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.

Wead’s report? But I assumed I would not be interviewing him for this story: The president and the first lady have maintained a strict no-comment policy about the twins, insisting that they deserve their privacy, regardless of their behavior.

Then, on the night after my dinner with Jenna, the phone rings in my Washington hotel room. “Hey,” says Jenna, “hold on a minute”—and she passes the phone to someone else. Suddenly I hear that familiar voice …

Skipper!” the president says, using the nickname he gave me when I met him during his first gubernatorial campaign. On this very day, the pollsters for the Washington Post and ABC News had reported that 65 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush’s job performance, which makes him the second-most-unpopular president in the history of modern polling (just behind Richard M. Nixon’s 66 percent disapproval rating). What’s more, the front pages of various newspapers are full of stories about members of Congress calling for the resignations of various Bush staffers and attacking Bush’s handling of the war. Some on the fringe are even invoking the i-word: “impeachment.” Yet perhaps because he knows I’m writing about Jenna, he is completely ebullient. He asks how my wife and daughter are doing—amazingly, he still remembers their names, even though he hasn’t seen them since 1996—and, just like Jenna, he jokes about my writing. “What? You haven’t written a book yet?” he chortles.

When I reply that Jenna is already a far more accomplished writer than he is, that her book is better written than his campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep, he says, “You can blame Karen [Hughes, Bush’s longtime adviser, now an Undersecretary of State] for that. She wrote it.”

I ask him if he’s nervous about one of his daughters finally stepping into the spotlight. (Barbara, who works in the educational programming division of the Cooper-Hewitt design museum, in New York City, has told me she is happy remaining as anonymous as she can.)

Yeah, a little,” he says. “I was worried about Jenna being exposed.”

Exposed to what?”

Reporters like you,” he cheerfully snaps. “But really, I cannot tell you how proud I am of her for going out on her own and writing this book. I’m bursting with pride over both Jenna and Barbara. They are very capable, intelligent, and engaging young women, and they are accomplishing a great deal with their lives.”

Then he says, “Okay, that’s enough for your story. I don’t want this to be about me.”

I try to get in a question about his anxieties regarding the girls when he was first running for president, but he’s already moved on. “I’ve got to go eat,” he says. “Mrs. Bush is yelling at me, and you know what happens when she yells at me. All right, dude, I’ve got to go.”


Speaking to delegates (with her sister, Barbara, left) at the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004.
J. Scott Applewhite/ AP

Even as a child growing up in Dallas, Jenna was known as the rowdy twin. My stepdaughter went to the same elementary school that she and Barbara did, and when I ask her about those days, she says Barbara was bookish and Jenna was always talking up a storm as she walked the hallways between classes. Barbara agrees. “Jenna was definitely louder and funnier and more outgoing,” she told me, “and I was like my mother: quieter, more reserved.”

At Austin High School, which the twins attended during their father’s gubernatorial years, Jenna was wildly popular. “She was this great character, really funny, like a stage comedian, and a bit of a klutz who’d fall out of her chair,” recalls one of her friends. She was constantly dating—one year she invited three guys she had gone out with to the same Christmas party at the Governor’s Mansion (including Blake Gottesman, for a time one of the president’s trusted aides)—and she did her share of partying. According to the Houston Chronicle, Jenna was involved in what the newspaper described as “a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission incident” at the age of sixteen, the first of three such underage incidents. During Bush’s inauguration party to celebrate his reelection as governor in 1998, Jenna and Barbara slipped away to go out with their friends, and their ticked-off father stayed up until two-thirty in the morning calling various parents and trying to find them.

Jenna is deeply nostalgic about her Austin days. “It was a time when we could all walk as a family from the Governor’s Mansion to Manuel’s [a Mexican restaurant on Congress Avenue] and no one noticed us—or if they did notice us, they didn’t care,” she says. The Bushes had dinner together almost every night, and the conversations, according to Jenna, were free-flowing. She didn’t hesitate to challenge her dad: During one dinner, she plunked her fork on her plate, told him that the death penalty was wrong, and argued that the convicted killer Karla Faye Tucker should not be executed. (Her father listened respectfully, she says, but told her he would not be granting Tucker a reprieve.)

At the end of their senior year of high school, the more stylish Barbara was voted “most likely to appear in Vogue” by her classmates, while Jenna was voted “most likely to trip at the prom.” By then, Bush was running for president, and Jenna admits she and Barbara were not happy about it. “We were really independent kids, and the thought of Secret Service agents following us all the time was terrifying,” she says. “But when it came right down to it, we thought, ‘He should run because he would be a great president.’ How unbelievably selfish would it have been for us to say, ‘Please, Daddy, don’t do it because we’re nineteen and it might affect our life negatively.’”

The Bushes were so determined for the girls to lead normal lives that they kept them out of sight during the entire campaign and asked the Secret Service not to hover over them while they

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