Girl Gone Mild

This is the same Jenna Bush who was cited more than once for underage drinking? Who was a fixture in the tabloids and a punch line in every late-night talk show monologue? That was then. Today, the president’s daughter is all grown up, teaching in an inner-city public school, soon to be married, and even sooner to be the best-selling author of a serious book about AIDS. And yes, she’s counting the minutes until January 20, 2009.
Photographed by Peter Yang in New York on September 6, 2007

I assume the Secret Service agents will arrive first, checking out everyone in sight. But suddenly the door opens, and in she comes, all alone, dressed casually in an inexpensive gray dress with a matching cotton sweater, her sandy-blond hair held back with a rubber band.

“So is this okay? Mexican food?” asks Jenna Bush. “I figured it might make you feel more at home.”

It’s a mild July evening in Washington, D.C., and Jenna has agreed to meet me for dinner at the upscale Oyamel Cocina restaurant, between the Capitol and the White House, where Jenna is, as she likes to say, “living with the folks.” When I ask her why her Secret Service detail is not with her, she shrugs and says, “I made them drop me off at the corner. I don’t want to cause a scene.”

At 25, she is a striking, slim young woman, her arms and legs perfectly toned thanks to daily 6 a.m. workouts at the White House gym or a health club she frequents. She is also unmistakably her father’s daughter, with the same brown eyes, the same good-natured grin that slides sideways across her face, and, yes, the same saucy personality, full of sardonic asides.

“Oh, by the way, Dad was going to call and say hi, but then the king of Jordan called,” Jenna tells me. “Sorry you got bumped.”

“What do you think your dad’s doing right now?”

“Riding his bike around the White House lawn. He’s a maniac on that bike.”

“And your mom?”

“She’s probably in the sitting room on the second floor, reading. We got the new TEXAS MONTHLY, by the way. I saw you had an article in there. All I have to say is, I hope you write a better one about me.”

She chuckles, and a few diners at nearby tables glance her way. Over at the bar, a couple of young men in suits openly gape at her. Although Jenna has lived in Washington only since graduating from college in 2004, she is one of the city’s genuine celebrities. Her twin sister, Barbara, who lives in New York City, is rarely recognized when she goes out in Manhattan. But being a Bush in Washington is a far different experience: Jenna cannot show up anywhere without later seeing her name in a gossip column or on some snarky blog. Just a week before our dinner, there had been an item in the Celeb Sightings section of the Washington Post ’s Names and Faces column claiming that Jenna had been spotted at a trendy restaurant eating foie gras. The news had set off a minor controversy, prompting the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Ingrid Newkirk, to fax a letter to Jenna at the White House, angrily describing the grisly conditions ducks must endure at duck farms. “It’s simply un-American,” Newkirk wrote. “Will you commit to never eating foie gras again?”

“Foie gras,” says Jenna with another chuckle, shaking her head back and forth in mock exasperation, just as her father does when reporters ask him what he thinks are stupid questions. “Where did they come up with that? The only meat I eat is fish.”

A waiter appears, and Jenna orders a small dish of ceviche, a small dish of beans, guacamole, and a glass of water with no ice.

“No drink?” asks the waiter.

“No drink,” Jenna firmly says, shooting me an amused glance. “I’m making it an early evening. Actually, these days, I almost always make it an early evening. I like to be in bed reading or watching a movie by nine o’clock, and I’m asleep by ten or ten-thirty.”

She notices the skeptical look on my face and shakes her head again. “People change, you know.”

Boy, do they. Flash back to December 2000, not long after her father eked out a victory in the presidential election. There, in the National Enquirer , was a nearly full-page photo of Jenna, then a nineteen-year-old freshman at the University of Texas at Austin. She had a cigarette in her hand and was laughing hysterically as she crashed to the floor atop a female friend at a party.

“Get Ready, America!” blared the Enquirer’s headline. “Here Comes George W.’s Wild Daughter.”

Then, a few months later, Jenna was cited for underage drinking at a bar on Austin’s Sixth Street. Within weeks she was cited a second time for underage drinking, this time with Barbara, who had just completed her freshman year at Yale. Now the mainstream press paid attention, and suddenly Jenna and Barbara found themselves heralded, and derided, from coast to coast as America’s new party girls.

Jenna got the brunt of it. Jay Leno joked that her Secret Service nickname was Roger Clinton, that she was learning to play a new musical instrument: the Breathalyzer. High-brow op-ed columnists piled on, purporting to psychoanalyze Jenna, arguing that her antics were acts of adolescent rebellion or signs of deeper emotional issues. One went so far as to suggest that Jenna had the same kind of drinking problem that had afflicted her father when he was younger.

Well, America, get ready again: Here comes George W. Bush’s mild daughter. You can still find her having the occasional drink with her friends at a happening nightspot in Georgetown or hanging out at the Iota Club and Cafe, in Arlington, Virginia, where she likes to listen to live music (especially by Larry McMurtry’s son, James), but she’s begun to behave like, of all things, an adult. As nearly everyone knows by now, Washington’s most eligible bachelorette recently took herself off the market: In August the White House announced that Jenna would be marrying Henry Hager, the son of a former lieutenant governor of Virginia.

Even more surprising, she’s now a big-time author—and an activist. Jenna, who since 2005 has been teaching at an elementary school in a low-income D.C. neighborhood, has written a book that she says is meant to be

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