Southern Storyteller: Jenna Bush Hager

Jenna Bush Hager standing behind TODAY show desk at 30 Rock
Mary Kahler, Makeup. Hair by Laura Bonanni Castorino for Adel Atelier Salon NYC. Photos by Karen Haberberg.

“Work wives!” Jenna Bush Hager exclaims as we sit for a photo. She’s talking about the New York Family editorial girl-gang, gathered around her in an NBC TV studio at 30 Rock, but, given that she and I talked at length about the unique value of working with an all-female team, she may as well have meant her own work family at the “TODAY” show.

For the past nine years, Bush Hager has been a contributing correspondent on NBC News’ “TODAY,” and she talks adoringly of her coworkers and their camaraderie both on- and off-screen. If she drops a shoe, Savannah Guthrie will grab it for her; she routinely texts with Hoda Kotb early in the morning about nothing of consequence; the co-workers (and fellow New York City mamas) like to ask each other advice on all kinds of topics, and it’s often unrelated to the news or their TV schedule.

“I encourage people to find their little group at work because I have this group of incredible women who are my friends… We talk about work, but we also talk about parenting and mentorship and friendship,” Bush Hager says. “These people [and producers] that I work with are really good friends of mine, and that’s a really wonderful thing to find—we have this great group of people that lift each other up.”

Now a mother-of-two, Bush Hager, 36, has spent much of her life focused on aiding and supporting others, whether it’s her coworkers, inner-city students, or citizens of other countries. Granddaughter of former President George H.W. Bush and daughter of former President George W. Bush, she’s not only traveled the world and seen it change but has worked to be part of that change through her involvement with UNICEF, teaching both in the United States and abroad, and reporting on the “TODAY” show.

Jenna Bush Hager with hand on hip

While she’s one of the only former First Daughters and First Granddaughters (the others are her twin sister Barbara Pierce Bush and the daughter of former President John Quincy Adams), Bush Hager doesn’t feel her childhood was all that abnormal. Despite her family’s place in US political history, Bush Hager says her upbringing was much like any kid’s: She and her sister went to public school in suburban Dallas and her parents rarely traveled for work when she was young, so they spent a lot of time together. Her parents gave them “uninterrupted attention,” something she worries about putting into practice now as a working mother with two young daughters, 5-year-old Margaret—nicknamed Mila—and 3-year-old Poppy.

“As far as parenthood goes, it takes a conscious effort [now]—it’s one I really work on and sometimes struggle with—to put our phones away, put our work away, and focus on our children,” Bush Hager says, adding that kids today compete for their parents’ attention over technology, which can make them feel like they aren’t interesting and important.

Growing up in the suburban South, too, made Bush Hager’s childhood quite different from her daughters’. She and husband Henry Hager—a former staff assistant to the senior advisor at the White House during her father’s administration—know that city life has its own challenges. For example, when Bush Hager was growing up in Texas, going to the toy store was a once-in-a-while treat, whereas her kids pass a toy store daily here in Manhattan.

Jenna Bush Hager with "TODAY" correspondents Al Roker Hoda Kotb dog and more on the 30 Rock Plaza
Jenna Bush Hager (right) with fellow “TODAY” correspondents on the Plaza. Courtesy of NBC.

“My husband and I both worry about the access to everything right here in New York. But then, it also has its benefits. There are so many incredible things we get to take our kids to,” Bush Hager says. Her kids love to play at the park near their Downtown Manhattan home, and are thrilled by the spectacle of Broadway shows and the wonder of New York City’s world-class museums.

“There’s this infiltration of material things [in NYC] but also this infiltration of art and culture and being outdoors,” Bush Hager says. The challenge is to focus on an experience as the goal rather than “stopping at the candy store every day to get a piece of candy.”

Bush Hager also wants her children to earn privileges rather than expect them, something she likely learned during her father’s presidency, during which she and Barbara got a glimpse of worldwide disparities in wealth and privilege and were, by all accounts, “living history.”

“My parents included Barbara and me on trips around the entire world… Living history is this incredible privilege,” she recalls. “[Because of these trips], Barbara immediately came home and changed her major at Yale and went into global health… Mainly, [traveling] opened our eyes to the global world we live in, and the impact of making a difference, and also how we are so lucky. And we felt that: We felt that we were born at the right place at the right time, and because we traveled all over the world and saw people living in such different circumstances, it’s our responsibility to make our world a better place.”

Jenna Bush Hager sitting on stool in TODAY show studio

Bush Hager emphasizes that the trips were a learning experience; they saw the work their father did as President, and witnessed historic moments, like the unveiling of PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), which aims to reduce the HIV/AIDS epidemic primarily in Africa.

