Jenna and Barbara Bush

The party girls reconsidered.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

From the earliest days of the republic, American presidents have been humiliated by their wayward and self-destructive children. John Quincy Adams’ son was a debt-laden alcoholic who was kicked out of Harvard and later drowned in a possible suicide. Andrew Jackson Jr. was a decadent freeloader whose mother was once shocked to discover his collection of “disgusting pictures of nature.” William Henry Harrison referred to his incompetent sons as “the destruction of my hopes” (although his grandson, Benjamin, became president).

Modern presidential kids haven’t fared much better. John F. Kennedy Jr. labored all his life to be taken seriously before his untimely death. Amy Carter was known as a spoiled brat and later flunked out of Brown. Reagan daughter Patti Davis took drugs and married a yoga instructor, posed nude for Playboy, and penned erotic novels with names such as Bondage. And while George W. Bush has (for better or worse) matched his dad’s success, it took him almost 20 years to realize that college was over.

These cases aren’t flukes. “Being related to a president [brings] more problems than opportunities,” explains Doug Wead, a former aide to George W. Bush, in his book All the President’s Children. Wead’s historical research, he writes, found “higher than average rates of divorce and alcoholism and even premature death. Some presidential children seemed bent on self-destruction.” Wead theorizes, a bit crudely, that the pressure to win the approval of a father who also happens to be a world leader simply crushes many presidential offspring.

By these standards Bush’s twin daughters, who after 22 years are finally revealing themselves to the public, almost look like overachievers. Yes, they come across as obnoxious pampered party girls—stylish vixens straight out of Rich Girls or The Simple Life. Tales may abound of their bad manners, including casual obnoxiousness toward their Secret Service details. And though they keep gossip columnists and paparazzi busy, they seem strangely uninterested in the world around them. But if the Bush girls can manage to stay alive and sane—or at least out of Playboy—they’ll be in comparatively good shape.

Jenna and Barbara are fraternal twins, delivered within a minute of each other by Caesarian section on Nov. 25, 1981. They’re far from identical. Like the Bush family itself, there’s a cultural duality to them. The first President Bush was the blueblood son of a Connecticut senator who summered in Kennebunkport, Maine. George W. also attended Andover and Yale but remade himself from preppy scion into a boots-wearin’ oilman; now he summers in Crawford, Texas, and seems far more Houston than Greenwich. The twins have split this difference. Jenna is the Red Stater: She stayed at home in Austin to attend the University of Texas. “I knew I wanted to go to a big Southern school,” she told Vogue. Barbara channels the family’s Eastern-elite spirit. She applied to nine colleges, including Princeton and Harvard, wound up at Yale, and made regular trips from New Haven into Manhattan. The split also reflects the differences between their parents. Jenna emulates her father’s mischievous spirit, while Barbara seems to have inherited more of her mother’s bookish reserve.

What they do share is a taste for hip clothes, a good party, and a celebrity milieu (they’ve reportedly clinked glasses recently with P. Diddy and Ashton Kutcher). OK, so they’re not a couple of Chelsea Clintons. But in historical terms—and especially given what we know about their dad’s own reckless youth—they could be a lot worse. That may be partly because George and Laura have been more libertarian than conservative in their parenting. As the Washington Post’s Ann Gerhart details in her biography of Laura Bush, The Perfect Wife, the Bushes have been permissive, laissez-faire parents more interested in shielding their daughters from prying eyes than in drumming solid values into them. Fearing that media scrutiny could warp their girls, the Bushes fiercely hid them from the public throughout W.’s career. Until this summer, Bush never brought his daughters onto the campaign trail or included them in official family portraits. (Although it’s not quite true that they were never used for photo-ops. “George [H.W.] came out after our little talk and was immediately rushed by the grandchildren—as primed by the handlers,” Barbara Bush once wrote in her diary.) After Bush’s election in 2000, the White House pressured national reporters to leave the girls alone—even bullying them if necessary. After one scribe asked a question at a White House briefing that referred to Jenna’s drinking, press secretary Ari Fleischer called him later to creepily warn that the question had been “noted in the building.”

But this zealous privacy strategy was imperfect. Back in Texas, it kept the girls’ pictures out of the newspapers. That worked fine when they were younger. But it didn’t help them when they decided to rebel. Once they tasted the freedom of college in 2000, the twins reacted with typical undergraduate abandon: binge-drinking, using fake IDs (and, less typical for undergrads, ditching their Secret Service agents). Even then, the news media mostly looked the other way (except in extreme cases, such as to report the girls’ run-ins with the police for underage drinking). But there was no controlling the tabloids, which reported lurid tales of public makeout sessions and other alcohol-soaked debauches. And in a world of cell-phone cameras and mass e-mail, every drunken dirty dance or topple from a barstool could be chronicled at sites like this one. (Sample excerpt from one correspondent: “It was an interesting conversation she was having, and I wish I could have gotten a pic of her grabbing her breasts. She seemed to be a very nice person.”)

With the girls starting to acquire something of a trashy image—and a dicey re-election campaign coming up—the Bush family realized the media could be their friend after all. Now a slick makeover is under way. This month the first daughters have been unveiled to the world with all the coordinated hype of Apple’s latest iPod rollout. First came a Vogue magazine spread, featuring the girls in elegant designer gowns *, and their first-ever print interview. Then Jenna appeared at some of her father’s campaign events, followed soon after by her sister. This week they made solo headline appearances at a handful of campaign events—another first. And on Friday they’ll host an (undoubtedly informative) online chat at the Bush campaign Web site. It’s not hard to guess what this is about: A president seen as a blustery warmonger can surely use a couple of pretty young daughters by his side to help soften his image.

It’s a bit propagandistic—but, so what? The Bush girls deserve a little good press. They’ve been held to standards that millions of college students couldn’t meet—partly because they are presidential daughters, and partly because they are daughters of this president, and therefore are assumed to have inherited his youthful fecklessness and dipsomania. A prudish media tittered for years over their collegiate drinking exploits. But what could be more ordinary? It’s true that they seem strangely uninterested in the exhilarating world history unfolding around them—”I’m just not political. … There’s nothing about the process that has ever interested me,” Jenna said—but there are worse things. They could be robotic drones reciting their dad’s good-versus-evil rhetoric from talking points. Or worse, aspiring Manhattan PR girls. Instead, Jenna professes plans to teach at a charter school, while Barbara purportedly hopes to work with AIDS-stricken children abroad. And both have shown flashes of political independence: Jenna is reported to have protested her father’s 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker *, while Barbara was recently quoted as telling a friend she doesn’t accept the label of “Republican.”

It’s true that the Bush girls have wealth and privilege on their side. But dark psychological forces are aligned against them. In addition to the unique pressures borne by presidential children, daughters face an especially complex set of expectations involving feminine virtue and intelligence and ambition. Chelsea, for all she’s been through, managed to thread this needle. But it’s not easy. So, don’t be too hard on the Bush girls. The odds are against them.

Correction, July 23, 2004: The article originally claimed that both girls were wearing Calvin Klein gowns. In fact, Barbara wore a Calvin Klein gown, but Jenna wore an Oscar de la Renta.  Return to that corrected sentence. Also, the piece originally reported that Karla Faye Tucker was executed in 2000. She was executed in 1998. Return to that corrected sentence.