Adapted from "The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush," by Ann Gerhart, published this week by Simon & Schuster
The armored black limousine glides to a stop near a U.S. military jet at Andrews Air Force Base early one morning in May 2002. Laura Bush is about to embark on her first solo trip as first lady, a 10-day visit to three European nations, where she will speak out for Afghan women's rights.
An aide opens the door, and Mrs. Bush slides her legs carefully out and steps onto the tarmac. By this point, she knows her part well: Pause to smile, wave and let the photographers dutifully record the image. The small press corps knows its part, too, and watches the routine preflight maneuver with no expectations. Suddenly, one leg in worn corduroy, then the other, swings off the smooth leather limo seat. Jenna Bush stands up to follow her mother into the plane for this spring fling, and the reporters go on alert. It's the rowdy twin, the one who has been busted twice in four weeks for underage drinking, who has run her Secret Service detail ragged, who was captured in the National Enquirer falling down, a cigarette in her hand.
The corduroy jeans are ratty at their too-long hems, where Jenna has ground them into the pavement too many times. She is wearing a short black T-shirt, and her exposed tummy pooches out over the low-riding waistband. Flip-flops are on her feet. Her blond hair has been pinned carelessly up with a plastic clip. Sunglasses cover her eyes. Hoisting a backpack, she clomps up the plane stairs and disappears.
She hardly looks appropriately presidential daughterly, but then again, she has time to get herself together before the entourage lands in Paris, where French and American officials will greet Mrs. Bush and hand her flowers. The girl is hardly flying coach: Her mother has a hairdresser and a makeup artist on board the military plane, and there's a lovely wide bed and full shower.
But upon arrival 71/2 hours later, while her ladylike mother smiles and embraces the waiting welcomers, Jenna appears at the plane door looking exactly the same. The flip-flops still on the feet, the belly still exposed, the hair still not brushed. Suddenly, she darts back inside. The twin has spied the telephoto lenses of several French photographers far away, behind a fence. For a few moments, nothing happens, and then the limousine trunk floats open by electronic remote. A White House valet retrieves one of Mrs. Bush's Neiman Marcus garment bags, carefully laid out in the trunk, and he carries it back up the plane's steps. The reporters watch in wonder. While he holds it aloft, Jenna slips behind it, and he walks back down the stairs, shielding the first daughter from the prying eyes of all media, foreign and domestic. Only the top of her blond head, bobbing up and down, and those flip-flops are visible.
Jenna is hiding, literally, behind her mother's skirts.
There are only two possible explanations for what the reporters have just witnessed. Either, A) Laura Bush has asked her 20-year-old to please make herself more presentable, more fitting as a representative of the United States using taxpayer dollars on an official visit, and her daughter has adamantly refused, or B) Laura hasn't even bothered to ask.
There is plenty that the Bushes don't ask their daughters to do, that much is clear. They are college seniors now, 22, Jenna an English major at the University of Texas in Austin, and Barbara, like her father a Yalie, majoring in humanities. Both are considering graduate school, their parents say, but not before working first, perhaps as teachers.
Jenna and Barbara have not campaigned or reined in their adolescent rebellions. They have not appeared engaged in any of the pressing issues their generation will inherit, nor shown empathy for the struggles facing their mother and their father, the president of the United States. They have not treated with respect their Secret Service details, those highly trained men and women who literally would take a bullet for them. They don't show their faces at the White House often. So far, they have shown little inclination to embrace the life of public service modeled by their parents, uncle and grandparents.
They are girls born rich, blessed with intelligence, good looks, trust funds, loving parents, boundless opportunities, freedom from many of life's daily vexing challenges. Yet they persist in seeing themselves as victims of daddy's job. In this attitude, they have been subtly encouraged by their mother. Laura Bush would never permit herself to feel victimized by her husband's decisions. She regards herself as a full partner who embraced his ambitions because she wanted for him what he wanted for himself. His happiness has been as important to her as her own, or greater. No, any victimization she might have felt has all been transferred onto her girls. Once George sought political office when his girls were 12, Laura's guiding principle in mothering became "they didn't really ask for this," as if the life that followed for Jenna and Barbara was some disastrous, bumpy detour from the normal smooth path toward adulthood.
