Jenna Bush Hager, wife, mother, author, teacher, chair of UNICEF’s Next Generation initiative and NBC News correspondent, is busy.
Last night she was on the red carpet at the annual CFDA Awards (known as the Fashion Oscars). This morning she has already conducted two interviews and wrapped up the fourth-hour segment of NBC’s “Today” show she co-hosts with Hoda Kotb, before heading up to the Willow Ridge Country Club in Harrison where she is the guest speaker at the Friends of White Plains Hospital Spring luncheon.
Exhausted? Not Hager. She steps out of the car four minutes late due to traffic on the Hutch but looking fresh as a daisy and without a hair out of place, although the briefest powdering of the nose is in order before she is officially greeted by the great and the good among the hospital’s friends.
Five feet 11 inches tall in stilettoes, Hager does not so much walk on heels as command in them. A crisp, long white jacket worn over a sleek, three-quarter length silk dress, she has — how should we put this? — presence. Just before lunch, a journalist steps in to ask how she balances all of her demanding roles, a question echoed later on, more or less verbatim, by a guest in the Q&A session after her keynote address. “I don’t like the word balance,” retorts Hager, the only time her Pepsodent smile cracks for even an instant. It’s clearly her bugbear. “Listen,” she says, the smile quickly returning, “We do what we do and we do the best we can. But the word ‘balance’ at work has an elitist connotation. You can bet nobody’s asking my husband” (Henry Hager, a director at asset management company KKR) “how he balances everything he does.”
Although Hager now lives in Brooklyn, her ties to the region are unassailable. Her beloved grandmother, Barbara Bush, always referred to as Ganny, was from Rye and her grandfather, President George H.W. Bush, born in Milton, Massachusetts, started his education at Greenwich Country Day School. Her grandparents were married at Rye Presbyterian Church, and she still has cousins in Greenwich. She serves on the board of the Greenwich International Film Festival.
When she talks about her grandmother — Ganny — she tears up. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I’m very hormonal.” A few days before the luncheon, Hager announced she is pregnant with her third child, a boy. “Though what I’m going to do with a boy, goodness knows,” she jokes. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize there would be men at this luncheon, and I can see some. One… two…,” she points a finger at random tables, “three… oh and another over there, four…” She is a master of timing and the comic pause. “Five…” To laughter and rapturous applause she returns to her theme.
The faux-anxiety at the arrival later this year of a son is because until now she has only had to deal with daughters, Mila, 6, and Poppy, 3. But as a former teacher herself, at a charter school in Washington, D.C., and currently working as a part-time reading coordinator at the SEED Public Charter School in Baltimore, Maryland, as well as contributing a monthly news story about education for the “Today” show, there’s no question Hager really loves kids and young adults. At my table we all agree she must be one amazing mom.
Hardworking but cozy, as wholesome as cherry pie but with a good line in irony, she is not afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve. It is this very openness that continues to win her legions of admirers — 950,000 on Instagram and counting. If she has an edge to her, it is brilliantly well hidden. There is not a shred of self-consciousness and yet, at the same time, she feels curiously vulnerable. It’s an attractive mix.
The embodiment of public service and someone who believes passionately in giving back because of her own privilege, Hager has come to Westchester to share her personal experiences as a teacher, humanitarian aid worker and correspondent in hopes of motivating and inspiring guests to become more involved in their own schools and communities. In a sense, she is preaching to the converted at the Harrison country club. At the spring luncheon, the Friends of White Plains Hospital were handing over a check for $1.3 million, money raised for the hospital in the last year. The hospital has just broken ground on a 252,000-square-foot, 9-story outpatient center for advanced medicine and surgery. Susan Fox, president and CEO of the hospital, took to the podium to explain how the new center is going to deliver a seamless patient experience, and how the hospital’s growth and vitality have been a key factor in attracting top medical talent from major teaching and research hospitals in New York City.
Hager believes everyone has the ability to have a profound effect on the lives of others, a conviction attested to by the huge turnout at the lunch and the ongoing work of the Friends group.
To a room where you could now hear a penny drop (even the men had stopped talking,) Hager shared Ganny Bush’s praise and admiration for “the good deeds of everyday people who do amazing things.” She, of course, is one of those very people, albeit with a touch more privilege than most. Hearing her speak, you cannot help but feel how inordinately proud of her Ganny no doubt was.
“Study hard, work hard and play hard, too,” was another of Ganny’s sayings. It was something Hager and her fraternal twin sister, Barbara Pierce Bush, took to heart — Hager at the University of Texas at Austin, Bush at Yale University.
“I was 19 and already at college when my dad entered the White House,” Hager told the room, “so I already had my own life.” She tried to lead a normal life but admits it was “kind of weird” having Secret Service agents come with you on dates.
Knowing better than to inquire about “balance” in her life, I was nevertheless interested to learn what she did for relaxation. In the few moments I was able to snag alone with her, I asked (with WAG’s August recreation issue in mind), if she played a sport or perhaps had other ways of winding down. Quick as a flash she was back at me. “Well, I won’t be playing any sport this summer as I’m pregnant.” Ask a silly question, as they used to say in elementary school. But she went on to tell me that she is a great walker and loves to hike, especially in the warmer months. “At the end of a long day, walking clears my head,” she says.
And anyone who has met Jenna Bush Hager, or watched her on TV, would surely agree: she has a very clear head indeed.