Jenna Bush, Engaged in a Tricky Role
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Do not be fooled by Jenna Bush.
She has wrapped herself in the golden glow of celebrity. But she is something else entirely.
For almost seven years, the blond Bush twin has reveled in the trappings associated with Hollywood starlets -- from wearing made-to-order designer clothes to smiling brightly from the glossy pages of a Vogue photo spread. She has walked red carpets and swanned past velvet ropes. Like so many celebrities, she has taken on a cause -- education -- and is using her fame to stir interest and attract media attention to an upcoming book tour. She has indulged in the kind of naughty behavior that paints her as human but not necessarily in need of an intervention. As she said onstage at the 2004 Republican convention, in a scripted introduction of her mother that had all the awkward, self-deprecating humor of an Oscar segue: She and her twin, Barbara, had misbehaved when they were "young and irresponsible." Who couldn't relate to that?
Jenna even had a moment of public exasperation with the media -- her own version of a modest paparazzi meltdown. She stuck her tongue out at the press corps from behind the gray windows of the presidential limousine while campaigning with her father. It was the non-gustatory equivalent of Hugh Grant hurling baked beans at a photographer.
Like a lot of celebrities, 25-year-old Jenna likes to have her fame when it's convenient and advantageous. And mostly she has. Celebrities have their double-wide bodyguards and fierce mama-bear publicists to manage their image. The president's daughter has the Secret Service and the impenetrable silence of the first lady's press office. Unless bad behavior turned up on the police blotter, it was not likely to be featured on "Access Hollywood."
The role of "celebrity" is easy to play. Selflessness and hard work are not requirements. The rules are simple. Dress well, smile for the cameras, and occasionally make an appearance at an artfully managed photo op.
In some ways, the glare of fame has distracted us from the truth. As the president's daughter, Jenna isn't a celebrity. She's a symbol, and that's a far more cumbersome role.
That reality became inescapable as soon as her engagement to Henry Hager was announced by the White House 10 days ago. That transformed the betrothal into a national event -- an official American celebration of marriage.
In the past, the White House had not made it a habit to announce the milestones in Jenna's life. It offered no details on how she celebrated her 21st birthday. There was no flurry of news releases pertaining to her career choices. And the only acknowledgment of her graduation from the University of Texas in 2004 was to confirm that she would not be attending commencement exercises.
But the engagement is different. It is weighted with the baggage of family, tradition and America's misty-eyed habit of trying to cast the first family as a narrowly defined version of the Ideal Family -- that deeply ingrained fantasy of well-behaved kids, nurturing mother and God-fearing father.
The White House feeds that desire when it releases the president's menu for Thanksgiving dinner, for instance. (Consider the controversy if the president shunned good ol' turkey and opted for Tofurkey.) Family Circle magazine now publishes cookie recipes in a regular presidential spouse bake-off. People still stubbornly attach Norman Rockwell nostalgia to the presidency; reality need not intrude.
The children of presidents -- and of presidential candidates -- find themselves in the same frustratingly undefined role as presidential spouses. During the campaign, if the children are old enough, they can become surrogates for the candidate. The five fresh-faced Romney boys blog for father Mitt. But they have also become Exhibit A for those who want to make an issue of whose children are serving in Iraq and whose are not.
If the children are too young, or not inclined to public speaking, there still is a role for them. (In the case of Rudy Giuliani, silence is probably the best he can hope for from his estranged kids.) They can be trotted out as pint-size embodiments of the candidates' human side. They are walking, giggling, rambunctious optimism.
After debates, for instance, Sen. Chris Dodd regularly hoists one of his young daughters aloft to plant a kiss on her cheek in front of the cameras. Undoubtedly it's a sincere gesture, but also a visually appealing one. Jack and Emma Claire Edwards -- the youngest children of John Edwards -- have almost as much name recognition as some of the second- and third-tier candidates. Malia and Sasha Obama cuddled with their father, Barack, and mother, Michelle, in the pages of Men's Vogue in 2006 -- a series of images that put him forth as the new Kennedy.
Some presidential children seemed perfectly suited to the job of symbol. The image of Chelsea Clinton walking hand in hand with her parents toward a waiting helicopter, symbolically bridging the divide caused by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, is a part of history. But from the beginning, Jenna struggled with the demands of presidential symbolism. She wore a cherry-red camisole onstage when her father celebrated his reelection in 2004, prompting questions about whether first daughters should wear lingerie-like clothing on such public occasions. She wore scruffy-hemmed corduroy pants and flip-flops when she arrived with her mother on an official visit to France in 2002. Should first daughters be allowed to choose comfort over propriety?
The wedding -- and everyone presumes one will follow the engagement -- would be much less complicated if Jenna could just have a celebrity blowout instead of symbolic nuptials. Celebrity weddings can be overwrought, overpriced and tacky. But just how indulgent a bride can Jenna be in wartime? Celebrity wedding dresses are assumed to be couture, not made in America. The wedding favors can be Chinese imports and no one will care.
Being a celebrity is so much easier than being a symbol. John Kennedy Jr. wasn't just a famous presidential child, he was America's kid. And that's just plain creepy. This won't be just Jenna's and Henry's wedding. The White House turned it into an American wedding. And while no one expects to be pleased with all of the couple's choices, everyone will think they have a right to be heard.