Jenna Bush Reconsidered

Like the vast majority of Americans in their mid-twenties, Jenna Bush believes condoms effectively prevent the spread of HIV, comprehensive sex education helps young people make healthy choices, and sex between two mutually loving people is okay -- even if they aren't married.

None of that is surprising. But given that Jenna Bush is the daughter of a deeply conservative president, one whose administration has in part been defined by retrograde sexual politics, it's rather extraordinary that Jenna has written a book advocating a practical, social justice stance toward the problems of poverty, AIDS, child abuse, sexual abuse, and teenage motherhood in Latin America.

As her father threatens to veto the entire $34 billion 2008 foreign aid budget just because congressional Democrats have finally snuck in loopholes providing condoms and abortion services to women in the developing world, Jenna is on a nationwide book tour and media blitz, spreading the message that safe sex and education are some of the most important tools in fighting disease.

Her Ana's Story (Harper Teen, 2007) is the biography of a 17-year old HIV-positive mother Jenna met in Panama while interning for UNICEF alongside longtime friend Mia Baxter, who provided photographs for the book. Ana's Story is geared toward young readers, especially teenage girls. It tells a moving, difficult story about a girl born with HIV, orphaned by her parents, abused by her caretakers, and sexually molested by her grandmother's boyfriend. By age 16, Ana is a pregnant high school drop-out; she doesn't always make the right choices and her story doesn't tie up neatly. It would be all too easy to moralize instead of empathize, or to shield young readers' eyes from the complicated ways poverty, love, and sex affect judgment. But Jenna Bush -- who, her publisher swears, wrote every last word of the book -- does none of these things.

There's no pabulum about abstinence-only education from the young author whose dad funneled $50 million annually to such programs, despite a complete lack of evidence they work. "Children need to be free to discuss all of life's issues …with safe and trustworthy adults," Jenna writes. "Equipped with information and knowledge, children can then take the steps necessary to protect themselves and to break the cycle that perpetuates abuse and spreads disease from one generation to the next." And Jenna mentions approvingly the lessons on condom usage that Ana got through a local hospital beginning at the age of 10.

Nor does Jenna present sex as the scariest, dirtiest thing that could ever happen to a young woman. "She felt no fear, only love," Jenna narrates, describing Ana losing her virginity with her boyfriend, Berto, who was also born HIV-positive. "Ana's heart felt overcome with love, but she wanted to be safe."

Could we have misjudged this Bush twin?

In the constellation of presidential children, conventional wisdom has long held that Jenna and Barbara are -- in the mold of their father -- troublemakers. Chelsea Clinton's parents kept her out of the media glare, and she returned the favor, leading a low-key, academically-oriented young adulthood. The contrast couldn't have been starker when just a few years later, the Bush daughters partied their way across tabloid headlines with multiple run-ins with the law.

Sure, Amy Carter got arrested in college. But that was for protesting South African apartheid. You know, something serious.

Perhaps because she's blonde and baby-faced, or because we imagine her forever sticking out her tongue at prying photographers, falling on the floor at a frat party, or making devil horns behind her father's head at an official appearance (actually the sign of the University of Texas Longhorns), Jenna has long been the primary butt of jokes about the Bush twins. She's the one who got caught with the fake ID and had to appear in court, after all. She's the one who did her mandated community service at an Austin art museum. Cushy.

Fed up by the juxtaposition of young American soldiers killed and wounded in Iraq with stories about the alcohol-infused cavorting of the first daughters, commentators Michael Kinsley and Kitty Kelley separately took to the nation's leading op-ed pages to suggest Jenna and Barbara either speak out against their father's war or enlist in the military.

Instead, Jenna Bush has decided to take a stance on another challenge of global proportions: Children's health in the developing world. Her passion for the issue, she told the Washington Post, stems from her time as an assistant and teacher in Washington, D.C.'s Elsie Whitlow Stokes public charter school, where she learned about the lives her immigrant students had led in Latin America.

I can imagine all you skeptics out there. You're raising your eyebrows at the suggestion that any member of the Bush family has a social conscience. Sure, Jenna Bush has enjoyed every privilege money can buy, from a prep school education to summer poetry classes in Prague, where her teacher's mantra was, "Become engaged with the lives of the impoverished and find poetry there." Certainly, there's a classic element of exotification in Jenna's journey to the barrios of Latin America and her "friendship" with an HIV-positive teenage mother. "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," Jenna told Glamour magazine. "We would wake up early and drink our coffee. I'm a perfectionist -- I could rewrite forever. I would write for 14 hours straight."

But as someone who has read every last word of Ana's Story -- I know! So you don't have to! -- I feel compelled to defend Jenna. The book is far more engaging than most of what you'll find on the young adult non-fiction shelf; its author writes with a real attention to descriptive detail, even if the language can become cliched. Still, Jenna's depiction of Ana and Berto's relationship is an uncommonly realistic portrayal of the waxing and waning of first love. Ana's Story is a book I would recommend to young people concerned about HIV/AIDS, or interested in learning about the lives of kids in other parts of the world.

Believe it or not, Jenna Bush has matured into a somewhat convincing role-model. Instead of working for an investment bank or trust fund; at an art museum or fashion magazine; for the GOP or on a Republican presidential campaign, she's written a decent book and expressed the desire to devote her career to children's welfare. "I hope to continue teaching. I hope to work with kids any way possible," she said on the Today show Monday.

It will be fascinating to see how her career progresses. Jenna's upcoming marriage to MBA student Henry Hager, a former Karl Rove intern whose father chairs the Virginia GOP, certainly suggests she'll remain active in Republican circles. And her reasonable positions on social issues could prove to be a harbinger of a future Republican Party that while remaining dangerously economically conservative and bellicose on foreign policy, convinces Americans it is once again "compassionate" and in the cultural mainstream.

It's too soon to say that Jenna is the one Bush whom liberals should embrace. But with Ana's Story, I'm willing to admit she's earned some well-deserved respect.

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