"They just want to do like every other teenager does," the first lady has insisted often. This declaration is dead opposite from most parents' insistence, which is, of course, "I don't care what the 'other' kids do. You are not other kids."
Laura Bush left her career as teacher and librarian at 31. By the time the twins were born in 1981, Laura was 35. The couple hadn't been sure they would ever be able to have children of their own, and then Laura nearly lost the babies late in her pregnancy, so she and George felt doubly blessed. Their gratitude was so deep and persistent that over time, it seems to have turned into indulgence.
In many ways, the Bush twins were excellent candidates to make a good transition to life as children of a political figure. It was the family business, after all, and the twins' parents entered it only after they had addressed their concerns about what it would mean for family life, they told the Dallas Morning News in 1995. "She was the last one to sign on, the most reluctant," the president said of Laura. "Our girls were so little," she said. But the timing was good: After their father became governor, Jenna and Barbara were able to go to high school in the relatively laid-back town of Austin. By the time their parents landed in the White House, they were away at college.
When the Bushes first moved from Dallas into the governor's mansion, Barbara and Jenna went to the private St. Andrew's Episcopal School and later the public Austin High, and their mother worked hard to integrate her life as a mother with her duties as first lady. Even as the couple traveled around the state, Laura insisted that at least she or George be home by 4 in the afternoon, to help with homework. The four of them ate dinner together most nights. "You'd see them at back-to-school night, just like all the other parents, sitting at the student desks in the classroom," said an Austinite whose kids were friends with the Bush girls. "It was no big deal. They were just part of the parent population."
There was plenty of staff and few chores. Texas Department of Public Safety troopers chauffeured the girls to and from school. Laura recognized she had been deprived of an excellent way to gather teenage intelligence. Being relieved of driving "is actually a wonderful luxury for someone who drove 20 carpools a week in Dallas," Laura said. "At the same time, you learn a lot about your kids when you have them captive in a car."
In interviews during the gubernatorial years, both Bushes referred again and again to how embarrassing their children found them. Always, they seemed to think this was perfectly normal behavior for teenagers.
Every time he went to one of Jenna's volleyball games, the opposing team would ask for an autograph and picture. "Jenna and Barbara's reaction, of course, was total humiliation," he said. Laura seemed resigned to being an object of ridicule for her girls. They made fun of her clothes, her shoes, her hair. "Mom," they would tell her, "your hair is so stiff it would stay put in a hurricane."
Rarely were the girls asked to come downstairs and say hello to dinner guests. "We've been very careful not to make them go to things or be in the limelight," Laura explained. "At this age, they don't even like to admit they have parents." Later, during the presidential campaign, Laura would return to this theme again. The twins were proud of their father, she said, "and they want him, of course, to do whatever he wants to do, but at the same time, they want the privacy that I think every senior in high school wants. You know, most seniors in high school don't want to even admit they have parents, you know, much less a parent who is a governor or a presidential candidate."
The Clinton Model
Partly out of respect for their privacy, mostly out of sensitivity toward their distaste for their dad's high profile, Laura also asked photographers not to take the twins' pictures. Requests for a family portrait to illustrate a magazine or newspaper story were routinely denied. "The girls would be totally humiliated having to do a photo," said Laura.
When, at 16, the twins demanded separate cars, their mother assented, and their father disagreed. "You can share one car," he said, "and learn to work together." It was one of his rare victories in an attempt to impose some limitations.
As the family began to discuss whether George should run for president, the girls were adamant in their opposition. Both would be in college before the election. They would never have to live in the White House or attend school in Washington, as Chelsea Clinton had done from age 12. But that calculus didn't move them. To Jenna and Barbara, it was clear that their emancipation from the strictures of living at home would coincide exactly with the arrival of a Secret Service detail to their college dormitories.
The Bushes were heartened by the way the media had been protective of Bill and Hillary Clinton's only child. "We felt like the press had given Chelsea Clinton the opportunity to have privacy, to have a private life," Laura said. And they determined that they would not burden their girls with heavy expectations about their role as Bushes. The only lesson they wanted to impart to their children, Bush said during the presidential campaign, was "that I love you. I love you more than anything. And therefore, you should feel free to fail or succeed, and you can be anything you want in America."
