The former first daughter is famous in her own right. Her TV book club is one of the few reliable paths to the best-seller list in a precarious industry.
Matt Flegenheimer is a reporter covering national politics at the New York Times. He started at The Times in 2011 on the Metro desk covering transit, City Hall and campaigns. Kitty Bennett contributed research.
Dec. 21, 2022
There is a madcap performance within the Jenna Bush Hager morning routine.
Coffee sloshes from her cup, occasionally threatening her “Today” show uniform. Lipstick tints a tooth or two until professionals intervene. Nonconformist strands of hair attach to her mouth at a staff meeting where she suggests that no true Texan would take the kind of “cowboy-cation” the show plans to feature. (“Hair in your mouth, you’re like my daughter,” her co-host, Hoda Kotb, faux-scolded off camera, straightening her up.)
Inside her dressing room, Ms. Hager sits amid well-curated trinkets tracing her long, strange public arc: an image of her father, George W. Bush, cradling her and Barbara, her fraternal twin sister, as newborns; a handwritten note from Andy Cohen, one of many celebrity pals she has accumulated, pinned to her mirror; a framed painting of a dozen books by a dozen authors, her authors, arranged neatly in a row.
And once a month, Ms. Hager rises from this nook, steps over her bunny-furnished “Hop on In” welcome mat, walks out onto Rockefeller Plaza and beckons a live audience to hold aloft the freebie literature they have just been handed.
History dictates that this book will very likely become a best seller, no matter the prior prominence of its creator. It might well become a television series, produced by Jenna Bush Hager. It will, at a minimum, charge into the culture — on shelves, in stockings, rocketing up the Amazon rankings — for the bare fact that Ms. Hager has said its name before a viewing public that has come to trust her like an insistently persuasive aunt.
“I just have had a love affair with reading because of the women that have come before me,” Ms. Hager, the daughter of a librarian, said in an interview between recent tapings. “And my dad, too, even though people thought he couldn’t read.”
A summoning came from the crew: 90-second warning, Jenna.
“Five seconds?” she said, mishearing her way into a near-sprint. “Oh my God, I have to pee.”
Off went one of the central characters in contemporary fiction.
Since 2019, Ms. Hager, 41, has highlighted nearly 50 books as part of her “Read With Jenna” book club promoted on “Today.” Many were from first-time authors with no track record of literary success, like “The School for Good Mothers” by Jessamine Chan and “The Cloisters” by Katy Hays. Most became chart-toppers almost immediately, selling over a million print copies in total. Since fall 2021, Ms. Hager’s picks have outpaced the overall adult fiction market by almost 60 percent, according to an analysis of top-selling adult fiction titles by the market research company NPD Group.
The result is a heady inversion: Once known for her last name, Ms. Hager has become as famous for her first, the five letters glowing in “Today”-show orange across the signature purple sticker that novelists plot feverishly to slap onto their book covers.
She is also a particular kind of thumb-on-the-scale success. Born into her family’s story — for better and worse over the course of her life — she has maximized the chances this fate afforded her, amassing the professional capital to place her own thumb on the scale for those found worthy of her endorsement, a sort of virtuous circle of favouritism.
Ms. Hager’s inbox and Instagram account swell daily with communications from agents, writers, friends and strangers angling to get their material in front of her.
While overall print book sales have lagged some for much of 2022, adult fiction has often fared better, buttressed by celebrity book clubs like Ms. Hager’s and Reese Witherspoon’s — a reliance that does not necessarily speak well of the industry’s health.
At times, the quest to win Ms. Hager’s imprimatur can be something of a cloak-and-dagger affair.
Publishers have changed book release dates without explanation to meet Ms. Hager’s desired announcement timeline, with industry watchers straining to decipher her wishes. (She has settled on the roster through August, she said, and is currently reading for next fall.) Chosen authors have been instructed by their publicity teams on how best to deflect when asked if they have been selected. (“I wish!” seems to be a consensus lie.)
“Like figuring out who the College of Cardinals is going to pick,” said Rumaan Alam, whose “Leave the World Behind” was the October 2020 selection.
If no white smoke has been seen rising from 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the high council of NBCUniversal has seen it fit to grow Ms. Hager’s flock regardless. Earlier this year, she announced the formation of a production company and a “first look” deal with Universal Studio Group, with plans to develop her favored books for the screen. Eight have been optioned so far.
The arrangement is atypical, if not unprecedented, for the network, a signal of its uncommon investment in her. “She and Dateline are the two kind of marquee brands we’ve seen have legs in other realms,” said Noah Oppenheim, the president of NBC News, referring to the television newsmagazine that has moved recently into scripted adaptations.