“These weren’t just, like, vacations; these were working trips,” Bush Hager says. “We sat in clinics and listened to women tell their stories, and I honestly don’t know if I’d be doing what I’m doing now [without that], because I realized the importance of telling stories.”

Her job on-air at the “TODAY” show and NBC News lets her do just that. “The most incredible part [of my job] is telling these stories of extraordinary ordinary: Everyday people that are just doing incredible things in our world,” she explains. “You can easily watch the news and become bogged down with the negativity, think that everything is going wrong…but I get to go around and meet incredible people who are making a difference and tell their stories authentically, and I think that is such a wonderful gift.”

Bush Hager’s experience as a teacher in inner-city Baltimore and her internship in Latin America with UNICEF allowed her an even more hands-on path into changing lives and making a difference.

In 2006, she interned with UNICEF for 11 months in their Educational Policy Department, and stayed connected to the organization even after she moved back to the US; she now serves as the Founding Chair for UNICEF Next Generation, which focuses on aiding children worldwide. Bush Hager even wrote a book based upon her experience with UNICEF, New York Times bestseller Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope. The nonfiction novel follows the story of a 17-year-old single mother with HIV whom Bush Hager met during her time there.

Cover of Sisters First book by Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush

“I can take the people that I met, the passion for education, the passion for women’s issues—which is what I really got out of UNICEF—and tell stories like those, tell stories that make people know that this world is global and there are ways we can help,” Bush Hager says. “I love when I’m in schools for NBC—and I’m in there quite a lot. It’s such an important thing to be able to tell these stories of these everyday heroes that are making our world better.”

Her mother, former First Lady Laura Bush, focused on reading and literacy during her time as FLOTUS, so it seems natural that Bush Hager found herself drawn to teaching and education, both abroad and at home.

“I’m an educator at heart; I think I’ll go back to education at some point. Honestly, teaching is one of the hardest jobs that our culture has,” Bush Hager, who has a degree in English from the University of Texas at Austin, says. For a while, she worked part-time at both the “TODAY” show and as a teacher in Baltimore because “the thought of leaving teaching was so daunting. I think I realized I needed to focus on one [job], because no job was being done well.”

But even though she chose the “TODAY” show as her full-time career, Bush Hager doesn’t limit her ambitions to the screen. Besides nonfiction novel Ana’s Story, Bush Hager has also written two children’s books with her mother, Our Great Big Backyard (which puts a spotlight on the wonders of America’s National Parks) and Read All About It!, both New York Times bestsellers. In keeping with the family co-writing tradition, in 2017 she and Barbara also released a nonfiction book, Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life, which details their lives both as First Daughters and Granddaughters and as modern women—it too hit the New York Times bestseller list (a paperback version, slated to release October 23, will be tied to a mini book tour later this year). Bush Hager tells me she and her sister decided to write the book the morning after the 2016 election, expressly for the purpose of lifting up other women.

“There are a lot of repercussions of the election, obviously, but one of the things we’ve seen…[is] the #MeToo movement start, #TimesUp—we’re seeing women realize that they have these voices,” Bush Hager says. “More women are running for election than ever before—we weren’t the only ones who thought it was time for women to have a bigger seat at the table, it’s happening all over. Hoda and Savannah are the first female duo [anchoring] the ‘TODAY’ show. That’s one of the great things that has happened; women have a voice that maybe we’ve always had, but we haven’t always used it.”

Bush Hager is fairly vocal about her beliefs and her life, but as a longtime public figure, she does consciously try to keep some opinions and experiences private, or at least to enjoy special moments rather than rushing to share them online or in the media, especially when it comes to her family life.

“I’m definitely a very transparent person. I also adore my kids so much…I want to scream from the rooftops my love for them. If there’s a darling picture, I’m like: ‘How cute are they?’ I think I’m like any mom in that regard,” Bush Hager says. “There’ll be the cutest picture or cutest moment and I’m like: ‘That would be great [to post],’ but I also forget to post things, I don’t post things because I’m so caught up in the moment.”

Instead of fretting about curating an Insta-perfect feed (though, to be fair, @JennaBHager’s ‘gram features plenty of darling photos of Mila and Poppy, as well as some priceless #TBTs from the Bush family archive), she much prefers to be immersed with her kids: “I want to make sure that I’m enjoying my girls in these moments instead of just thinking about what would make a cute Instagram picture. Am I the best influencer? Probably not. But am I enjoying time with my girls? Absolutely.”

And she’ll be the first to tell you—with a sincere grin and a dose of Southern charm, of course—that living for the moment is well worth it. By her own telling, Bush Hager knows that her life won’t calm down any time soon, and that’s just fine with her. “Every day is different. People are like: ‘Tell me about your day,’ and I’m like: ‘How do I even answer that question?’ Every month there’s something new [at work], and it’s so dynamic, and I don’t take that for granted.”

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