When inauguration day arrived, Jenna and Barbara dressed to be noticed in trendy expensive outfits by Texas-born designer Lela Rose and sexy stiletto-heeled knee-high Jimmy Choo boots. When the moment came for the actual swearing-in, the 19-year-old girls fidgeted toward the edge of their chairs, then stood up, unsure how to behave. It fell to President Clinton, who gave each of them a gentle nudge toward their parents, and still they stood there, shoulders slumped, looking at their toes. Finally, their grandmother Barbara Bush, seated behind them, had seen enough. In one swift, practiced gesture, she reached forward to her granddaughters, first one, then the other. She put her thumbs between their shoulder blades and used her fingers to pull their shoulders up and back. The message was clear: Stand up straight! Remember who you are! We are Bushes, and Bushes stand up straight.
The mainstream press honored the administration's request to not pry into the girls' lives. Their respective campus newspapers primly refused to cover them. But the tabloids had become intrigued. Jenna and Barbara, people quickly surmised, were not like the preceding first daughter.
During her years in the White House, rather than fleeing political life, Chelsea had seized it. She called her father's secretary and asked for a ticket to his State of the Union address. When her mother embarked on a tour of the most disadvantaged spots in India and Africa, she wanted to go along. Chelsea went to parties and drank and had boyfriends just like many other teenagers -- which is what Jenna and Barbara craved -- but Chelsea had a gift for keeping her mishaps out of the public eye. She cultivated the protection and support of other adults in the White House, and she treated her Secret Service agents with respect. Accordingly, they were more inclined to protect her when she got herself in jams.
The twins, meanwhile, seemed to have decided that their agents were their enemies -- and their chauffeurs, bellhops and valets.
It only took a month after their dad became president for Jenna to land in the headlines, with news that she had used her Secret Service detail to spring a male friend from a Texas jail after he was arrested for public intoxication. The White House refused to comment about the incident, and so did the Secret Service when a spokesman was asked about the propriety of using agents to spring drunk kids from the county clink.
It was the first of many conundrums the Bushes would face as their daughters traversed their last years of being underage. Should they reveal the particulars of an incident to prove that nothing improper had happened, or maintain the no-comment policy and allow questions to bloom into controversy? Within weeks, the National Enquirer had printed a full-page photo of Jenna laughing and holding a cigarette, crashing to the floor atop a giggling female friend, and Barbara had given the slip to her Secret Service detail as she and some fellow Yale students drove to Manhattan to a World Wrestling Federation match, according to an article in the Yale magazine Rumpus. Using an electronic pass to go through a tollbooth, the car in which Barbara was riding then speeded up and left the agents, who were paying their toll in cash, behind.
Even when Laura was confronted with evidence that her girls were deliberately and dangerously evasive with their agents, she seemed unwilling to correct them. The agents were told to back off. The press was blamed for the reports. The unofficial position was that the twins were just singled out for unfair attention, even after Jenna was busted for underage drinking twice in four weeks. That summer of 2001, Jenna sat in a crowded bar and tried to sweet-talk the bartender into breaking the law and serving her, but he lost his nerve when he saw the guys with the earpieces and asked her to leave. Jenna, according to an account in U.S. News & World Report, was furious. She yelled at her agents, then fled down a back alley. They gave chase, said the magazine, and when they caught up with her, she taunted them: "You know if anything happens to me, my dad would have your ass."
But when she called her father to complain that her detail was interfering with her drinking, he sided with her agents. Not so her mother. Laura didn't want her girls to feel constrained, and the agents were ordered to pull back from traditional methods of coverage, according to the magazine's account. A few months later, when the Secret Service scrambled to grab all presidential relatives on Sept. 11, 2001, the agents couldn't find Jenna for hours.
The Fake ID
In Austin, in May 2001, Jenna was cited for underage drinking and appeared in municipal court, where she was fined and given community service. A few weeks later, at Chuy's restaurant in Austin, she and Barbara and three friends slipped into seats about 10 at night and ordered tequila shots and margaritas. The bartender immediately recognized the president's daughter, according to the account he later gave police. "The blonde in the pink halter top is Jenna Bush," he said. "You'd better card the whole group." When Jenna tried to use a Texas driver's license with a picture that didn't look anything at all like her, the waitress refused to serve her, but set down on the table the drinks and shots, which were drained.
