The Natural

Eighteen years after begging her father not to run for president, Today correspondent Jenna Bush Hager is loving life in the spotlight.

The streets of New York City are still dark on a blustery March morning when Jenna Bush Hager walks through the doors of Rockefeller Center. Over the next four hours, the Today correspondent “tracks”—or records—voiceovers for two pieces; pre-tapes a few others; gets her hair and makeup done; sits in on a production meeting; appears on a “trending” segment with Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Al Roker, and Carson Daly; shares an emotional piece on former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, who is battling ALS; and interviews Kong: Skull Island stars Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson for spots airing later in the week.

It’s now only 9:45 a.m. “Whew—I feel like I’ve already had a full day,” she says, before heading back in front of the camera to host the fourth hour of the show.

Seven years after NBC hired her as an education correspondent for Today, Hager, BA ’04, is now the go-to fill-in for Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb when one of them is on vacation. When they’re both out, Hager hosts the show alongside a celebrity guest. This morning, her co-host is singer Jordin Sparks.

After running through the show’s lineup with Sparks, the cameras roll, and the duo begin the opening segment, which includes sharing what they did over the weekend. (Hager got to meet the baby girl Kotb recently adopted.) When the show cuts to commercial, the hosts, producers, and crew have two minutes to hustle up three flights of stairs for a meditation segment in another studio. And that’s how the next hour goes: up and down the stairs for different segments in a variety of studios. The show is over just as quickly as it began.

It’s now 11 a.m. and Hager still has many hours of work ahead of her, including taping yet another interview for Today, this one with Cassie De Pecol, a 27-year-old who recently became the first documented woman to travel to all 196 countries in the world. (Of their hour-long interview, less than five minutes will air.) After that, she’ll head to her cubicle in the NBC newsroom to work on her other projects, including a bimonthly column for Southern Living, where she is an editor-at-large, and a newly announced book with her fraternal twin sister, Barbara, called Sisters First: Stories From Our Wild and Wonderful Life, due out in October.

Hager’s work ethic and keen storytelling skills are unsurprising to anyone who knew her while she was an English major at UT. Now the author or co-author of four books—the most recent being the children’s book Our Great Big Backyard, which she wrote with her mother, Laura Bush, MLS ’73, Distinguished Alumna—Hager’s writing skills were already evident in school. UT English professor Don Graham, PhD ’71, who taught her in a Life and Literature of the Southwest course when she was an upperclassman, says Hager was able to take a paper she wrote about novelist Katherine Anne Porter to the next level by acknowledging “the pressure she felt as a young woman with a strong family and trying to find her own independent voice in life.”

While Hager may have had a lot on her shoulders as a member of such a well-known family, Graham—who, along with his wife, developed a close friendship with the first daughter and even attended a special wedding reception for her at the White House—says Hager handled it well. “I’m sure she felt some pressure as the first daughter, and the time she was [here] the whole Iraq thing was on fire,” he says. “But she never indicated anything with us. She was very outgoing and full of fun and energy.”

Although Hager was somewhat of a school celebrity—and was famously busted twice for underage drinking as a freshman—Graham says the 30 or so students in that class were most interested in figuring out where the Secret Service was. “Nobody was ever able to identify them,” he says, “but we know they were there because they had to be.”

That was by design. “The Secret Service were obviously there,” Hager says. “But my parents tried to give us a normal college experience because we so desperately wanted it. So they were outside the buildings for the most part. They didn’t want to invade our privacy.”

One of the reasons she chose to attend UT was because she had history with the city, where the family had lived for five years while her father, George W. Bush, was governor of Texas. The twins, who spent their elementary school years in Dallas, attended Stephen F. Austin High School and had friends all over the state from going to camp throughout the years. “I felt safe and very protected by a great group of friends that just knew me as Jenna,” she says. “Barbara had it a lot more difficult because she went to [Yale] where she didn’t know anyone.”

Although Hager famously asked her father not to run for president—“Oh, I just wish you wouldn’t run. It’s going to change our life,” she was reported as saying at the time—looking back now, she says the upside of being a first daughter can’t be discounted. “To have access to living history is such a privilege,” she says. “When we were in college, our parents took us on travels around the world. We were able to go to Africa with them and witness the unveiling of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. They weren’t vacations. They were really great learning trips where we sat with women and children and heard their stories. And I think 19 is such a perfect age because we could really appreciate it.” Plus, she notes, “As a result of these experiences, our perspectives on life completely changed and altered the trajectory of our careers.”

Like her mother, Hager has always loved reading and education, so it wasn’t surprising that after graduation she took a job as a teacher in Washington, D.C. After a few years, she headed to Panama, where she interned with UNICEF for nine months. Her time there inspired her first book, Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope, based on the life of a 17-year-old single mother with HIV whom she befriended. “My students were the impetus for me moving there,” she says. “Most of them had immigrated from Latin America and in many ways they lived Ana’s story. And I wanted to be able to have something that my kids could read that could put their lives into perspective and could also highlight the issues of kids around the world.” 

