Jenna Bush has a fast, excited, husky-voiced way of talking, a genuine curiosity about the person she’s talking to, and a charming, self-deprecating sense of humor. Face-to-face with her headlong, unpretentious personality, you can’t help thinking: This is the daughter of the most powerful man on earth?
On this sunny morning, Jenna, 25, is sitting with her best friend, photographer Mia Baxter, 25, discussing their book, a work of young-adult nonfiction called “Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope,” for which Jenna wrote the text and Mia took the photos. As the two chat, the depth of their 10-year friendship becomes obvious, as does a Jenna the public rarely sees.
Despite her exaggerated party-girl image (remember the endless TV jokes when, at age 19, she was busted for trying to buy alcohol with a false ID?), the truth is Jenna has always had a serious side. For 18 months, she taught elementary school in Washington, D.C. But she found her true calling last year, when she and Mia were working with UNICEF and stumbled, awed, on the real-life heroine who became the subject of their book.
“Ana’s Story” is the eloquent, moving and true tale of a young HIV positive woman’s fight for a decent life for herself and her child. But there’s another story that isn’t in the book. It’s about how two friends found a project they could be passionate about and then nurtured one another into making it happen. It’s also about how the First Daughter the late-night comics thought they knew might turn into someone very different: a bookworm, an idealist and, now, a writer.
Mia: Jenna and I met in Madrid when we were 16, during a summer-abroad program. We were both going into our junior year in high school — me in San Antonio, Jenna in Austin, Texas. Her dad was governor then. Within the first two days, we became close friends ...
Jenna: … right away! We loved music — Mia was obsessed with the Grateful Dead; I loved Van Morrison. And we loved to read.
Mia: I gave Jenna “The Thorn Birds” ...
Jenna: … and I gave Mia “Tuesdays With Morrie.”
Mia: When Jenna and I met, I was just falling in love with photography. I talked to Jenna about how my older brother, Fielding, who is an artist, was motivating me to look for candor and emotion in humanity, and to photograph it.
Jenna: I always loved to write and my mom was my editor for my school papers. “Jenna, please use the active, not the passive voice,” she’d write in the margins.
Becoming a first daughter
After high school graduation, Jenna and Mia both enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. A few months later, George W. Bush was elected President.
Mia: Being the President’s daughter was new for her. She wanted to just be Jenna but she’d be walking across campus with the security guys behind her. It was an adjustment.
Laura Furman (the award-winning memoirist and fiction writer who teaches at UT Austin): Jenna was in my personal-essay class, and she was struggling to find a writing voice. She’s very straightforward — and she is in her writing, too. And she was so open to feedback and criticism.
Mia: Jenna and I pushed each other: Keep writing! Keep taking pictures! Jenna showed me a beautiful story she wrote for Laura Furman’s class about her sister. I remember her songlike words, and how the closeness with her sister shined through.
Barbara Bush (Jenna’s twin): The story was very personal, and it had to do with our support for each other when a friend died when we were in high school. I had no idea Jenna was going to write that. I was proud of her.
Jenna: Are Barbara and I close? (Laughs.) I told our mom: “When Barbara and I get married …our poor husbands!” We even told our boyfriends, “You better be prepared. When Barbara and I are 50, we’re still going to sleep in the same bed. I hope that’s OK with you guys.” (Jenna’s “boyfriend,” now fiancé, is Henry Hager, 29, an MBA student and the son of Virginia’s former lieutenant governor.)
But Barbara and I have always had separate best friends. We were encouraged to pursue our passions — I was the athlete; she was the dancer. I liked writing; she liked art. But we weren’t compared.
Mia: Jenna and I always counseled each other. If I didn’t like something a boy she was dating was doing, I’d tell her.
Jenna: By our junior year in college, we went from talking about boys and relationships to much broader subjects. We wanted to make a difference in the world; we’d get obsessed.
Mia: We’d talk about someday putting my photography and her writing together.
Jenna: Between freshman and sophomore year, we went to Los Angeles and worked for an entertainment manager, Marc Gurvitz, at the Brillstein-Grey agency.
Marc Gurvitz: When a friend called the office and asked, “Do you have any intern spots for the President’s daughter and her friend?” I was expecting it to be a disaster. But these two girls worked hard. There was not one thing they didn’t do, from Xeroxing to picking up other people’s lunches. One night she had to go to a taping of Bill Maher’s show, I said, “I hope you have tough skin; there’ll be jokes about your dad.” She rolled with it.
Jenna: The next summer Mia and I traveled around Eastern Europe. In Prague we took poetry classes at Charles University with (acclaimed poet/playwright/screenwriter) James Ragan, who was head of the graduate professional writing department at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
James Ragan: Jenna began to really think of herself as a writer that summer. I urged her to write about the part of her family that was least known — to go back to that reservoir of experience that had shaped her. She wrote about her mother’s father, and she came up with one magical image about the Texas dust and the wind that “weaves the gray air.” She produced an excellent poem.
At the end of the summer, I left them with this message: “Live poetry — don’t just write it. Go into the world. Become engaged with the lives of the impoverished and find poetry there.”
