late-2001 I covered their father’s campaign and the start of his presidency, and I remember seeing them on the fringes of events. I also remember the media’s sometimes cheap fascination with them when they went off to college — Jenna to the University of Texas, Barbara to Yale — and were repeatedly caught consuming alcohol before they were legally old enough to.
“Jenna and Tonic” was a headline in The New York Post. People magazine went with “Double Trouble,” while Newsweek opted for “Busted Again in Margaritaville.” They were embarrassed, yes, but also frustrated by what they insist were exaggerations in many accounts.
Back then I was never formally introduced to either of them. But perhaps five years ago, Barbara visited me at The Times to discuss the Global Health Corps, a public-health analogue to the Peace Corps and Teach for America that sends more than 100 recent college graduates annually into the most impoverished areas of the world. She founded it, raised money for it, is its chief executive and spends plenty of time in those places herself.
Partly because of her focus on health but largely to stir up trouble, I asked her and Jenna, whom I was meeting for the first time, about Trump’s move to make it easier for employers to deny coverage of birth control. He’d announced that just hours before our lunch.
“It does feel like we’re going backwards in some ways,” Jenna said, “and that’s probably as much as I can say.”
Is she pro-choice?
“I can’t say,” she answered. “I’d be in trouble at work.”
“I am very for women having everything they need to live healthy, dignified lives,” she told me.
“Is that a yes?” I asked.
“I think women should be able to make the right decision that would allow them to live — truly allow them to live,” she said.
Jenna shook her head: “He might have wanted a yes or no.” Indeed he might have.
Their father opposed abortion rights but their mother stayed mum, vaguely identifying herself as pro-choice only after the couple left the White House. That approximated the trajectory of her mother-in-law, the former first lady Barbara Bush, who pops up frequently in “Sisters First” and, like the rest of the clan, isn’t exactly who you expect.
Regal? Entitled? Not according to the account of the twins’ visit to the White House shortly after the first President Bush’s election, when they were 7. They discovered the bowling lane in the basement and, using the phone there, asked a staffer to bring them peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
“We were like Eloise in our Plaza!” Jenna writes. “When the door opened, it was not our sandwiches, but our Ganny, who appeared and told us in no uncertain terms that we were not in a hotel, but temporary guests in a historic home, and we were never to do that again.”
Laura Bush is “quiet and bookish,” Barbara writes, but then again not: “Beneath her flats and cardigans, my mom is in fact our closet hippie and Rastafarian.” She dragged Barbara, then a teenager, to a reggae concert in Austin, Texas.
Barbara also writes that while her father can be “loud and unthoughtful,” he “outreads us all.” After Barbara went through her first devastating romantic breakup a few years ago, he called or texted her daily, “just to check in, just to share the burden with me.”
The twins portray him as surprisingly self-effacing.
During his presidency, they spotted an anti-Bush bumper sticker with a withering put-down, and they not only told him about it but turned it into a running family joke. “Now,” Barbara writes, “this line comes up regularly when we want to rib our former-leader-of-the-free-world father: ‘Well, somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot.’”
After Jenna, covering the Golden Globes for NBC, conflated two movies about African-Americans by referring to “Hidden Fences,” he quickly texted her to remind her that where verbal pratfalls were concerned, he’d been there, done that and survived. She would, too.
Jenna and Barbara told me that for as long as they can remember, he has brought their mother coffee in bed every morning, including when he was in the White House, because he’s always up first. He brings them coffee in bed when they visit.
They seemed to me a long, long way from Margaritaville. They’re not the Manhattan party fixtures they could easily be. They show considerable restraint. They also show generosity.
Back in January, as Malia and Sasha Obama prepared to move out of the White House, Jenna and Barbara wrote them a letter that acknowledged the challenges that they’d already faced and that they would continue to confront, including “harsh criticism of your parents by people who had never even met them.”
“Your precious parents,” the Bush twins wrote, “were reduced to headlines.”
So were their parents. Their grandparents. Their low-energy uncle, Jeb. It goes with the territory. But it’s also part of what makes that ground so forbidding, and scares many good people away.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2017 New York Times News Service