After returning to the U.S., Hager married her husband Henry in 2008, and they moved to Baltimore, where she began teaching sixth grade English at The SEED School of Maryland, a public boarding school for kids who are at risk or disadvantaged. “I was one of the founding teachers, so I got to write the curriculum. It was awesome, but it was really hard,” she says. “One of the things we sometimes forget in our culture is how hard teaching is, especially in marginalized areas.”

While promoting Ana’s Story, which went on to be a New York Times bestseller, TV producers immediately noticed how natural and warm Hager was on camera. It wasn’t long before NBC came knocking. “My boss, Jim Bell, [then the executive producer of Today], called and said, ‘Is this something you would ever do?’ and I was like, ‘No way!’” she recalls. “I was and am still obsessed with education. But my job in teaching was so unbelievably difficult. Every night I dreamed of my students. And my husband was like, ‘Maybe you should just see what they are offering.’ And they offered exactly what I wanted to do, which was to tell stories about people like my kids and the teachers I taught with.”

Eighteen months later, she started commuting between Baltimore, where she was teaching part-time, and Manhattan, where she focused on stories about education and women’s issues for Today. The juggle eventually became too much. “I was being pulled in so many different ways, and I wasn’t really learning the job in the way that I felt like I was doing it any justice,” she says. “My kids were so important to me. If I was going to be there I wanted to be there 100 percent.”

After a year, Hager and her husband moved to New York City so she could fully immerse herself in this potential—and surprising—career. And it turns out that was the right decision. “I have never seen anybody who is more natural on camera and connects with people the way she does,” says Mary Ann Zoellner, a Today producer who has worked closely with Hager for four years. Hager’s mother agrees. “I don’t think Jenna ever envisioned this career path, and we didn’t either,” Laura says. “But it’s the perfect fit.”

Zoellner says Hager is equally skilled at hosting the fourth hour of the show with Kotb and Gifford, where “she has things to say and opinions and can laugh at herself,” as she does larger-format feature stories where she interviews everyone from Gleason to Prince Harry. Zoellner points to Hager’s recent interview with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones for Today’s “Family Business” series as an example of her ability to make interview subjects feel at ease. “She got Jerry Jones, who is known for his tough demeanor, to cry during an interview with his daughter,” Zoellner says.

Hager is keeping the Bush legacy going with her own children: daughters Mila, 4, and Poppy, who is nearly 2. Like the strong women before them, both girls have feisty personalities. Mila takes gymnastics and loves to paint with her grandfather (whom the girls call “Jefe”) and Poppy has proven to be a bruiser at a young age. “We call her Ronda Rousey because she is a beast,” Hager laughs. “I like that they are opinionated and sassy and funny and smart. They’re so much fun.”

Hager’s parents are equally enamored with their granddaughters. “George says that being a grandparent is the only thing that is not overrated—it’s even better than everyone says,” Laura says.

Like their mother and Aunt Barbara, the sisters already have an unbreakable bond. “My mom gave Mila a little picture frame of Barbara and me as 3-year-olds hugging each other, and she explained that we’ve loved each other since the time we were born,” Hager says. “From the moment Poppy was born, Mila loved her. There are pictures of her clapping over her new baby sissy. There’s no jealousy in our house, which I am so happy about. I don’t know if they were born that way or what, but it’s working out, because they are crazy about each other.” 

Hager and Barbara, whom she jokingly calls “the elusive Bush twin,” have gradually become more public with themselves and their opinions. In January, they co-wrote an open letter to Sasha and Malia Obama in which they said, “Now you are about to join another rarified club, one of former First Children—a position you didn’t seek and one with no guidelines. But you have so much to look forward to.”

Hager recently hosted the NBC red carpet for the Golden Globes, and Barbara, CEO and co-founder of  nonprofit Global Health Corps, spoke at a fundraising lunch for Planned Parenthood in Dallas. Hager also made headlines when she tweeted an excerpt of her father’s “Islam is peace” post-9/11 speech after President Donald Trump’s first travel ban against seven Muslim-majority countries in January. “I try to stay as unbiased as possible because of the work that I do,” she says. “That said, I was raised by really strong women, so if there is something that I feel is against humanity, then sometimes it is hard to stay silent.”

While the twins have long said they will never go into politics, it turns out their stance is softening. “We both are still very interested in policy, but traditional American politics has turned us off, I’m not sure why … wink, wink,” she says. “We see how important it is to have passionate, thoughtful leaders in the government. And now I’m like, ‘Barbara! You’ve gotta run.’ And she’s like, ‘Why don’t you run?’ So, in years past there was a definite no, but it used to be a yelled NO! and now it’s a noooo.

That’s a surprising statement from someone who didn’t want her father to thrust their family onto the international stage so many years ago. But Hager is nothing if not surprising. And it seems that, with her signature blend of Texas charm, hard work, and tenacity, she can do anything she sets her mind to, whether it be writing books or tackling emotional interviews for Today.

One person who has had a front-row seat to Hager’s transformation from TV newbie to seasoned pro is Kathie Lee Gifford, who joined Today two years before Hager. “There was something very tender and innocent about Jenna when she first came to NBC,” Gifford says. “I’m sure it had to be overwhelming for her, but day by day she won everyone over with her authenticity, her sense of humor, and her keen curiosity. It’s impossible not to love her.”

Photos by Gabrielle Revere.




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