Defying a Dynasty: Jenna and Barbara Bush's Unexpected Road After Their Dad Left the White House

Former President George W. Bush's twins daughters represent a not-so-distant time when political differences weren't tearing whole families apart

By Natalie Finn Oct 09, 2018 10:00 AMTags
Jenna Bush, Barbara BushJamie McCarthy/Getty Images

It's not particularly uncommon these days for kids' political views to differ from their parents.

But when your dad was president, and his dad before him was president... 

It's a little bit more of a leap.

Barbara Pierce Bush got married Sunday at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, with generations of American history, including 94-year-old patriarch and 41st POTUS George H.W. Bush, in attendance. The wedding party was stung by the absence of family matriarch (and the bride's namesake) Barbara Bush, who died in April, but otherwise it had all the makings of a fairy-tale celebration.

Not surprisingly, Barbara's twin sister, Jenna Bush Hager, was by her side as matron of honor, and Jenna's daughters, Margaret and Poppy, served as flower girls along with the groom Craig Coyne's niece Emma.

As fraternal twins, Barbara and Jenna would have had a unique bond no matter what, but the circumstances of their lives from day one necessitated that they rely on each other to a special degree. They even released a joint memoir last year, to fully illustrate just how shared their experience has been, even when they're thousands of miles apart.

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And nowadays, the Bush sisters have not only maintained their closeness with each other and the rest of their family, while managing to forge their own paths as civically engaged members of society, but they've come to represent a not-all-too-distant time when disagreement over politics hadn't turned into a Thanksgiving-ruining, wedding-disqualifying, relative-disowning subject non grata.

It helps, certainly, that Bushes of all generations seem to be in alignment when it comes to the current president of the United States and his style, or lack thereof, of politics.

But even before the Republican party turned into an unrecognizable version of the one Jenna and Barbara were born into when their grandfather was vice president, exposed to as 7-year-olds when he was elected president in 1988, how it was when George W. Bush became governor of Texas in 1995, and even the one they were privy to as college-bound teenagers when their father first won the presidency in 2000—the twins weren't exactly party girls.

Grand Ol' Party girls, that is.

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Jenna and Barbara were born and raised in Dallas before moving to the capital city of Austin when their dad was elected governor. They played softball and loved baseball (and crushed hard on baseball players), and when their father became a partial owner of the Texas Rangers, they were fixtures at what was then the Ballpark in Arlington (now Globe Life Park). When in the full-service owners' box, they'd watch Lifetime Movies to get around their parents' no-TV-on-school-nights rule. (They maintain their affinity for athletes, with Jenna citing Barbara meeting LeBron James at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 as their best celebrity encounter. Though Destiny's Child performing at their dad's first inauguration was a pretty good welcome to Washington at the time.)

The twins had just started college—Jenna at University of Texas, Austin, and Barbara at Yale—when the 2000 election, complete with contentious recount, occurred.

Between their father and grandfather, as well as Uncle Jeb and various cousins involved in politics, the twins were never under any illusions that politics wasn't a nasty business. So instead of trouble themselves with that... they doubled down on being normal college students.

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Jenna picked UT "because she was so connected in Austin, and she wanted to have her friends and not lose them," Pamela Nelson, who gave both girls art lessons, told biographer Ronald Kessler, per Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady. "Barbara was a little more adventurous. She had done a semester in Rome in high school. I think she went to Yale for the adventure. Her father and her grandfather went there. I suspect her grades were better, but Jenna made pretty good grades."

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While going to dad and grandpa's alma mater may not seem like much of a risk, at least Barbara was determined to enjoy herself once she got to Yale. For instance, she went on a spontaneous road trip to Myrtle Beach, during which she managed to elude her Secret Service detail, and she reportedly wore bubble wrap to a big costume party on campus. (Perhaps the knee-jerk summation at the time of Barbara as the reserved, studious brunette while sister Jenna was the outgoing, fun-loving one wasn't entirely accurate.)

In April 2001, Jenna was cited for being in possession of alcohol as a minor during a routine sweep of bars in Austin's popular 6th Street nightlife area, leaving some to wonder what her 24/7  detail was up to at the time (they're protectors, not babysitters). The White House called it a private matter—but the fact that it was reported that Jenna was wearing a toe ring at her court appearance, where she was fined $51.25 and sentenced to eight hours of community service and six hours of alcohol-awareness classes, is a reminder that the press has never been particularly forgiving in such matters.

