What to Know About Jenna Bush Hager's Journey from First Daughter to Today Host
"Without our parents and all the opportunities they gave us," Hager told PEOPLE in 2010, "there’s no way we’d be where we are"
Jenna Bush Hager has always gone her own way, and in February she continued her distinctive post-White House journey as Today named her the next co-host for the fourth hour, replacing Kathie Lee Gifford who departed on Friday.
Hager, 37, will officially begin in her new role on Monday.
It marks perhaps the most public turn yet for Hager, who as a teen initially shied away from the national spotlight cast by her father’s time as president.
“To take it to the next level is awe-inducing and I can’t believe it,” Hager, who had long filled in for Gifford as a guest host, tells PEOPLE.
“But it feels organic and it feels right, which I don’t know if I would do it if it didn’t,” she continues. “They probably wouldn’t have asked me to do it if it didn’t. But it just feels like the right time for me.”
From first daughter to teacher and married woman — the first presidential child to wed in decades while her dad was still in office — to mom of two and TV journalist, here’s a look back at Hager’s journey through the years.
As she told PEOPLE in 2010: “Without our parents and all the opportunities they gave us, there’s no way we’d be where we are.” Still, she said then, “Those eight years were amazing, but we’re working hard to be our own people.”
Her Dad Heads for the White House
When George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, announced his presidential bid in 1999, his twin daughters — then 18 — urged him against it, afraid of how the national attention could upend their own lives.
“They knew their private lives would no longer be private,” political biographer Carl Sferrazza Anthony later told PEOPLE.
Hager and older sister Barbara (born one minute apart and personality complements: Hager the more outgoing, Barbara the more reserved) did not take active part in their dad’s first presidential campaign, according to the New York Times.
But their own youthful indiscretions sometimes drew headlines, including underage drinking and an incident in which Hager sent her assigned Secret Service to pick up an intoxicated friend in jail, according to a previous PEOPLE report.
Anthony, the biographer, said at the time: “Their worst fears have been realized.”
Already a student at the University of Texas in Austin, studying English, Hager was a regular visitor to the White House once her father was elected — though she remained partial to the family’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. (It “is familiar and smaller,” she told PEOPLE in 2007.)
Reflecting recently on her ups and downs earlier in life, Hager told PEOPLE: “You’ve got to accept your faults.”
Graduating from College and Forging a New Path
In 2004, Hager graduated from UT Austin — though she skipped the ceremony, according to CBS — and later worked as an elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C., and interned with UNICEF.
A friend told the New York Times in 2013 that while the press largely avoided Hager during her college years, they grew more interested as she and her friend began traveling in Latin America after graduating.
“I’ve known Jenna since she was in middle school,” a UT official told the Associated Press in 2004, in a report on the sisters’ low profiles as college students on the eve of their graduation.
“We have tried to respect her wishes in that regard,” the official said of Hager. “She wants to be as regular a student as possible.”
In addition to her post-college trips abroad, Hager and her sister also joined their dad’s re-election campaign that year where Hager met the man who would become her husband.
Though reluctant during her dad’s first go-round on the campaign trail, Hager was more involved in round two — and more playful, famously sticking her tongue out for photographers.
“I loved that. I’ll do it again,” she told Politico in 2012 of the moment, explaining: “That was trying to make my dad laugh.”
Falling in Love
Henry Hager and Jenna met while she was volunteering on her father’s campaign and he was working for Karl Rove, then a top adviser to the president. They got engaged in August 2007 — no surprise to their families.
“I was kind of expecting it,” Henry’s dad, John, told PEOPLE at the time. “Henry has been in love with Jenna for quite some time.”
“Henry’s very smart, very sweet — a really good guy,” Jenna’s cousin Lauren Bush said then, while one of Henry’s former co-workers said, “They’re both very fun and outdoorsy. You can tell they enjoy each other’s company.”
The couple wed the following summer, in Crawford, in front of some 200 guests at a custom-made lakeside limestone altar.
Afterward, they shared a quiet moment together on the ranch fishing dock at moonrise, talking quietly and clinking their champagne glasses.
Later that night, amid the full festivities of the post-ceremony party, Jenna told the wedding singer, “Super T, pick it up!”
In the Classroom, on Bookshelves …
“Miss Jenna” was what her D.C. students called her during her time at a local charter school, where she taught third grade, according to the Washington Post.
Henry, then her boyfriend, and sister Barbara were familiar faces in her classroom.
“I was there all the time,” Barbara, who moved to New York City after college, told the Post in 2008. “The Friendship Ball is their big dance — I did a lot of crafts for it — and we supervised a lot of field trips.”