The restaurant manager called 911. When Austin officer Clifford Rogers asked to see Jenna's identification, she burst into tears.
"Please," she implored, according to the officer's account in the police report. "She then stated that I do not have any idea what it is like to be a college student, and not be able to do anything that other students get to do."
Both twins were charged with misdemeanors. Jenna was booked with misrepresenting her age to buy booze, a charge complicated by the citation already on her record. She faced far stiffer penalties for the second offense, under Texas's tough "zero tolerance" policy, which her father had signed into law in 1997. Barbara was charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol. Barbara pleaded no contest and got the eight-hour community service and an order to attend alcohol-awareness class. Jenna was fined $600, lost her driver's license for 30 days, had to do more community service and attend alcohol-awareness class.
Again the White House refused to comment. "If it involves the daughters and their private lives, it is a family matter," said spokesman Scott McClellan. This episode seemed egregious enough to demand some spin, however. A senior administration official let slip to CNN that a "not happy" President Bush had called Jenna from California, where he was talking up a park preservation program. There would be no word from Laura, however. Asked if she had spoken to her daughters, aide Ashleigh Adams said, "If she did, that would be private. Out of respect for the girls' privacy, we don't comment on them." In the days that followed, press secretary Ari Fleischer repeatedly lashed out at reporters who tried to ask questions about the incident.
When they finally turned 21 on Nov. 25, 2002, White House aides breathed a huge sigh of relief. Mom threw the girls an elaborate party at the Crawford family ranch on Nov. 30, and busloads of revelers arrived dressed in costumes according to the theme, which was cowboys and Indians. Jenna insisted on celebrating her actual 21st birthday, however, at the scene of her original crime, Cheers Shot Bar, where she insisted staff cover the windows with black paper to prevent news crews from seeing inside.
As Other Teens Do
In the spring of 2002, while on that European trip, Laura Bush was asked if her girls had gotten more used to the limelight. "No," she said, "I would have to say not. They're going to be juniors in college. They just want to do like other teenagers do."
At the same time, those girls had gotten expert at exploiting the notoriety they had gained as the president's daughters. They popped up in Hollywood, where Jenna had an internship with an entertainment company, and danced the night away with a posse of 20. In St.-Tropez, Jenna partied with Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. In New York, the twins sent one of their Secret Service agents over to procure an introduction to rocker Chris Cornell, the frontman for the band Audioslave. The girls were not averse to showing up at places where controlled substances were enjoyed. At a Four Seasons Grill Room party for wunderkind designer Zac Posen that Barbara attended, the air smelled of pot, according to the New York Daily News.
In Los Angeles, they showed up at a Nike party, where they met movie star Ashton Kutcher, who ended up taking them back to his house, he told Rolling Stone. "So we're hanging out," he said. "The Bushes were underage-drinking at my house. When I checked outside, one of the Secret Service guys asked me if they'd be spending the night. I said no. And then I go upstairs to see another friend and I can smell the green wafting out under his door. I open the door, and there he is, smoking out the Bush twins on his hookah."
No comment, no comment, no comment, said the White House.
When she talks about her girls at all publicly, the first lady is given to making bland, nonspecific declarations of love and support. "I think they're a lot of fun to be with," she said. "I guess I would say that I'm engaged by them, with their personalities. . . . I think, like every parent, if your children are happy, then parents are happy. And if they're unhappy, then there's nothing more difficult for parents."
President Bush is slightly more revealing. "I love them a lot. I am impatient with them. I wanted them to be normal when they were teenagers, and I wanted them to be working ladies," he told Ladies Home Journal. "I've got to slow down. I've got to allow them to become the bright young ladies that they're becoming at their own pace, and not at mine.
"They are beginning to realize that they've got to take some responsibility for their own lives and beginning to think about their career paths," he said. "Laura chose her career path . . . early. I didn't choose mine until a little late. And uh," the president said, chuckling, "I never really was that worried about the career path."
Ann Gerhart will be online at www.washingtonpost.com Tuesday, Jan. 13, at noon to answer questions about her book, "The Perfect Wife."