Ms. Hager’s father, a mystery fan, is among those known to consult with her informally on which projects to pursue. (“The Feather Thief” by Kirk Wallace Johnson, which Ms. Hager’s team is adapting, was a favorite.) Her sister has also assumed an unofficial advisory role. “I get to secretly read books she’s considering,” Barbara Bush said.
Asked whether the name of the production company, Thousand Voices, was a tribute to “a thousand points of light” — a prized saying of her paternal grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush, which inspired the name of his nonprofit organization — Ms. Hager called any homage coincidental, if conspicuous in hindsight.
“Later, my husband was like, ‘Do you sort of see that?’” she said of the overlap. (Her husband, Henry Hager, who works in private equity, is a former aide to her father.)
Such echoes can feel reflective of a life at once powered and shadowed by her lineage, her public profile proceeding now as a series of nominal paradoxes that make more sense upon closer inspection.
Ms. Hager has become the most broadly popular onetime first child of the modern era — and easily the most prominent one to stray from the family business — graduating from the nation’s most scrutinized underage drinker to its media personality most likely to tell a mass audience that she went commando this year to a dinner with Prince Charles before he assumed the throne.
She is the daughter of a man who once declared himself “misunderestimated,” positioned as one of the most powerful figures in literature today.
She is a premium name dropper almost out of habit, less boastful than thorough, ticking through the luminaries who populate her days.
“I actually did see Seinfeld yesterday …”
“I locked eyes with George Strait …”
“And Oprah said that to me …” (They text.)
She is a reader of zigzagging tastes: memoir, mystery, poetry, period plots.
The themes that animate her can seem telling.
“I see a consistent interest,” said Charmaine Wilkerson, whose debut novel, “Black Cake,” made the cut last February, “in family relationships.”
Unwitting public figure
It was not the attention that bothered her, exactly.
“As a little kid, if you read her diary, she would say she wanted to be an entertainer,” Barbara Bush said, recalling her twin’s ill-fated covers from “Les Miserables.”
But why a teenage Jenna Bush found herself in the papers befuddled her then. “Today has been a hard day for me,” she wrote in her journal in May 1996 (and published in a 2017 joint memoir with her sister). The entry was in response to a news article about the Bush children — then the daughters of the Texas governor — planning to enroll at Austin High School. “The thing that really sucks,” she scribbled, “is I’ll be known for ‘Jenna Bush’ the thing instead of Jenna Bush the person.”
The shorthand in the political press held that Barbara was their mother’s daughter, Yale-bound and reserved, and Jenna was their father’s: the extrovert, the cut-up, the high-school senior named most likely to trip across the stage at graduation.
In her young adulthood, just as Mr. Bush was seeking and winning the White House, some other data points helped the stereotype congeal. She was introduced in December 2000 as “George W.’s Wild Daughter” in the National Enquirer, photographed holding a cigarette and stumbling merrily over a friend as a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin.
She was cited for underage drinking, twice, the second time with Barbara in tow. (People magazine’s headline: “Oops! They Did It Again.”)
Such incidental notoriety could take a private toll, particularly as the heavily analyzed daughter of a president who had described his own struggles with alcohol. Ms. Hager has said she took large introductory courses to avoid more intimate classroom settings where she might need to say her name. She was trailed by a Secret Service detail on social outings. She declined stately invitations from European embassies that hoped to welcome an executive daughter on her summer trek.
“She’s like, ‘Nope, we’re going to have our backpacks, we’re getting our Eurorail, we’re staying in some hostel,’” said Mia Smail, a close friend who traveled with her. “It was this commitment to normalcy.”
While Ms. Hager assumed a sometimes puckish surrogate role in her father’s 2004 re-election bid — punctuated by a convention speech in which she joked that her grandmother, the former first lady, “thinks ‘Sex in the City’ is something married people do but never talk about” — her relationship with the press could still be uncomfortable.
In a widely circulated photograph that year, she was seen sticking her tongue out at reporters from the back of a Secret Service vehicle. (She has said she was trying to prove to her father that the windows were sufficiently tinted. She was mistaken.) She once broke into a dead sprint, mid-jog, after NBC’s David Gregory waved at her from the North Lawn.
At the same time, Ms. Hager showed a postgraduate appetite for media ventures on her terms. She had worked initially as a teacher at a Washington charter school for predominantly low-income families. But after a UNICEF internship in Latin America, she began shopping a book in 2007, with assistance from the Washington superlawyer Robert Barnett, about an H.I.V.-stricken Panamanian teenage mother she had met.