Although Jenna was a dedicated student, the public had a different impression of her. For years, she and Barbara were the butt of late-night TV jokes and media digs that painted them as hard-partying twins. It didn’t help that in May 2001, they were caught violating Texas’ underage drinking laws, just two weeks after Jenna had entered a no-contest plea for a similar offense.
Jenna: I don’t think I’m portrayed in the media the way I really am — but then who is? People grow and change. I think the people who are open-minded realize I’m human and that people make mistakes, and, if they think of (the underage drinking incident) at all, they think, She was in college — that was seven years ago. If people want to hold on to old images, I can’t let it bother me, but my friends get annoyed.
After graduation, I got a job teaching third- and fifth-grade students at the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. I loved it. A lot of my students had emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and El Salvador. I really began at that time to think of myself as an educator.
Mia: I moved to New York and became an assistant to Glamour’s photo editor Suzanne Donaldson. It was invaluable, for a fledgling photographer, to see first-hand the process by which editors choose the imagery.
Although we were in different cities, Jenna and I kept up our book-trading. But our tastes had matured. Jenna gave me Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” and I gave her Haruki Murakami’s “Kafka on the Shore.”
Jenna: I loved Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and Ann Patchett’s “Truth & Beauty.”
In September 2006, heeding James Ragan’s exhortation to “go into the world,” Mia and Jenna moved to Panama to work as interns for UNICEF’s Latin America and Caribbean office.
Mia: Jenna’s boyfriend was amazing. When she said, “Hey, I’m going to Latin America for nine months,” he was OK with it! She told me, “The way to make a relationship work is having a mate who’s supportive of your passions.”
Jenna: Our UNICEF bosses said, “Mia, you’re a photographer; Jenna, you write. So why don’t you both travel around, take pictures and write about the children we serve. We were sent to Paraguay, Argentina and Jamaica.
Mia: At a conference of women and kids with AIDS and HIV, we saw Ana. (Ana is not her real name; it’s a pseudonym to protect her identity.)
Jenna: She was this absolutely beautiful 17-year-old girl, and she stood up with her baby in her arms and said with great conviction: “I want everyone here to know: We’re living with HIV; we’re not dying of it!” Mia and I were almost in tears.
Mia: Her story was so compelling, so deep. Ana was born HIV positive; her mother and father had both died of AIDS by the time she was in sixth grade. She was sexually abused. She fell in love with a boy, and at 16 had a baby girl, Beatriz (also a pseudonym) — whose HIV status is, so far, fortunately negative.
Jenna and Mia documented Ana’s story for the UNICEF Web site.
Jenna: Ana really taught us about hope and courage — especially since, where she lives, if people knew she had HIV, she’d be kicked out of school. She could be physically hurt. I wanted something bigger to come out of our conversations with Ana. Mia said, “We can do this as a book.” And I said, “I just don’t know if I’m competent. ” But Mia said to me, “Jenna, you are ready.”
Working on our book, in our little apartment in Panama on the edge of the rain forest, Mia and I lived a romantic, bohemian existence. We would wake up early and drink our coffee. I’m a perfectionist — I could rewrite forever. I would write for 14 hours straight.
Mia: Jenna would be working so much. I was like, “You need a break!” And then we’d go to this funny exercise class …
Jenna: … called “Clase de Jimmy.” Jimmy was this huge guy. It was boot camp — we’d leave sweating.
While Jenna and Mia worked on the book, Jenna made sure Ana was prepared for the deluge of publicity to come.
Jenna: I said, “Ana, I have to tell you something. It’s going to be a big book because my dad is jefe del gobierno — head of government.” She said, “Oh, I don’t care.” She didn’t get it. When my father was in South America last winter on business, and he was in all the newspapers, Ana said, “Bush! Bush is here!” And I said, “Ana, you know that he’s my father.” And she said, “Oh, I didn’t put it together.”
Jenna and Mia are now touring the country speaking about Ana’s Story. One question that’s sure to come up is whether the book’s message about the importance of condoms conflicts with the abstinence-only policy promoted by her father’s administration. Will there be a dust-up on the issue?
Jenna: I don’t think so. The book’s message is the exact same thing my mother said when she was in Africa recently — A, B, C: abstinence, be faithful and condom usage. Abstinence is important; if you don’t want any chance of getting a disease, then don’t have sex. But if you’re HIV positive and you have sex, you must always use a condom. You can’t talk about being a teenage mother and stopping the spread of AIDS without talking about condoms.
Mia: It was so great to work on the book with Jenna. We had the chance to inspire and support each other.
Today Jenna is working on a second book, for children, with her mother, Laura. Her immediate plans also include preparing for her wedding to Hager — and perhaps in the future, kids. Even so, she says she’ll keep writing.
Jenna: For my future, I like the idea of blending writing with my work as an educator. Children have so much to say, but sometimes they don’t get a chance to speak. Mia and I learned so much from Ana. I hope she learned from us, too.
Senior contributing editor Sheila Weller’s new book, Girls Like Us, comes out in 2008.