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Bush Twins Ready for Their Close-Up

As they leave college and their relatively low profiles behind, the president's daughters will join his reelection campaign.

May 23, 2004|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

CRAWFORD, Texas — Jenna and Barbara Bush celebrate their college graduations this weekend in private dinners with their famous parents, but the festivities mark more than academic achievement.

For the last four years, President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush have zealously shielded their only children from the public spotlight.

"Our girls are not public figures," Laura Bush once said. "They're the children of a president."

The news media, which showed restraint when Chelsea Clinton came to Washington as a 12-year-old presidential daughter, has largely kept its distance from the Bush daughters.

Except for public scenes such as the 2001 run-in with the law for underage drinking, and an occasional sighting on the Internet or in a tabloid, the fraternal twins were free to enjoy their college years -- Jenna at the University of Texas and Barbara at Yale -- almost as normal students, albeit with Secret Service protection.

Now, the twins are going public.

With a splashy Vogue magazine spread due out in August and a role in the reelection campaign, the same daughters who once reportedly spurned their father's presidential hopes and their own potential celebrity are about to embrace their place as representatives of one of America's noted political clans.

The 22-year-olds -- Jenna is the blond and Barbara the brunet -- sat for a joint interview with Voguea few weeks ago, and each posed in a variety of casual and dressy outfits in two undisclosed locations in New York for the photo spread.

The daughters' roles in the presidential campaign have not been determined, but aides won't rule out their appearance on the stump.

"They're older now, and graduating from college," said Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue. "I think when they were younger, I understood Mrs. Bush being more protective. We saw this with Chelsea. She was so protected when the Clintons were in the White House, and now she is certainly more visible."

Laura Bush, more popular than her husband in public opinion polls, has starred in an early television ad and traveled the country to address rallies. Political strategists say family members can soften the president's wartime image among moderate and female swing voters.

But aides say there's no political calculation in the daughters' decision. The Vogue interview was simply something the twins wanted to do.

"It was their choice and they made the decision," said Rachel Sunbarger, a spokeswoman for the first lady. "Their parents were OK with it."

The White House was reluctant to put a label on the twins' new role.

"It's early," Sunbarger said. "We're focusing on having the girls graduate first. They're going to take some time off this summer, travel and do the things that new college graduates do."

Still, experts say there's a change in attitude.

The first hint that the rules might be changing came Easter Sunday when Bush was facing questions about his reaction to an August 2001 intelligence memo mentioning Osama bin Laden and the growing insurgency in Iraq.

Bush had traveled to Ft. Hood near his ranch outside Crawford to visit wounded soldiers and attend church with his family. As the Bushes walked outside, the cameras clicked -- and there were the daughters, front and center in the nation's newspapers.

So much for the girls who just wanted to have fun and be left alone.

In her book, "The Perfect Wife," Laura Bush biographer Ann Gerhart offered glimpses into the daughters' distaste for their father's profession and the effect it could have on their freedom just as they were leaving home for the first time.

As the family debated Bush's presidential aspirations, the daughters expressed vehement opposition to his candidacy, Gerhart wrote. The White House would not confirm the report.

The frustrations boiled over after the alcohol incident in 2001, when Jenna Bush was quoted in a police report lamenting that she could never do "anything that other students get to do."

The twins' reticence drew a sharp contrast to some of their dynastic cousins.

George P. Bush, the telegenic son of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, campaigned for both his father and his uncle, even addressing the 2000 Republican convention. And Lauren, daughter of presidential brother Neil Bush, is a model.

On the Democratic side, the two daughters of the president's presumed challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, have caused a stir of their own. Vanessa Kerry, a 27-year-old Harvard medical student, has spoken on her father's behalf, while Alexandra, a 30-year-old aspiring filmmaker, dazzled the French paparazzi in Cannes last week by appearing at the film festival in a revealing sheer black dress.

There's no official word yet on what jobs the Bush twins might take with the campaign, but both have career-related plans lined up for the fall now that they have finished college.

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