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A month later, the sisters were eating together with another friend at a Chuy's Tex-Mex restaurant and the manager called the cops when Jenna tried to order alcohol using an older friend's ID. Secret Service told the police that they would be leaving with the girls, but Jenna ended up being cited for misrepresentation of age by a minor and Barbara—who apparently wasn't carded and had been served a margarita that was "partially consumed" by the time the cops got there—for possessing alcohol as a minor.

According to the police report reviewed by Kessler, Jenna started crying when she handed over the ID and lamented that the officer had no idea what it was like to not be able to just act like a regular college student. 

According to the chief of police afterward, even the cops were surprised they had been called to intervene in what was surely a very common occurrence that restaurants tend to handle themselves.

Because of the prior incident in April, Jenna's driver's license was suspended for a month, she was fined $600, sentenced to 36 hours of community service and put on deferred adjudicated (similar to a term of probation) for three months.

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"I've learned a long, long time ago that until you talk to the child, or if you weren't there, it's pretty hard to believe everything you read or hear," their grandmother and former first lady Barbara Bush told a Detroit TV station in response to news of her granddaughters' run-in with the law.

Meanwhile, pressed to comment on the twins' missteps, White House press secretary Ari Fleicsher said, "I think the American people agree with the president that it is his purview, even as president of the United States, to have private moments with his family. That includes his two 19-year-old daughters. And like any parent raising a child, they expect the right to talk privately with their children no matter what position they hold in life."

Laura Bush's former press secretary Noelia Rodriguez told Kessler that, after Jenna and Barbara ended up on the cover of People magazine, the first lady refused to do interviews with the publication for six months.

"I personally preferred the cover of the New York Post, which used a much better photo (thank you very much)," Jenna humorously recalled in her and Barbara's 2017 book Sisters First: Stories From Our Wild and Wonderful Life, "and dubbed me the pithy 'Jenna and Tonic.'"

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But though much was made of the first daughters' eventful freshman year, daring to be human beings—immature decisions and all—ultimately endeared them to the public more than harmed their reputations. 

Of course, it helped that they maintained otherwise spotless records afterward. The public also likes it when people seem to have learned their lesson.

"So far the girls seem the most appealing of the Bushes," observed The Guardian in May 2001. "They are not overly concerned with their father's career. They are not humorless advocates of his cause. They are spirited and ordinary and looking for the party."

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"It could not have been easy for my [security] detail," Barbara reminisced in Sisters First. It wasn't until much later down the road, she wrote, that she appreciated all of what the Secret Service did for her, including intercepting her mail so she was protected from the stings of hateful or threatening letters; patiently tailing her in rain, snow or shine; and otherwise adjusting at a moment's notice to the very unpredictable whims of a college student's schedule.

In addition to never going anywhere without an escort keeping pace behind her, Barbara remembered another challenge she faced at school as her father's daughter: she recalls going to a teaching assistant's office hours to talk about what she could do to finally get an A on an assignment in that class, only to be told that she would get an A if she could convince her father not to go to war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, law enforcement had pretty much insinuated in public that Jenna had also received the opposite kind of special treatment in the liberal bastion of Austin for being a member of the Bush family. "I want to get them in big trouble," the Chuy's manager was quoted as telling police at the time.

But it would become clear eventually that neither Jenna nor Barbara let other people's biases affect their own personal values. Nor did it make them want to disengage from the Bush family. After they each graduated in 2004, they traveled the country on behalf of their father's reelection campaign, and they introduced their dad at the Republican National Convention that August. (It was fate for Jenna: she met her future husband, Henry Hager, on her first day at campaign headquarters in D.C.)

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First, she and Barbara kicked off their new level of postgraduate visibility by posing for a much talked-about photo shoot in Vogue, which—stop us if you've heard this one—caused mixed reactions depending on how much people liked or loathed their father.

''It's not like he called me up and asked me [to campaign for him],'' Jenna told the magazine. ''They've never wanted to throw us into that world, and I think our decision probably shocked them. But I love my dad, and I think I'd regret it if I didn't do this.''

Both sisters maintained that they had no interest in going into politics themselves. Rather, Barbara planned to go to Africa and Eastern Europe to work with pediatric AIDS patients and Jenna was going to teach at a charter school. 

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"We spent the last four years trying to stay out of the spotlight. Sometimes, we did a little better job than others," Jenna said at the RNC, obviously poking fun at her own peccadilloes. "We kept trying to explain to my dad that when we are young and irresponsible, well, we're young and irresponsible."

"Jenna and I are really not very political, but we love our dad too much to stand back and watch from the sidelines," Barbara added. "We realized that this would be his last campaign, and we wanted to be a part of it. Besides, since we've graduated from college, we're looking around for something to do for the next few years...Kind of like dad."

