From attending inaugurations as a kid to experiencing college with the Secret Service, Barbara Pierce Bush – along with her twin sister, Jenna – grew up surrounded by politics and in the public eye.
They found themselves in their grandmother’s memoir for clogging a White House toilet with paper as little girls, and later in the headlines for using a fake ID to order margaritas at the Chuy’s in Austin. But what didn’t get so much attention was how they committed themselves to the causes and careers they care about.
On KERA’s “Think,” Bush talked about growing up in the spotlight – and about moving beyond it to make a life of her own.
Now 36, she’s the co-founder and board chair of Global Health Corps.
On the public image of her parents
It’s so easy to stereotype people and yet, you lose all the beauty in people when you just assume they’re a handful of characteristics. Our dad, he married a librarian, and he’s a voracious reader; he still reads about a book a week and reads more than anyone in our family. And that’s not really the public image of my dad as being really smart and really curious in that type of way.
My mom has often been typecast as a quiet, shy librarian. And my mom is fiercely outspoken within our family. My memories of her are not necessarily of us sitting around and reading together. It was going to concerts when I was growing up in Austin. My mom loves music and she loves reggae. She and I would both go to concerts together in Austin at small clubs and venues when I was in high school. My mom is kind of a closet hippie. I actually always was worried my mom was going to leave my dad for Van Morrison. And that’s probably not what you think of Laura Bush.
On her dad telling her he was running for president
My dad sat us down to tell us that he was thinking of running. When you’re in high school, you really live in your own little bubble and you’re very focused on your own life in many ways. I remember my sister and I were shocked and meanwhile, looking back, there were probably plenty of signs that — had we paid attention to — we would have noticed that this was a possibility. And we did not react very well. We both burst into tears when he told us. I think we just didn’t know what it meant for us.
Of course, my dad had been the child of a president. He was an adult then. But I think what he struggled with was the same thing we struggled with: loving someone so deeply and knowing someone so deeply, and so it’s hard to not feel hurt by any criticisms of them. I know he felt that for his father. And Jenna and I felt that for sure.
On going to Yale with “anti-Dad” posters
I wanted to go somewhere I didn’t know anyone. There was no one from Austin High that went there. And I loved that, I loved being out of my comfort zone. My dad happened to be running for president that same year. It was a very different experience for me to make friends during an election year. Luckily, I made friends that were terribly protective of me in the best way possible.
But Yale is a really political campus, and it’s a pretty liberal campus. I might have been the only person who voted for my dad. I don’t know, but there probably weren’t that many people. It definitely took an adjustment for me to realize that signs or protests or posters against my dad were at the person that I knew, but I knew him in a different way. I definitely developed a much thicker skin, quickly. I needed to see that, of course, that was someone’s opinion that was targeted at a person that represented ideas that they didn’t necessarily agree with, but not at the person that I loved.
On her stance on same-sex marriage
My parents really raised us to feel comfortable using our voices, and if there are issues that we care about, then it’s up to us to do something about it. We shouldn't expect something to change without engaging in it. For instance, when same-sex marriage was up in New York and it ended up passing, but leading up to that, I was asked to do a video for same-sex marriage. I spoke with my dad a lot before making the decision because I wasn’t sure how it was going play out.
I ended up making a short video, and I didn’t know that it would be seen very often. The next morning, of course, it was on the cover of The New York Times because it was a video contradicting something my dad had stated publicly. For a brief period, I was recognized with it. Regularly, people would come up to me and say things along the lines of, “Thanks for doing that. That was so brave of you to betray your family.” I was always so surprised that it was taken as a betrayal because I had talked to my parents and my dad plenty before deciding to do it. He knew how I felt, he’d always known how I’d felt. That was something that we’d talked about for years behind closed doors. If anything, I was doing what he had taught me to do.
Bush's Her new book, co-written with her sister, is called “Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life.” She’s in town to accept Austin College’s Posey Leadership Award.
Interview responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.