You probably think you know Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush.
Amid the inevitable divisiveness of democracy, we often project our opinions of past and sitting Presidents of the United States upon other members of the First Family. Americans rarely see beyond the crushing dialogue of policy and legislation to see the real people inhabiting the White House-particularly the young children who never chose a life in the spotlight, the kids who will one day be adults unfairly burdened with the legacy (good or bad) of their famous fathers.
Jenna and Barbara endured more time in the world spotlight than any “first kids” since the Kennedys, Caroline and John Jr., and faced more public scrutiny than any president’s children in modern history.
On November 25, 1981, the twins entered this world as the granddaughters of Vice President George H. W. Bush. By the age of 7, their grandfather had become 41st President of the United States. And just six years later, as Jenna and Barbara became teenagers, their father George W. Bush would become Governor of Texas and effectively set the stage for his eventual two-term run as our 43rd President beginning in 2001.
In the sisters’ new book “Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life,” the 35-year-old Bush twins offer a collection of personal anecdotes from their lives before, during and after their time in the White House.
The memoir, which alternates between essays written by Jenna and Barbara, includes stories ranging from lighthearted and humorous tales about ditching the Secret Service, accidentally making tabloid headlines and snubbing Katie Holmes, to deeply emotional memories of 9/11, the death of their maternal grandfather and the day they thought they’d lose their beloved “Gampy.” The book also offers an intimate and humanizing glimpse—sans politics—at the men and women who helped raise them while simultaneously leading the free world.
Above all, “Sisters First” is a tribute to the bond of sisterhood and friendship.
I recently sat down with Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush to discuss their new book, which is now available online and at retailers nationwide. Check out the full interview below:
David Onda: Why is “Sisters First” an important book with stories that will resonate in today’s social climate?
Barbara Pierce Bush: That’s a great question. We thought a lot about writing it because, in many ways, we were wondering if this is the right time. And one reason that we felt like it was the right time now is because we have realized how lucky we are to have each other. We’ve had each other as our partner in everything throughout our entire lives because we’re twins, of course. And having that support system has made our lives so much bigger and better, and has allowed us to be braver and more fearless because we have someone that has our back in everything that we do. The reason that matters now is because over the past year, we as two women—and Jenna as a mom of two girls, who we spend all of our time with—really saw, in the media and in the public discourse, women not necessarily being lifted up or celebrated for who they area. And while our story is one that’s just between two people, it is a mini version of what we hope every woman has in terms of blood sisters or friends that are sisters that support them in their decisions in their life.
Jenna Bush Hager: And we think that if this was the norm, that if every woman felt like she had somebody to go to, whether it’s somebody she’s related to or a colleague or a friend, that we’d be in a better place.
Onda: What was the process of recalling, writing and organizing these stories? I was impressed by the details in these stories, whereas sometimes I can't remember what I had for lunch yesterday.
Jenna: [laughs] In fact, that was one of the reasons why we were hesitant to write a book, because we were like, “Can we remember all this?” Even though we have different points of view, because we were the same age we were able to really brainstorm before we started writing about what mattered to us, about what was important and the details we remembered of those occasions. We actually talked about it a lot on walks or hikes. Because we had this time together to talk, we realized there was a lot we wanted to say, and when we started to really think about what we wanted to say, we had a lot of memories of them. We had some journals, some letters, some transcripts and some things to go back and look at, but a lot of them were just our shared memories.
Barbara: It was really just a story exploration between the two of us. We both, luckily, have good memories, and then could build off stories with each other. It was just a fun reminder of our past and hilarious and, also, moving moments.
Onda: I loved that each of you has a distinct writing style and voice. By the time I got to the end of the book, I could read a paragraph and know whose story I was reading without flipping back to the beginning of the chapter.
Jenna: The structure was something we talked a lot with our editor about. We didn’t want it to feel too call-and-answer, sister-sister cheesy. [laughs] We wanted it to feel really organic and natural. And because of that, there were times we didn’t say whose chapter was who, but we thought that pretty soon people would find our voices, hear our voices and know us. I think the structure somewhat symbolizes what we wanted to do. We wanted our voices to be heard in their own natural and authentic way.
Onda: Barbara, you have one of my favorite lines in the whole book, and it's so simple: "Oh, snap! It's Barbara Bush! Snap, indeed." It made me laugh.
Barbara: [laughs] I’m glad that made you laugh. It was a funny moment.
Onda: And as a life-long pro-wrestling fan, I was shocked to read that you went to a WWF event at Madison Square Garden.
Barbara: I did! That was a lot of fun. It was hilarious, and definitely a good memory. And then, of course, it turned into a different narrative because we got separated from the Secret Servicemen. It was a very college moment.
Onda: Jenna, you talk about this in the book, but how difficult was it to take a job working in the media alongside the people, including celebrities, who were often so critical of your father during his presidency?