Their introduction, especially viewed through the prism of today's landscape, sounds remarkably apolitical, though Barbara did observe, "When your dad's a Republican and you go to Yale, you learn to stand up for yourself."

(It's interesting though, in hindsight, how she said "when your dad is," not "when you are.")

Paul Morse

Jenna did go on to teach and get involved with UNICEF, which inspired her continued work on behalf of children.

Through a program sponsored by the Baylor College of Medicine's International Pediatrics AIDS Initiative, Barbara traveled around Africa working with AIDS patients, and she and Jenna co-founded the New York-based nonprofit Global Health Corps in 2008. Barbara remains president of the organization.

Jenna noted at the RNC in 2004 that their parents "have always encouraged us to be independent and dream big." And apparently, at least to whatever extent they were tested, they meant it.

With Jenna going to work as a Today correspondent, Barbara automatically became the much more private sibling. In Sisters First, Barbara considered 2011, when she appeared in a video advocating the legalization of same-sex marriage, as the time she started to forge "my own public path."

She told her father, who had vocally opposed the idea while he was president, about her decision beforehand "and he was supportive because it was what I believe is right."

Shealah Craighead/The White House via WireImage

Barbara has also since voiced her support for Planned Parenthood, which has always been a partisan issue, and she came right out and told The New York Times that she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In their book, Jenna recalled one of her favorite White House moments—next to having her first kiss with Henry on the third-floor balcony overlooking the South Lawn—was showing incoming first daughters Malia and Sasha Obama around their new home after the 2008 election. The twins also wrote the Obama sisters an open letter that was published in TIME in 2017, when they were about to embark on their own new lives as former first daughters after growing up in the White House. 

"Enjoy college. As most of the world knows, we did," the Bushes cheekily advised. "And you won't have the weight of the world on your young shoulders anymore. Explore your passions. Learn who you are. Make mistakes—you are allowed to. Continue to surround yourself with loyal friends who know you, adore you and will fiercely protect you. Those who judge you don't love you, and their voices shouldn't hold weight. Rather, it's your own hearts that matter."

Malia Obama is in her second year at Harvard. Sasha, who still lives with her parents in Washington, D.C., is due to graduate from high school next year and her future plans will make headlines around the world.

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

As for the Bush twins, they both ended up living in New York City, just blocks away from each other. "My nieces pop over any time to see Auntie Barbara," Barbara wrote in Sisters First. "We are still intertwined in each other's lives."

With Henry out of town, Jenna and Barbara watched the election returns together at Jenna's house and ended up falling asleep in the master bedroom as the count went on into the wee hours in New York. (Similar to how they watched their dad's returns in 2000, sprawled on a hotel bed, as Florida ping-ponged back and forth.)

Without commenting on how she felt in that moment (and as an NBC News employee, not revealing who she voted for, unlike her sister), Jenna told The New York Times almost a year later, in October 2017, "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. 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."

The Times' Frank Bruni also asked both sisters if they were pro-choice. Jenna said she couldn't say, again citing the nature of her work, but Barbara replied, "I am very for women having everything they need to live healthy, dignified lives."

Asked if that was a yes, she added, "I think women should be able to make the right decision that would allow them to live—truly allow them to live."

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Speaking of being truly allowed to live, Jenna told NBC News back in 2016 that she and her sister were forever grateful that there was no social media when they were in college.

"Because we weren't perfect. And I don't think kids should be perfect," she said. "I think college is really a time, in a safe way, to make mistakes and explore who you are."

Which she and Barbara did, and who they are may have turned out to be different from what their critics—which would have primarily been their dads' critics—may have guessed 18 years ago. While forging their own way personally, professionally and, at least for the past decade, politically, they've stayed extremely loyal to their family—and happily bonded to each other.

Paul Morse

"My heart exploded last night as I watched my dearest sissy get married in Maine. It was just like her: private (only family!) and full of love (and yes lots of tears!),"  Jenna wrote on Instagram after Barbara tied the knot Sunday with Coyne.

"Happy tears, heart exploding as I watched this beautiful girl get married in the place that means love and family. I'm so proud to be this beauties sister."

Calling into Today on Monday, Jenna told her colleagues, "I'm crying 24 hours later…there were so many happy tears."

Fittingly, Barbara's "something borrowed" on her wedding day was a pair of her twin sister's earrings.

In a video shot last winter for Southern Living, for which Jenna works as an editor-at-large, she predicted that, should their respective significant others be gone one day, she and Barbara would move back in together on a farm, "with some cats, and really practice the craft. Be witchy."

"We're already witchy," Barbara suggested. "We just haven't had the chance to fully get into it yet."