Jenna Bush Hager highlights importance of family at Florida Forum talk

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On Nov. 5, 1993, First Lady Barbara Bush attended the dedication of a new patient care tower at Wolfson Children’s Hospital, reading “Goodnight Moon” to the children being treated there.

Nearly 29 years to the day of that visit, Bush’s granddaughter, “Today” show co-host Jenna Bush Hager, visited the same hospital before sharing memories of her family at the Florida Forum speaker series – an initiative of The Women’s Board to benefit Wolfson Children’s Hospital.

A mother of three young children, Hager said her visit to the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) left a lasting impression.

“To see these tiny babies and their parents is something I’ll never forget,” she said, adding that during her visit, she met the family of an infant born prematurely who has been in the NICU for his entire first year of life.

“No mom wants to have to make use of these facilities,” she said, “but to know that you have this type of health care right here in your own backyard is such a comfort.”

A special bond

The Women’s Board was founded 50 years ago after twin girls Annie and Abbie Martin were born prematurely, and the hospital lacked the equipment needed to care for both infants. As a result, Abbie lived just eight days. Since that time, The Women’s Board has raised $35 million to ensure that Wolfson Children’s Hospital has the equipment, facilities and resources to provide first-class care to its young patients. Thanks in part to that support, Wolfson’s was the facility at which conjoined twins Conner and Carter Mirabal were successfully separated in 2015.

During her Florida Forum talk, Hager spoke fondly of the special bond she enjoys with her own twin sister, Barbara.

“We have always been aware how lucky we are to have been born twins,” she said. “We were 18 when our dad became president after a really long recount, and to have a sister to hold your hand on a day like that was such a blessing.”

Hager noted that it’s not uncommon for people to want to make comparisons between twins.

“People would say, ‘Barbara’s the quiet one and you’re the loud one,’” she said. “Or ‘She’s the smart one and you’re the funny one.’ I’d want to say, ‘Can’t we be a little of both?’”

When their father left the White House in January 2009, the Bush sisters penned a letter to incoming “first daughters” Sasha and Malia Obama, encouraging them to remember who their father was during difficult times and to enjoy as much as possible their time in the White House.

For Hager, her fondest memories of her years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue revolve around family. In particular, she fondly recalls spending Christmas at the White House – a tradition started by her grandfather during his presidency and continued during her father’s two terms in office.

“We had 12 years where the entire extended family, with aunts and uncles and cousins, would gather for Christmas at the White House,” she said. “So, when I think of those years, it’s a lot about family.”

Hager noted that her parents tried as much as possible to allow their daughters to enjoy a normal college experience during his presidency. To that end, the girls’ Secret Service protection was instructed to be nearby but not to follow them into college classrooms or other buildings.

That all changed on 9/11.

“I woke up in my dorm that day, looked out the window and there were about 10 (Secret Service agents) standing outside. I thought, ‘What’s happened?’”

A similar group of agents was waiting at Yale for Barbara. Both Bush daughters were escorted to safe locations as the world watched the tragedy unfold.

“The agents protecting Barbara were actually based out of the World Trade Center, so they were getting calls from family while trying to locate some of their colleagues,” Hager said. “Barbara recalled that one of the agents had his 5-year-old daughter with him and she was jumping up and down on the bed in this motel. She said it was a jarring juxtaposition – this little girl’s innocence with what was happening. And then everything changed.”

Asked if it has been difficult to make her own mark in the world coming from such an accomplished family, Hager said she has never resented being a Bush and that she was proud of what she had worked hard to accomplish as an author of several best-selling books and co-host of the “Today” show, where her contributions include launching “Read with Jenna,” a book club that spotlights debut and diverse voices. She also recently launched a production company to bring some of the featured books to television.

So, what’s next for Jenna Bush Hager?

“Of all the jobs I’ve had, I take the job of mother most seriously,” she said. “We try really hard to have a house that is joyful, where our kids feel that they are enough.

“So, what’s next are those three little people – and they will be for the rest of my life.”

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