Its contents were “grim and raw,” The New Yorker wrote, with spare prose chronicling infection, death and sexual assault. Its promotional tour, unusual for a fledgling author, changed the course of her life.
“Did I have some doors open?” Ms. Hager said. “I’m sure. I mean, I wrote a book and was on the ‘Today’ show.”
“Had I not, probably, had my last name, I don’t know that I would have been given a prime interview spot on the ‘Today’ show, which would have then eventually landed me a job.”
After the interview — and a 2008 appearance with her mother to promote a picture book they published — NBC proclaimed itself impressed with her on-camera chops and gauged her interest in a formal role, which Ms. Hager rebuffed at first. When she came around in 2009, agreeing to contribute monthly stories on issues like education, some in her family were taken aback.
“It was such a funny thing to watch my sister’s relationship and my relationship that was very prickly to the media change for her,” said Barbara Bush, who pursued a more private life of global health work and other ventures. “For her to then actively choose to be a public figure, it surprised me.”
The public response was less stunning. Some speculated that ratings-minded NBC was merely maneuvering for a sit-down with her father. (He did later give the network his first one-on-one post-presidency television interview.)
Journalists lamented the non-meritocracy of it all. (“Jenna Bush is nice, and fun!” Gawker wrote. “And know what? This is actually somewhat likable in its complete and utter boldfaced stunt-casting nature.”)
“When people say that, which they do, it’s the thing that kind of hurts,” Ms. Hager said of the nepotism grumbles. “It’s basically saying you’re not worthy of all your success.”
On the other hand, Ms. Hager suggested, her record of youthful public failure was liberating.
“That is the best gift you could ever have,” Ms. Hager said. “Once you’ve done that, you’re brave.”
She would be misunderestimated at others’ peril.
On camera, on purpose
The morning meeting for the “Today” show’s 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. window is something of a broadcast without cameras.
This fourth hour, once the wine-swilling province of Ms. Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford, has long trended toward lighter fare, and the preshow gathering is no exception. From an overstuffed hair and makeup room, Ms. Kotb and Ms. Hager, who replaced Ms. Gifford in 2019, road-test their planned on-air discussion items with staff: what “hot girl food” is, how Stanley Tucci became a sex symbol, when they had done something that scared them.
“Jumping out of the plane,” Ms. Hager said on a recent morning, recalling a televised stunt last year to honor her grandfather, an eager sky diver until his twilight days.
“Didn’t you win an Emmy for that?” Talia Parkinson-Jones, the hour’s executive producer, asked.
When Ms. Hager began at NBC, some colleagues were plainly skeptical of the hire. “I’m sure I thought, ‘Well, what is this all about? She doesn’t have any experience,’” said Savannah Guthrie, a “Today” co-anchor who is now close with Ms. Hager. “I’m sure there was a lot of that feeling.”
The company made several unsubtle investments in political progeny during the Obama years, with similar arrangements for Chelsea Clinton and Meghan McCain, though Ms. Hager quickly distinguished herself as a more permanent fixture.
Onscreen, she presented to audiences as an approachable, semi-contradictory figure: of the club but not beholden to it, not defined by her family but never reluctant to mine them for content, either. (Her relatives remain recurring characters in her anecdotes, from her father’s pickleball tenacity to the holiday exploits of her three children.)
Offscreen, she endeared herself to producers with a manifest work ethic, sharpening her prompter reads after hours and studying the scriptwriting of exemplars like Harry Smith. Neither did anyone mind her unteachable connection to political royalty, who seemed likelier to agree to a sit-down with a fellow traveller. Splashy interview subjects have included Michelle Obama; Ashley Biden, the current president’s daughter; and the former presidents Ms. Hager knew as Dad and Gampy.
“She garners a lot of trust from people who might not otherwise be willing to sit down with a traditional, air-quotes ‘journalist,’” Ms. Guthrie said. “They recognize that she knows what it’s like to sit in their chair.”
Though she avoids public partisanship, Ms. Hager has reached for gravitas when the moment compels. The morning after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, she sounded something like an officeholder in insisting that “these images are not our America.”
“I kissed my grandfather goodbye in that rotunda,” she said, tearing up. “I have felt the majesty of our country in those walls.”
Asked if she could imagine any scenario where her sister considers political office, Barbara Bush said: “Probably not. But obviously never say never.”
Asked if, at minimum, her popularity and platform might have helped soften some Americans’ feelings about her father’s presidency, Ms. Hager laughed. “Time is a really great sort of diffuser,” she said. “I’m not sure I have that sort of power.”
