By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Jenna Bush wants to clear up this pregnancy nonsense right now.
The president's daughter is installed in a meeting room at the Hay-Adams Hotel, a stone's throw from the White House ("I don't think of that place as home!"). She's agreed to sit for her first-ever extended newspaper interview to talk about "Ana's Story: A Journey of Hope," her new book for young adults.
The book is a nonfiction account of the struggles and triumphs of a Latin American teenager born HIV-positive. Bush says she's hoping to "start a dialogue" with young Americans about HIV/AIDS and other hurdles -- poverty, abuse, lack of education -- that confront millions of children worldwide.
Her name, she knows, gives her an enormous platform from which to do so.
Having stepped onto that platform, however, she also knows that other subjects will come up.
During a conversation lasting almost an hour and a half, she will field queries about topics as varied as her wedding plans ("We're thinking about a Las Vegas wedding! I'm just kidding!") and her thoughts on the war in Iraq, which has been dominating the September headlines.
Right now, she's discussing the image that has clung to her ever since her first year in college. That's when a couple of citations for underage drinking gave her and her twin sister, Barbara, who was cited once, reputations as out-of-control party girls.
She didn't like being defined that way, she says, but she wasn't willing to give up her privacy to try to reshape public perception.
She's 25 now. Does all this still bother her?
"I guess I'm over it," she says. "But we also -- we don't read anything. Because if you read all of these things, you would just feel terrible."
She doesn't Google herself?
"No way ."
So she hasn't seen all those blog entries speculating about when the Bad Blonde Twin is going to have her baby?
"I'm not pregnant," she deadpans, then throws her head back and laughs.
Voice raised, she repeats the point for emphasis. It's as if she's trying to outshout the din of unsought celebrity that has engulfed her since she was in her teens.
"I'm not even pregnant!" she says.
* * *
Her voice is husky and lacks the anticipated Texas twang. Her hair hangs below the shoulders of her dark blue Lela Rose dress. She looks straight at you when she talks and her words spill out thick and fast.
It's easy to imagine Jenna Bush as the life of a pretty loud party.
It's just as easy to see her as the kind of teacher whose energy sustains her when the third-graders are bouncing off the walls. And teaching, as it happens, is where the story of "Ana's Story" begins.
After graduating from the University of Texas and a stint on the 2004 campaign trail, Bush got a teaching-assistant position at the Elsie Whitlow Stokes charter school in Mount Pleasant. The next year she had her teacher's certification and a job co-teaching a third-grade class.
"Many of my kids emigrated from El Salvador, Peru, Mexico -- all over this region," she says. She didn't know much about their lives and schooling back home, and "that started me thinking."
One thing she thought about was volunteering with UNICEF in Latin America. She applied jointly with Mia Baxter, an old friend who'd been working as a photographer for Glamour magazine.
"Our friendship is sort of based on challenging each other," Bush says, grinning, "and I think she was ready to photograph something besides mascara."
The pair set out to document the lives of young people who are living in what UNICEF staffers call "exclusion" -- meaning that, for a variety of reasons, they have been marginalized and don't receive basic education, social services or health care. The idea was to vivify the statistics with short "life histories."
But after Bush started talking to the vibrant young single mother she calls Ana, she got more ambitious.
They met at a U.N.-hosted gathering. "She was 17," Bush says, "and she looked so young and fresh-faced." At the same time there was "an air about her that was so much older." (Because young people face discrimination if their HIV-positive status is revealed, Bush changed names and some details. She doesn't name the country where Ana lives, though it has been previously reported to be Panama.)
The more Bush learned about Ana's life, the more she thought it was something that should be "brought back to the kids in the United States."
"Jenna came to me and said, 'I want to write a book about this girl,' " recalls Mark Connolly, UNICEF's regional adviser for HIV/AIDS. Connolly encouraged her.
"It's a unique story," he says, "but there are Anas all over the world." A book would also highlight the fact that -- while the crisis in Africa is more horrific and thus better known -- "we have a serious heterosexual AIDS epidemic in Latin America," where an estimated 1.6 million adults and children are infected.
After talking to Connolly, Bush called home.
Laura Bush, too, encouraged her. She says she wasn't surprised her daughter wanted to write a book, because Jenna "was always interested in writing." But Jenna Bush recalls that her mother did have a question about going public.
"Do you know what you're getting yourself into?" she asked.
* * *
Bush and Baxter met with Ana regularly for six months. They cut her hair and talked about boyfriends. Ana called them "gringas" and made fun of their Spanish. Then, at some point, Bush would get out her tape recorder and the mood would change.
She wanted to tell her story -- she was "extremely open to us," Baxter says -- but it was hard.
Ana's mother had died of AIDS when Ana was 3 years old. Ana had only one memory of her: in a bathroom, sobbing. Later, her father died of AIDS as well.
When she was 10, she learned she'd been born with HIV herself. Her grandmother insisted she keep it a secret. There would be other secrets too: Ana and her younger sister were sexually abused by a man their grandmother was living with.