Jenna: I’ve been at the “TODAY Show” for seven years, so I’ve gotten used to it. At the beginning, there were definitely some nerves around it, but I realized pretty fast that most people are open-minded and see me for who I am. They maybe have preconceived notions of me based on my family when they first meet me, but pretty soon after we start to talk, those drop. I think you can give people the benefit of the doubt. Most people are open-minded enough to see me as me, and that’s been a really lovely surprise about doing this job.
Onda: Was it difficult to select which stories were going to make it into the book?
Jenna: We could have included a lot. There’s been moments after the book went to publication where I was like, “Why didn’t we write that story?” Or I’ll tell a story, and they’re like, “Is that in the book?” And it isn’t. We could have written a much longer book, but I do think we included the moments and wrote about the people that mean the most to us. There’s no regrets on things that we left out.
Onda: "Sisters First" includes excerpts from diary entries, personal emails, letters and speeches. Was there ever a concern that some of those pieces were too private to print?
Barbara: That’s a good question. I’m much more private than my sister. It was more of a decision-making process for me to decide to do [the book] in the first place, but once we did decided to do it, then we were both really clear that we wanted it to be as authentic and real as possible. Once we decided to do it, then we wanted to dive in and really do it. Those snippets, of course, just show another side of stories or relationships that are sometimes hard to describe. They show the everyday moments with people that we love. I don’t think we worried that they were too personal, because we knew that if we were gonna write personal essays, they would need to be in order for us to stand behind them.
Onda: I’ve always been curious about your reactions to various pop culture parodies of your family on shows like “Saturday Night Live.” Were there any portrayals that your family was particularly fond of?
Barbara: Our dad has an incredible sense of humor, and his favorite subject to laugh at is himself. He has a very self-deprecating humor. He thought Will Ferrell was funny.
Jenna: There were a lot of people that portrayed him that were hilarious. And we would sometimes see things online and bring them back to show him—he didn’t have a computer or iPhone or any of that—and there was some very hysterical laughter. He found those things to be very funny.
Barbara: He took them very lightly, that’s for sure.
Onda: In one of the last chapters of the book, you discuss how your family handles political differences, because you don't share all of your father's opinions. In these times of extreme political division, what's your advice to families that are divided by politics?
Jenna: One of the things that, for some reason, surprises people about our parents is that they really wanted us to have our own opinions and our own views. They wanted us to be curious, independent thinkers. And I think that is hard for some reason for people. I think it’s much easier if you say, “OK, mom. We want to think just like you.” But I think, for parenting, it’s been this great gift to me to try to emulate what my parents gave me, which is the confidence to let your kids think for themselves. I think we also, luckily, had a very healthy discourse. We had had conversations with both of our parents where we were able to express our opinions, and they listened. It wasn’t like yelling across the table in any of the conversations we ever had, even when both parties were unbelievably opinionated about whatever subject we were talking about. For us, I feel like it was this great gift to have parents that allowed us to be ourselves. I think that’s a risk for parents. It’s easier just to create cookie-cutter children, but our parents didn’t want that, and we’re lucky for it.
Onda: The book reveals how deeply the criticisms of your father affected you as children. Politics aside, do you think about the way these sorts of things will affect Barron Trump?
Barbara: Of course. We felt this way about the Obama girls as well, in that we were 7 when our grandfather became president. We weren’t that much younger than Barron or the Obama daughters when their dad became president. I think we feel extremely protective of all of them, because they are kids, and that’s such a magical time in your life where you get to explore. For us, visiting our grandfather in the White House was so much fun and so awe-inspiring because you’re so little and history seems so big. And that was just a really beautiful moment in our life. We, of course, hope that he and the Obama daughters have the same opportunity, because they are kids. You want to protect them and make sure they’re not impacted by media or scrutiny or too many eyes looking at them, because they should be allowed to be children.
Jenna: I think one of the things people forget is that it isn’t like we asked our parents, like we all got together and we thought, “You know what would be fun? Run for president.” Kids don’t have that authority. Barron didn’t ask his dad to run. He’s his own person, and he’s a little boy. So, yeah, we’re very protective of all that have come after and, frankly, those who have come before. There’s no guidebook. Hearing your parent criticized is very hard. Hearing yourself as children criticized can break somebody.
Onda: Who would benefit most from reading “Sisters First”?
Barbara: I mean, everyone. I think we want women and their sisters—whether they’re blood sisters or friends—to read it, and think of their own stories of living with a partner and best friend who has their back in everything they do.
Jenna: And maybe those who read it will question the way they reach out to other women—that they lift other people up. And then those that read it might see these public figures in a different light. Maybe we can start to think of people as more nuanced, and not single-storied or one headline or one caption or one caricature. That would be pretty great.
“Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life” is now available to purchase online and at retailers nationwide. For more information, visit www.sistersfirst.com.