But she has some, and recent years have doubled as an exercise in what to do with it. Ms. Hager credits a newfound perspective to a preshow encounter years ago with Maria Shriver, another accomplished broadcaster from a political family.
Ms. Shriver asked her why she worked so hard, Ms. Hager said. She said she wasn’t sure.
“She’s like, ‘Well, I just want to tell you, I landed at J.F.K. airport last night,” Ms. Hager recalled. “‘And somebody was like, “Aren’t you a Kennedy?” For the rest of your life, people are going to know you as George Bush’s daughter. So do the things that fulfill you.’”
Three, two, one …
The book club began organically enough.
Ms. Hager was preparing to take over for Ms. Gifford nearly four years ago. The show was primed for a new bit. And the incoming co-host, who would tap out two memoirs herself before turning 40, had spoken often of her familial connection to books.
“I thought, ‘How cute,’” Ms. Kotb said. “‘What a cute fun thing for Jenna to do, she’s got a little niche.’”
While other celebrities, particularly Ms. Witherspoon, had found success with book clubs, the mainstream megaphone of “Today” enshrined Ms. Hager as something different, if familiar.
On daytime television, there had often been a vacuum since the original Oprah’s Book Club ended its run more than a decade ago. Ms. Hager, with her small circle of co-readers and unpaid Bush family advisers, has moved to fill it before a daily audience that can exceed 1.6 million viewers.
“Jenna is actually the closest analogue to the original Oprah book list,” said Kristen McLean, the executive director of business development at NPD Books. “She is on linear mainstream TV.”
Unveiling her December pick late last month — a rare anniversary selection, Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” from 1992 — Ms. Hager was greeted on the “Today” plaza by a live audience of awe-struck tourists hoping for selfies and small talk. Some reported traveling from as far as Sarasota, Fla., and Austin, Texas, to see her.
“Oh, I like your Texas hat,” she said, spotting a cap that read “TEXAS” in sparkles.
She settled herself for the segment.
“Ready?” Ms. Hager said, signaling the crowd to lift its Tartt-branded gifts for the folks at home. “Three, two, one …”
The club’s instant influence quickly established Ms. Hager’s credibility. More or less immediately, Ms. McLean said, a “Read With Jenna” sticker could “move the needle by hundreds of percentage points.”
“Like winning the lottery,” said Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, whose book “Good Company” was chosen last year.
While the emergence of TikTok’s BookTok subcommunity during the pandemic has challenged the supremacy of large-scale book clubs, it has also reinforced how few publicity opportunities are otherwise available to writers, especially among older readers.
“There’s no Charlie Rose interview anymore,” Mr. Alam, the novelist, said. “Where is the books coverage really happening on broadcast television? NPR seems much more invested in news coverage than cultural coverage. Publishing at this point can so often feel like you’re being tossed a parachute and like, ‘Good luck! Maybe someone on TikTok will like this book!’”
If there is no single formula for getting Ms. Hager’s attention — “My book has a cover with a kid on fire,” Kevin Wilson, whose “Nothing to See Here” was chosen in 2019, said in describing her bespoke palate — some trends are discernible.
“She did seem drawn to the aspect of the book that’s about women trying to figure out what kind of lives to lead and seeking freedom,” said Maggie Shipstead, the author of “Great Circle,” the May 2021 pick.
Jenna 8 Having a book selected by Ms. Hager for her book club was “like winning the lottery,” said one author.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Ms. Hager said she approached her bosses about the prospect of a production company around early 2020. After some initial resistance, she said, they announced the agreement earlier this year, filling her days since with a flood of meetings with publishers, agents and screenwriters.
Some latent insecurities seem to have dissipated. “I’ve been working here since 2009,” she said. “NBC News is not a place that would keep somebody on the roster for that long unless there was good performance.”
Others have not altogether.
“The big fear for me, and this may be thematic, is: This is not a vanity project,” she said.
She cut herself off — “this doesn’t need to be a therapy session,” she said — then started up again: “This sort of famous-person-getting-a-production-company thing, there are some vanity projects. That’s not what this is.”
Ms. Hager added that she hoped to eventually move into other mediums like audio and children’s programming.
It helps that she has the relationships now, the requisite juice. Planned adaptations include Judy Blume’s “Summer Sisters,” which was not a Jenna pick; and Jamie Ford’s “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy,” which was.
It is a gift, Ms. Hager said, to help someone tell their story as they want it told.
Her authors know something about that.
“That’s American life, right?” Mr. Alam said of her. “You can have that second act.”