Beast! You’ve got to see this,” Jenna Hager calls to her sister Barbara Bush, using one of their nicknames for each other. Jenna has just discovered a cache of dusty cat toys-belonging to the adopted kitty she named Bernadette Madoff-under the sofa in her Baltimore row house. “Ooo! I’ll get the Dustbuster,” she says. “I love to clean. A lot.” Dashing to the kitchen, she catches Barbara’s eye. “I’ve become our mother!”
Maybe a little, when it comes to cleaning. But in their first at-home joint interview, Jenna and Barbara, 28, reveal something more surprising: Despite spending their formative years in the Texas governor’s mansion and weekends home from college at the White House, they are not living the lives of entitled political scions. Jenna works part-time as a reading specialist at a public urban school and is very publicly learning the ropes as a rookie Today show correspondent. Barbara, who runs a group that grants fellowships to recent graduates volunteering here or in Africa, rents a tiny fifth-floor walk-up apartment in New York and takes the bus to visit her sister. A bus? Really? “It’s $10 and has Internet,” she says. Most shocking: The only children of former President George W. Bush may not be Republicans. “I don’t really label myself as Republican or Democrat,” says Barbara. Ditto, Jenna: “We’re both very independent thinkers.”
Today, 15 months after their father turned the White House over to Barack Obama, both sisters say that the only thing they miss about their old life is the staff. “We’d become really close friends with a lot of the residence staff and the Secret Service,” explains Jenna, the more vivacious twin to Barbara’s more reserved. “Those eight years were amazing, but we’re working hard to be our own people.” Now they are again in the spotlight as First Daughters as both parents are set to release memoirs on which the sisters consulted and in which they feature.
George W. Bush’s Decision Points (due this fall) gives his account of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as of personal milestones, such as when he quit drinking. “He wanted it to be more than a typical memoir.” Laura Bush’s book Spoken from the Heart (out May 4; see review on page 65), which describes her struggle to have children, left both sisters weeping. “I always knew they were trying to adopt kids when she got pregnant with us,” Barbara begins. “But,” continues Jenna, “the pregnancy and the fact that she was so sick-her kidneys about to fail. . . . My mother is pretty closed in some ways, so I never knew that. Now when she says, ‘I just want my chicks to come home,’ you understand where it comes from.”
But visits to their parents’ new $2 million spread in Dallas take a backseat to their busy lives. Jenna is soon to celebrate her second anniversary with Henry Hagar, 32, who works in finance for Constellation Energy Group. She displays a Martha Stewart streak and, for a recent baby shower, fashioned a centerpiece from twigs and Scrabble tiles spelling “Welcome to Our Nest.” A teacher and, with her mom, a children’s book author, Jenna surprised everyone by also becoming a TV journalist. “I loved the idea that I could tell stories,” she says of her Today segments, which generally focus on education. Given her parents’ often rocky relationship with the press, she says, “I was slightly worried what they would think.” In fact, the family was supportive. Though, she says, “if they had said, ‘You shouldn’t do that,’ I probably would have done it anyway.”
Barbara, who is single, was headed into a career in design (and still makes some of her own clothes on a sewing machine she got for her 12th birthday), before cofounding Global Health Corps (GHC) in 2008, after earning her humanities degree at Yale. With a staff of only four, her New York-based nonprofit puts non-premed grads to work at hospitals and clinics here and in Africa. “The majority [of facilities] don’t ask for doctors-they need technical help, management skills.” She hopes to fund 500 fellowships within 10 years.
Grandfather George H.W. Bush still thinks both sisters would be great in political office. “Never,” replies Jenna. But 41 is proud nonetheless. “When we see them, they’re kidding and joking,” the first President Bush tells PEOPLE, “but they’re very serious girls in what they’re doing.”
And those who work with Jenna and Barbara say they are hands-on. “The Bushes would never produce dilettantes,” says Dr. Mark Dybul, the former U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator now an adviser to GHC. And yet, when it comes to throwing a Bowl-A-Thon to raise money for GHC, Barbara has connections few of her peers can tap. “If you’re Barbara Bush, you can call anyone in the world and they will pick up the phone,” says historian Doug Wead, an expert on presidential families. And Today cohost Matt Lauer concedes that Jenna has no journalism experience to back up her top-flight TV job. “But she brings her unique perspective,” Lauer says, “and is really deep, interested and passionate.” In the classrooms of SEED School of Maryland, “she just wants to be Mrs. Hager, the teacher,” says principal Jerry Kountz. “She doesn’t come with airs, just a relentless belief in these kids.”
Despite divergent career paths, the sisters remain uncommonly close. When Today puts Jenna up at a Manhattan hotel, Barbara drags an overnight bag uptown for a sleepover. “The other reason I stay with her is I don’t have a TV.” Adds Jenna: “We’re in the room, and I’ll be, ‘Can’t we read?’ And she’s like, ‘Nope. Is there a Law & Order on?'”
Jenna’s husband, Henry, says it’s endearing how tight the sisters are-even if he’s sometimes crowded out. “It’s funny,” he says, “sometimes I do feel like I’m married to two women.” Coming home from Texas one weekend, he found the sisters asleep under the framed poster of six plump women in sombreros that dominates the master bedroom. “He was like, ‘Okay, I guess we’re going to squeeze,'” Jenna recalls with a laugh. “So it was the three of us and two cats.” Those felines, everyone agrees, are the closest Laura Bush is going to come to grandchildren for quite some time. “Years,” says Jenna, adding with her husky laugh: “My mom says she’s the proud cat grandmother.”
They are also still tight with their folks, who are just a text message away. “I seldom talk to them on the phone anymore,” says Laura Bush. “We constantly text each other. I always thought the most fun time would have been when they were babies, but I’m really enjoying our relationship now that they’ve grown into such accomplished women.”
And as they forge those paths, they give a nod to what set them on their way. “Without our parents and all the opportunities they gave us, there’s no way we’d be where we are,” says Jenna. And, yes, she admits, “When we go to D.C. now, you kind of want to pull into the White House. But then you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t-I can’t.'”