Jenna Bush Hager looked up from her new book, cowritten with her twin sister, Barbara Pierce Bush, and smiled at the 650 people who had come to hear her speak at a National Council of Jewish Women’s (NCJW) Essex County Section event.
The book, “Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life,” (Grand Central Publishing, 2017) was published a day earlier, and Hager joked that on this, the second day of her book tour, “I did 1,744 interviews about something “brand new, like a baby I just delivered yesterday.”
Her casual tone set the mood for a light-hearted evening that included apolitical reflections on growing up in a presidential family and, although the term was never used, a promotion of tikkun olam, the Jewish mandate to heal the world.
The content of her speech, “Celebrating Women Who Do Extraordinary Things,” sometimes veered into veiled jabs at the current presidential administration, such as when she said she wanted “smarter people to want to run for office.”
“Twenty-five years ago, I watched my grandfather’s inauguration speech with the innocent optimistic eyes of a 7-year-old, which, by the way, is a good lens to see Washington, D.C., politics. Sometimes I wish I was still 7,” she said.
Bush spoke at Brooklake Country Club in Florham Park on Oct. 25, the same day her grandfather, President George H. W. Bush, was accused of groping an actress several years ago; he later apologized to several women.
Asked whether she — the daughter and granddaughter of two Republican presidents — had any political aspirations and what party she might belong to, Hager said, “No, I don’t.” But she has encouraged her sister to seek office — “and I’m not sure what party she would be in, to be honest.”
She encouraged members of NCJW to become leaders in non-profit organizations, corporate board rooms, and the media “so that our little kids can look up and say, ‘That could be me.’”
“Sisters First” is filled with personal reflections of the years before, during, and after George W. Bush was president between 2001 and 2009. Hager spoke circumspectly about him and her grandfather, who served in the White House from 1989 to 1993.
Reading from one passage in the book, Hager said of her father, “I have always felt gutted when I heard him criticized. Though I do believe the judgments he made will ultimately be judged by history…that’s not his daughters’ role. Our relationship is with a private man, the dad who loves us and we love in return.”
“As children, we didn’t feel the pressure of public life,” she said about her father’s early presidential years. “We lived a long way away from Washington, D.C., in Dallas in a three-bedroom suburban house,” where the sisters rode their bikes to the local elementary school.
She said her father “never made fun of someone else when he could make fun of himself. When we were rude or disrespectful when we were teenagers, his favorite line was ‘I love you. There is nothing you can do to make me stop loving you, so stop trying.’”
On one occasion, when she was riding with him in a limousine to a campaign appearance in 2004, she stuck her tongue out at the crowd lining the street. She recalled that he said, “‘Don’t do that, Jenna. Someone will take a picture and there you will be, splashed all over the television screen.’ He was right.”
Quite often, the mischievous sense of humor she shared with her sister could lift her father’s spirits. But one night it backfired. They tried to cheer him up when he appeared “very subdued” at dinner, hoping that “a few moments of sustained silliness that would make him smile.” Instead, he walked out of the room. The former president was in no mood for joking. He had just received word that a military helicopter had been shot down in Iraq, killing all the service members aboard.
“Of course, my dad is a politician, or he was,” she said. “But I see him as my father because there were 18 years of him loving me that were more important than any headline.”
Some of the headlines made by Jenna and her sister were not flattering.
While students at the University of Texas in Austin, both were arrested for underage drinking, and Hager faced a second charge of using a fake ID. She pleaded no contest to both offenses.
After graduating in 2004, Hager spent what she called her “proudest moments” as a teacher at urban charter schools in the District of Columbia and Baltimore.
But she confessed that growing up in the privileged environments of the White House, Dallas, and Kennebunkport, Maine, made her “not prepared” for the violence and poverty she encountered in her schools. “No class could have taught me what to say to a child who had witnessed a stabbing on the way to school or how to comfort a young man who learned his dad was going to jail.”
She moved to Latin America in 2006 to work with United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on a global program aimed at reducing the number of preventable childhood deaths.
It led to her telling the story of a 17-year-old single mother, HIV-positive at birth, whose life as an abuse victim Hager described in her book “Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope” (HarperCollins, 2008).
Hager met Ana at a conference on HIV/AIDS, after the teenager interrupted the proceedings to speak without invitation. “She grabbed the microphone,” Hager said. “She was holding her newborn baby, who was born without the virus. Ana said, ‘I want everyone to know that we now have the medicine to live with HIV. We are no longer dying from it. So, let’s make our lives matter. Let’s make our lives count.’”
Hager said those experiences helped her to understand “the pain of all moms because all moms want the same things for our kids…the chance for our kids to lead happy, healthy, and productive lives.”
Since 2008 she has been married to Henry Hager, an investment banker and former aide to her father’s senior adviser and deputy chief of staff Karl Rove. They live in Manhattan with their two daughters, 4-year-old Mila and 2-year-old Poppy.
She works as a contributing correspondent for NBC’s Today Show and is an editor for Southern Living magazine.
In a subtle criticism of the current political era and its effects on politicians’ families, Hager said, “Sometimes people, especially now, where divisiveness is too much, forget that little kids don’t say, ‘Mom and Dad I have a great idea. You run for president and I will be your sidekick.’ Children have nothing to do with it. They don’t ask their parents to run. It is part of what happens to them in their life, and that is what makes life wild and wonderful.”
As she looked back on her own life, she reflected, “I glad I made mistakes, even at the expense of late-night comedy making fun of me…I think it is important for young people to fall down and be able to get back up again.”