Can Bush's golden girls be America's sweethearts?

The First Daughters are on the campaign trail. Yet despite a glossy media makeover, Jenna and Barbara's wild ways could prove an electoral liability for their father. David Usborne reports
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The Independent US

When George Bush was first serving as Governor of Texas, friends and advisors would sound him out about the future. Wasn't he going to run for President of the United States one day and reclaim the office that was once his fathers? His answer was always the same. No, he would not do that because of his twin girls, Jenna and Barbara. It would ruin their lives, he used to say.

When George Bush was first serving as Governor of Texas, friends and advisors would sound him out about the future. Wasn't he going to run for President of the United States one day and reclaim the office that was once his fathers? His answer was always the same. No, he would not do that because of his twin girls, Jenna and Barbara. It would ruin their lives, he used to say.

How things change. Mr Bush is close to the end of his first term in the White House and, all of a sudden, his prospects for re-election this November are looking a little shaky. His Democratic challenger, John Kerry, seems to have chosen well in taking Senator John Edwards as his running mate. Washington, moreover, is abuzz with unfavourable gossip about his own Vice-President, Dick Cheney.

The President needs all the help he can get. And that includes, it seems, from the daughters he was once so worried about protecting. Thus, in recent days they have been accompanying their father on campaign trips around the country. First, it was Jenna tagging along to Pennsylvania a week ago and then Barbara joining him on the election trail last Tuesday in Michigan.

What we are witnessing is a carefully crafted political coming out. If all goes well, we can expect to see Jenna or Barbara at rallies around the country until election day on 2 November. They will also be working at the Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters in Washington. Exactly what they will do for their Dad, we don't yet know. Maybe they will be just smiling props on the stage. Perhaps they will introduce him. Or even make speeches of their own.

There is no turning back for the twins now, not since yesterday, in fact, when the August issue of American Vogue hit the news stands. It includes a seven-page spread dedicated to air-brushing the images of the President's offspring. Arguably, a child of a president is America's equivalent of royalty. Vogue, and its senior writer, Julia Reed, have treated Barbara and Jenna, 22, accordingly.

So too has the portrait photographer, Patrick Demarchelier. Their mother, Laura Bush, is described concurring with her daughters that, all dressed up for Demarchelier in strapless gowns by Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein, they indeed look like "cupcakes". In fact, they look more like rather conservative and highly privileged debutantes, readying themselves for their first ball. This particular ball could turn out be more gruelling than they expect, especially if Papa ends up losing.

Throwing the twins into the deep end may be understandable. They are adults by now. Jenna has just graduated from the University of Texas and Barbara is all done at Yale University. If Mr Bush and his wife, Laura, were concerned about shielding their daughters from the media gaze during his first term when they were younger, they more or less achieved it.

Ms Reed tells us they have come through the experience just fine. "[The] twins remain essentially all-American girls who grew up going to summer camp and public schools, who profess to 'love' costume parties and Mexican food, who spent four years in college while their father was in the White House and still managed to come out well educated and unscathed."

Well, almost unscathed. There is a reason that the tabloid headline writers took to calling them "Jenna and Tonic". They did, after all, have that reputation for out-of-control partying, compounded by their brush with the law in early 2001 in Austin, Texas. Both were cited for drinking misdemeanours and ending up paying fines of $100 each and performing community service.

Mr Bush is not the first political campaigner in America to use family to help his image. Senator Kerry is doing the same. His daughters, Alexandra, 30, and Vanessa, 27, from an earlier marriage, are already regulars on the Kerry-Edwards tour.

"[The twins] are adults, and they've chosen to enter the fray to a certain extent," noted Mike Hoyt, executive director of the Columbia Journalism Review. "I don't think there's anything wrong with them entering the conversation and obviously they're aware that their interview has got political dimensions. Every politician presents his family to show they are human beings like you and me".

That is what the Jenna-Barbara roll-out is meant to do, of course. This is the softer, gentler side of the Commander-in-Chief that we are meant to see here. Yes, he has sent his country into a war in Iraq that has killed hundreds of American soldiers, but don't forget, he is also a dad, juggling the demands of office versus family. "Surrounding your- self with family always tends to make you appear to be more human," Gareth Jowett, of the University of Houston, told the Houston Chronicle last week.