One of Bush's strongest memories from the interviews was when Ana talked about making up a game called "orphan." In it, she would imagine that she and her sister lived in a house by themselves. There was a river and an apple orchard. Life was peaceful and safe.
At Laura Bush's suggestion, Bush and Baxter retained Washington attorney Robert Barnett ("the god of all book deals," Jenna Bush calls him). Bush wrote a proposal and five sample chapters, and when the two women came home for Christmas, Barnett helped negotiate a contract with HarperCollins. Her share of the profits, Bush says, will go to UNICEF. No money will come to her, but some will go to an educational fund that will allow Ana to continue her education.
The deadline was tight. Bush wanted the book out at the beginning of the school year, and she drove herself to make that happen.
"I've done this 34 years," says HarperCollins senior executive editor Toni Markiet, and "she's among the five hardest-working writers I've ever worked with." Bush wrote "every single word," Markiet adds, though she got the kind of guidance Markiet gives any writer.
Well, maybe not every word. Bush's mother was also seeing drafts and editing for grammar and usage.
"Former librarian and schoolteacher," Laura Bush says. "I couldn't help it."
* * *
To anyone accustomed to the scripted utterances of official Washington, the torrent of words pouring forth from Jenna Bush can't help but feel different. Answering questions about "Ana's Story" or books in general, she talks as if she could go on forever.
Ask her about authors she loves and she tosses out a dozen names -- among them Nicole Krauss, Isabel Allende, Milan Kundera, Ann Patchett and Charles Baxter -- before turning the question around ("What's your favorite book?").
Ask about more private or politically charged topics, however, and you can see her natural impulse toward openness at war with a nascent caution.
She's not inclined to elaborate about the underage drinking citations, coming five weeks apart in the spring of 2001, that resulted in a small fine, a suspended driver's license and the requirement that she perform community service and attend alcohol-awareness classes. When asked, in this context, what the hardest thing about being the president's daughter has been, she says, "Seeing my dad criticized."
Beyond elopement jokes, she doesn't talk much about her engagement to Henry Hager, either. "We really do want to stay private," she says. "We both realize that it's eight more -- oh, please, no! -- a year and a half more and then somebody else's kids will be in the White House. And we can go live our lives in whatever way we want."
She's undaunted by questions touching on the politics of AIDS. She praises her father's overseas initiatives while noting that "the Clinton Foundation is doing amazing work in Africa and in Latin America" as well.
"Ana's Story" features a UNICEF-compiled list of "Ten Myths About HIV/AIDS." No. 6 reads, "Condoms don't protect you from HIV."
"A pretty obvious myth," Bush says. "Everybody knows that condoms prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS."
She loses no opportunity to lavish praise on UNICEF and those who work there. But she deflects a question about the Bush administration's combative relationship with the United Nations as a whole.
"I'm not my dad," she says. "I can tell you that UNICEF is doing incredible work."
Some of that work is in Iraq. UNICEF reported in May that since the 2003 invasion, 4 million Iraqis -- "nearly 15 percent of Iraq's total population" -- have been forced to flee their homes. Half are children.
Asked about this, Bush's voice gets quiet.
"Nobody wants war," she says. "I definitely, and my father definitely doesn't want war. But it's a horribly complicated situation." She's not an expert, she says. "But I can say it's devastating. . . . I think everybody can agree on that."
She didn't read the 2006 op-ed piece in which Michael Kinsley argued that the president's daughters were now old enough to be "independent moral actors, and their situation requires that they either publicly oppose their father's war or do something to support it." Her voice acquires a sharper edge when it's mentioned.
"I'm not going to comment against my father," she says. "I love him, you know?" To her, he's "not the president" but someone she still sees "as I did when I was in third grade."
"As the most wonderful father in the entire world. As supportive. As the guy that came to my soccer practices and cheered me on when I made a goal for the wrong team."
A minute later:
"Obviously, all of this breaks my heart."
* * *
HarperCollins has printed 500,000 copies of "Ana's Story" and it is sending Bush on a tour of more than 25 cities. Last night, ABC broadcast her first TV interview, with Diane Sawyer on "20/20." This is not a normal first-time author's book launch, to put it mildly.
"Because this name is on this book, maybe more people will read it," Bush says. "If that's the case, I'm so thrilled by that."
The former teacher also seemed thrilled, yesterday morning, to kick off her tour with a more personal event at her old school.
"This is the best school in the United States!" she told the 30 or so Elsie Whitlow Stokes sixth-graders who trooped in to hear her read from "Ana's Story" and to get books signed by the teacher they called "Miss Jenna."
"Ana changed my life," she said. "She wanted the kids in the United States -- you -- to be educated about the illness she was living with."
"Can you get HIV from holding hands?" she asked a bit later. "No!" the kids chorused back.
When she was done talking and signing, she moved around the room, greeting children, patting heads, offering hugs.
To look at her, you'd have thought she hadn't even noticed the guy from NBC with the giant camera on his shoulder who shadowed her the whole time.