NEW YORK, Aug. 31 -- They had a hamster, too, okay?
Once, the daughters Bush were reclusive, and their mother excoriated People magazine for putting her darlings on its cover. Last night, in front of a packed Republican convention and a prime-time television audience, Jenna and Barbara Bush tried out their comedy routine. Flash reviews were not good.
They followed that man who looks like an action figure, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and started off gamely enough:
"We love Arnold," said Jenna, her twin beaming at her side. "Isn't he awesome? Thanks to him, if one of us ever decides to marry a Democrat, nobody can complain. Except maybe our grandmother, Barbara." The crowd laughed indulgently.
But Jenna went on: "Gammie, we love you dearly, but you're just not very hip. She thinks 'Sex and the City' is something married people do, but never talk about." There was an uncomfortable tittering in the room. The twins, with their trendy clothes and edgy lines and award-show delivery, seemed to be taking GOP moderation way too far.
The president and first lady are somewhat hipper than their grandmother, Jenna said. "They do know the difference between mono and Bono," a line that fell flat. "When we tell them we're going to see OutKast, they know it's a band and not a bunch of misfits."
"We spent the last four years trying to stay out of the spotlight," said Jenna, who is clearly the one most able to be flip in front of the masses. "Sometimes we did a little better than others. We kept trying to explain to Dad that when we are young and irresponsible . . . well, we're young and irresponsible."
Their appearance, said CNN political commentator Jeff Greenfield, "was frankly, the one disappointing moment in the evening." He predicted that "whoever wrote that material will be walking the coast" in Alaska.
Their routine came in an introduction for their father, who in turn introduced their mother, who gave a serious speech in support of the president's reelection. And the announcement of the twins' appearance on the podium earlier yesterday was a surprise. Both women graduated from college earlier this summer, Jenna from the University of Texas and Barbara from Yale. Their college days were marked by a flurry of tabloid appearances -- brushes with underage drinking, tales of ditching their Secret Service agents and late nights closing down hot dance clubs.
Their emergence as campaigners began with a glossy photo spread showcasing them in ball gowns in Vogue magazine, and they have made tentative forays onto the stump, with mixed results. Jenna stuck her tongue out at photographers during a trip, and her mother later said she had been working with her daughter on her impulse control issues.
But this week, they have emerged as somewhat rambunctious surrogates for their father, who seems to have called all hands on deck for a closely contested election. And Barbara and Jenna on Tuesday night confronted head-on the comparisons with the older Vanessa and Alexandra Kerry, who have been stumping hard for their father, Democratic Sen. John Kerry, meeting voters and talking up the issues. At the Democratic convention in July, Alexandra told a story about how her father had fished out their pet hamster when it fell into the river. Barbara said last night, "We had a hamster, too. Let's just say ours didn't make it."
After the sisters had indulged in several minutes of questionably appropriate pop culture references, Barbara closed by moving to safer ground.
She said she and her sister had learned from her parents "what matters in life. About unconditional love. About focus and discipline. They taught us the importance of a good sense of humor. Of being open-minded and treating everyone with respect. And, we learned the true value of honesty and integrity."
That brought relieved applause, and when the large video screens in Madison Square Garden showed their father at a ball game, where he was campaigning in Pennsylvania, the once young and irresponsible commander-in-chief told his daughters, "You make me so very proud."
Video and a transcript of Jenna and Barbara Bush's convention remarks can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/politics.