And so, the Vogue article, headlined "Sister Act", is crammed with cheesy anecdotes, which are meant to add up to the perfect, all-American happy family. "He has the best sense of humour and he is very funny with boyfriends," Jenna tells Vogue of her father. "He's not the shotgun-dad type. He's the joking-around-to-the-point-where-he-scares-the-heck-out-of-them type," says Jenna.

You wonder, did Karl Rove, Mr Bush's chief political strategist in the White House, write a script for this interview? There is talk about how Laura makes George laugh even when she isn't especially funny and about her obsessions with keeping the house tidy. "When we were little," Jenna goes on, "she'd say, 'Let's clean the third drawer in your room'. I call her OCD - obsessive compulsive disorder - to her face".

And look at how the Bush family can be just that: a family, for example, at the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland and even just three months after the 9/11 attacks when the twins were celebrating their 20th birthday. "We had 20 of our friends, and really nice dinner and a karaoke machine afterwards," Jenna reported. "And of course my dad had a sports tournament for the guys. He was stressed out, I know, but we still had the party."

Grown up they may be, but not everyone thinks it is fair to be putting the twins in the spotlight. The Clinton family managed to maintain a wall of protection around Chelsea, the "first daughter", through her father's campaigns and even during his last term in the White House, when she was attending Oxford University. True, Hillary Rodham Clinton, then looking to run for the US Senate, may have used her daughter a little clumsily in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, publicly intimating that she had been in mortal danger on that day. Chelsea was indeed living in Manhattan but was safe in her apartment, very many blocks away, when the twin towers came down.

It was through the fashion world that Chelsea was finally introduced to the public eye in 2002. The media was allowed to photograph her sitting in the front row of a Versace fashion show in New York in the company of Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, no less.

"I think the children of politicians should have lots of privacy," argues Bryce Nelson, a professor of journalism at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. "It's probably a mistake for them personally to go on the publicity path, but their father probably needs all the help he can get".

With the Kerry-Edwards caravan showing signs of picking up speed and the Iraq war weighing badly on the President's poll numbers, that may well be. And there is some precedent within the Bush clan of children helping out parents. More famous, until now, has been Barbara and Jenna'scousin, George P Bush, who has campaigned frequently for his father, Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida. However, George is working as a legal clerk in Texas which means he is barred from helping anyone on the campaign trail. So it's over to the twins.

Just how helpful the two of them can really be is not clear. At the very least, they can help keep up their father's morale if his campaign starts to jump the rails. The President himself told Vogue he was "most excited" that he was going into what will be the last political campaign of his life "with the two girls that I love". As he pointed out Barbara standing on the stage behind him in a campaign appearance last week, he declared, "I love that you're here darling. Thanks for coming."

But who in the American electorate are the twins meant to appeal to? It was surely by design that the Vogue spread included portraits of them occupy- ing different spheres. As debutantes, they are American posh. In other shots they are determinedly regular burb-girls in smart casual garb.

As The Washington Post pointed out last week, "In Vogue, there are no pimples. Everyone glows". There is nothing in this profile that is not scripted and vetted. This means that in reality, we still know very little about Jenna and Barbara. The Post goes on to suggest, that as described by Vogue they have gone "from indiscreet college students to Stepford daughters", programmed to smile at the right moments and only speak when called upon. Will their presence on the campaign trail broaden their father's appeal to young Americans and, especially, to the MTV crowd? That seems unlikely.

Mr Kerry may be luckier. His daughters, offspring from a 1970-1988 marriage to his first wife, Julia Thorne, have more years under their belt and more interesting life stories to tell. Alexandra has acted in films such as the 2000 offbeat favourite State and Main and has made four short works of her own. She is said to be going out with the British director, Simon Monjack. Her sister, Vanessa, has just finished Harvard Medical School and will go to London at the end of the year to work on a master degree on international health care. Like the twins, both Kerry daughters are dedicating the next four months to playing their parts in the presidential campaign.

Given their past antics, there must be at least a twinge of concern in the White House that Barbara and Jenna could yet have the capacity to embarrass their father. Only last weekend, The New York Times carried a long feature written by a former hostess at a Manhattan hotspot in which she recalls seeing an inebriated Barbara, allegedly the better-behaved of the two, bent over outside the back door almost vomiting on the pavement. There will be no partying before November. But Gloria Starr, an image consultant to the famous in Texas, sees another danger: "The challenge for them will be to think before they speak."