“Her enthusiasm got me, Henry and all our friends super excited about the school,” Barbara said, adding, “Needless to say, I’m very proud of my little twin sister.”
After D.C., Jenna moved to Baltimore to work as a reading resource teacher, according to the Baltimore Sun. She launched other pursuits in addition to her teaching: In 2007, she wrote Ana’s Story, a bestseller based on a teenage mother with AIDS she befriended during her UNICEF internship. (Jenna later told PEOPLE of meeting Ana: “I was in tears. She had so much hope.”)
It was the first of several books: With her mom, Jenna went on to write Read All About It! in 2008 and Our Big Backyard in 2016. She and Barbara wrote a memoir, Sisters First, in 2017.
“We’ve always felt lucky that we had each other to walk side-by-side as sisters through the extraordinary circumstances of our ordinary lives,” Jenna and Barbara told PEOPLE that March, ahead of the book’s release. “We are so excited to share the stories that mean the most to us — from the ones that made us laugh to those that shaped us the most.”
Later this year, the siblings will publish their first children’s book together.
… and on TV
Even with her other work, Jenna found time to tackle her Today role, though she wasn’t sure at first she wanted the job.
It was the summer of 2009 when Jenna — then 27 and teaching in Baltimore — got a call that would change her life. The Today show was offering her a job as a correspondent. She just wasn’t quite sure what to do.
But, as Jenna recounted earlier this month in a keynote Q&A at the Advertising Specialty Institute’s trade show in Texas, she was vacationing in Maine with her grandparents George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush and she asked the former president and first lady’s advice.
The Today job “was obviously new to her, so her grandparents said, ‘Why don’t we sit down together and watch a morning of it?’ ” said Sara Lavenduski, senior editor for ASI’s Advantages magazine, who was in attendance at Wednesday’s event in Fort Worth.
“So they did,” Lavenduski recalled. “[Jenna] said, ‘My grandparents were really encouraging. … They were mavericks, they really did a lot of different things, too.’ “
As Jenna told PEOPLE recently, ahead of her Today promotion: “My grandparents are the ones that talked me into working at the Today show.”
“That’s kind of what our family has given us,” she continued. “They have allowed us to take risks and hope that everything works the way we want it to.”
As the Times noted in a 2013 profile, Jenna distinguished herself among correspondents — and among former first daughters such as Chelsea Clinton and Meghan McCain who transitioned to TV work. (In a sign of things to come, the paper reported then: “She is frequently invited to the [Today] couch, where she shows off her sometimes offbeat sensibility.”)
“I like exactly what I’m doing now,” Jenna said at the time. “I like telling people’s stories.”
Starting a Family
Along the way, viewers watched as Jenna became a mom and then a mom again, first to daughter Margaret Laura, “Mila,” now 5, and then to daughter Poppy Louise, now 3.
In a Mother’s Day letter for Southern Living, where Jenna is an editor at large, she wrote:
My sweet daughters, this is a letter about motherhood, a word that you don’t yet truly understand. Sure, you say the word ‘Mama’ countless times a day—it is a word I will never tire of hearing. But motherhood—and the unconditional love and longing (and the anxiety and guilt) that come along with it—is something you won’t know about for many years.”
She continued: “It is my mama who taught me how to be a mom, but it is you, my darlings, who are teaching me what it means to be a mom. When I am traveling for work, I scroll through pictures of you on my phone, longing to be back home.”
In 2015, she called her kids the joys of her life and said she had cherished her years as a teacher.
“My proudest moments, besides those spent with my precious Mila and now my baby Poppy, have been in the classroom teaching in inner city D.C. and west Baltimore or working for UNICEF in Latin America with others and children who taught me to never take one minute for granted,” she said. “These are my points of light.”
About her new seat in Today’s fourth hour, alongside Hoda Kotb, Jenna makes one thing clear:
“Nobody could ever fill Kathie Lee’s shoes,” she told PEOPLE. “I adore her. Hoda loves her.”
“She is hilarious and a Rembrandt and brilliant,” Jenna says of Gifford, who is leaving Today on her 11th anniversary of the show, in April.
For her part, Kotb told PEOPLE she’s excited to see how their new dynamic plays out.
This is one of the things that I love about my relationship with Jenna, because we’ve filled in together, we’ve done some things together, but our friendship is a budding one,” she explains. “… I think life is about learning and there’s something about watching a friendship develop and happen. I love Jenna.”
Jenna, too, is excited for what the future holds after a present she never would have believed.
“If you had asked me in college, was I going to do the job I’m doing now, I would say, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” she told the Times in 2013.
Now, she says of her Today hour, “It will probably evolve on the air over time which I think will be so much fun for us creatively to get to build something new — and a little scary, too.”