The Bush Twins' Coming Out Party

Barbara Bush (left, at a fashion show in New York earlier this year) and Jenna Bush (right, in Poland in 2002), were out of the photographic spotlight most of the time while in college.
AP (file)
By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

President Bush's daughters take on the two-dimensional glamour of a Vogue magazine cover in the upcoming August issue. Gowned in all-American Calvin Klein (how a propos: God forbid the French haute couture of Yves Saint Laurent), the two debutantes gone political divas literally dress the satin part.

And this week, the 22-year-old twins joined their father for his last run for office. Friday, Barbara, in tight white slacks, stood before the cameras with dad and Uncle Jeb, a.k.a., Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Wednesday, Jenna stood and smiled brightly as dad introduced her in sunny Wisconsin. Unlike the sons of Sen. John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, the two twins have yet to speak publicly on dad's behalf.

To be sure, this week's public debut put the Bush twins in play, so to speak. They have left the guarded joys of youth which allowed for soft coverage of their very ordinary indiscretions. Now Jenna and Barbara (as we will come to know them) are public figures. We will now see Mr. Bush, the father.

Certainly, Kerry, the president's Democratic opponent, holding the ever-so-cute kindergarten-age children of running mate John Edwards, has something to do with it. Family values matter to conservatives and the GOP can't have Kerry and Edwards looking more family friendly. (Detractors say the Democratic duo's photo ops look more faux Brandy Bunch.)

"Sister Act," as the Vogue coming article is headlined, was a coming out party of sorts for Barbara and Jenna Bush – more dainty New Orleans debutante than Texas girl-next-door.

For anyone, attaining the cover of Vogue is the supreme media honor in the high-fashion world, where Pashmina scarves are so 1990s, and style-gawkers have genuine disdain for the commercialization of high fashion and the waning noble elegance.

Nobility, is the right word, because all these two young ladies have done was be born into one of America's two most politically pedigreed families. (The other being the Kennedys, and the late John F. Kennedy Jr. was more similar than not to the Bush girls at the same point in his life.) The Vogue cover was also not an award for style, as the two don outfits akin to most any American college-age woman.

Of course, the comedians will have their fun. Last night, Craig Kilborn: "The Bush twins are hitting the campaign trail for their dad and here's the plan. Whenever dad is asked a tough question, the Bush twins wrestle." Jay Leno and others made comparable jokes.

It's hard being White House children. Just ask President Clinton's daughter Chelsea. What so far has escaped the Bush twins is the savage treatment Chelsea received from tabloids and comedians, insinuations that she was unattractive. And maybe it is a sad state, of the state of us, that the alluring Barbara and pretty Jenna have not been hit nearly as harshly.

The Vogue article assumes the twins "should definitely... connect with America's young electorate." Demonstrating this, it references their love of soy lattes and aversion to the word "awesome" (whatever that means since that word was ejected from hip vernacular two decades ago). As for the issues of their age – the war in Iraq, healthcare, stunting college debt – we are left in the dark.

Ironically, the article claims the sisters have tried to avoid being cast as young debutantes. In all fairness, we learn this is both young ladies' first interview and first purchase of a "long dress."

We learn Barbara "lives in jade green" and that both are "unfailingly polite." We are also told Jenna's "school uniform" consisted of "flip flops" (how very young Republican, because as one conservative ad noted, liberals wear Birkenstocks). And, of course, we are told they love their dad.

This is how Barbara and Jenna chose to make their debut. Not on MTV. Not with Rolling Stone. Not with Time or Newsweek. Not the popular pop-culture benchmark read of People, or even the witty female flare of Jane magazine.

Vogue said it all. They will smile prettily, but the question still persists: Will we know the well-educated duet as persons, or merely in images?

Already we are learning how the Bush twins differ from each other, as we have with America's other alpha pairing, the Olsen twins; cute toddlers gone 18-year-old nymphets, gone, well, we won't go there.

Brunette Barbara (named for her grandmother) recently graduated from Yale, as her father, and his father before him, did. She visited the Western cultural cornerstones of Moscow, Prague and St. Petersburg on her post-grad trip. The article notes a paper that Barbara is finishing on existential Czech novelist Milan Kundera, later describing her as the more "bookish" one.

Jenna went to Europe, too. But she didn't tramp the streets of the ancient cities. She sojourned in Spain. In a way very akin to her father, a devout Christian, Jenna embarked on a 75-mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Way of Saint James.

In her public role, Jenna (complete with boisterous smile) is the all-American one. She didn't go Ivy, like her younger sister of one minute. She went state school, University of Texas at Austin. Her Secret Service nickname is "Twinkle." And of course, she is blonde.

So the media is left with Barbara, easily imagined as a Manhattan urbanite, and Jenna, easily envisioned in Dallas or San Diego. In time, we will see. As we always have watched White House children, with John John and Amy Carter and Chelsea Clinton, so we will now with the Bush twins.

By David Paul Kuhn