Bush Engagement Unites Two Political Clans

By: by Libby Copeland
By: by Libby Copeland

The nation's first family tree is about to gain a new branch. The future in-laws, it turns out, are not unlike the Bushes.

Henry Hager, 29, who was engaged to Jenna Bush, 25, in August, hails from a world of good breeding and foregone conclusions. His parents, who live in the West End of Richmond, are staples of their society. Like the Bushes, with their prominent forebears and their best schools, the Hagers are a Good Family, in the old sense of the phrase.

So much about the Hager family reminds you of how things used to be.

Like many old cities, Richmond has changed -- and it hasn't. Many of the trappings of the Hagers' lives pay homage to the way Richmond once was. Henry's parents, John and Maggie, are regulars on the cocktail party circuit and members of the Country Club of Virginia near their house. Margaret Chase Hager, 66, the product of prep schools and Richmond's debutante culture, was raised by an almost mythic woman who -- as one of Henry Hager's first cousins remembers it -- rode sidesaddle on a white horse she called Lady Godiva, and never wore a pair of pants in her life.

John, 71, formerly Virginia's lieutenant governor, has for decades been part of a small group of Republican-leaning business leaders in Richmond who recruit and fund local and state politicians. Statewide, he is the ubiquitous John Hager, known for attending the smallest of gatherings on the chicken dinner circuit (and always writing thank-yous).

Recently he was elected chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, a position in which his networking and fundraising talents will no doubt come in handy.

"John knows where the money is," says Mike Salster, Hager's communications director during his 1997 run for lieutenant governor.

Social anthropologists say that in matters of love, like meets like. Whatever frisson is sparked, there are also subtle evaluations of shoes and manners, of accent and ambition -- and these things become part of the calculus by which human beings can guess at a future together.

In the case of Jenna and Henry, there is much like in their love. They are both acquainted with the power of family and of politics. In addition to working on his father's campaigns, Henry has worked for Karl Rove and on President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.

Henry's immediate family declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the young couple's desire for privacy. During her book tour, which began last week, Jenna has said she doesn't yet know when and where her wedding will take place. She has spoken a little about her "open-minded" and "outdoorsy" fiance, who took her on a cold, early-morning hike up Maine's Cadillac Mountain and asked her to marry him as the sun broke over the horizon.

He proposed with his great-grandmother's ring, which he had reset.

We are a nation without nobility, but we have frequent political dynasties, great families that marry great families to produce important American clans. The Adamses, the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Bushes.

In love, as in politics, the name counts for a lot.

,b>A 'Victorian' Upbringing

The groom-to-be's parents met through friends at a country club in Richmond.

It was 1970. She was somebody and he was going places, and they married within six months of their first date.

Even now, the language people use to describe Maggie Hager comes from another era. They call her "courtly" and a "gentlelady." Maggie had been raised in Richmond and New York. Her mother belonged to the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, and her father was said to be related to former chief justice Salmon P. Chase.

A family friend, Marie Louise "Pie" Friendly, recalls Maggie and her sister dressed by their mother in organza with satin sashes. They had a German governess and a strict "Victorian" upbringing, Friendly says.

Richmond during mid-century was "arch-conservative, at least the West End where we grew up," Friendly says. "We didn't know people who went to public school. It was awful -- there was the Country Club of Virginia and that was it."

John Hager was tall and hardworking. He and his older sister had grown up in Durham, N.C. His mother was involved with the city's Debutante Ball Society, the country club and the garden club, according to her obituary. John's father, like John's uncle and grandfather, was an executive at the now-defunct American Tobacco Co., maker of Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes. After Purdue and an MBA at Harvard, John joined the company, too.

Then John got the flu, which turned out not to be the flu at all. It was instead a rare case of polio in 1973, contracted from an excessively virulent dose of the vaccine with which his first child, Jack, then an infant, had been inoculated. Even now he uses a wheelchair.

The company rescinded a promotion he'd just gotten to executive vice president. John stayed on in lesser positions until he retired in 1994.

With his newfound time, he took an increasing interest in politics. His son Henry would be at his side in his unsuccessful race for governor.

Quiet Influence

During an era when the name Trump has become synonymous with money and power, it's easy to forget that you don't need your name on a building or on a bottle of vodka to be influential. And while Trump's standing depends on his wealth and celebrity, there are people whose standing depends on neither, but on who they are, who their people are, and the role they occupy in their community.

Their influence is of a quieter and more traditional sort, a matter of manners and knowing one's place, of sitting on the right boards and working behind the scenes.

Most likely you would never hear of these people, unless they chose to get into politics.

This is the model for much of the Hagers' influence. They know the other movers and shakers, the other Good Families in Richmond. The Children's Hospital of Richmond, the state Chamber of Commerce and countless other groups outside the political realm have been the lucky recipients of John's prodigious energies. (And he does seem to have more energy than most people.)

Maggie, meanwhile, was inspired by her husband's polio to serve with numerous groups dealing with the problems of the disabled. Lex Frieden, a disability advocate who served with Maggie on the presidentially appointed National Council on Disability 15 years ago, describes Maggie as supremely "gracious" and seldom critical of anything.

Her method was more conciliatory, Frieden recalls, drawing on her ability to act as an "information broker" among her various networks. A quiet influence.

"They're invited to most cocktail parties, most socially acceptable cocktail parties," says Beverley W. "Booty" Armstrong, a friend and Richmond businessman. "They're in the upper crust."

Henry was born in 1978. He was an Eagle Scout. At St. Christopher's, an all-boys prep school in Richmond, he made the honor roll and played varsity football and varsity lacrosse, according to his yearbook. His senior page, in the perfect amalgam of the high school male, quoted Thoreau, Bob Marley and the movie "Scarface." He went to Wake Forest University in North Carolina, graduating in 2000. Now he's studying for an MBA at the University of Virginia.

Behind the scenes, there was tragedy, in a string of untimely deaths on Maggie's side of the family. Over decades, Maggie's father, Clarence Ryland Chase, both of her siblings and a nephew all apparently committed suicide, according to family members, a family friend and published reports. (In the case of Maggie's sister, two people close to her said her death at 59 was a suicide, and two others said it was not.)

Maggie has an "iron backbone," says one of her nieces, Charlotte Wray. "A lot fell on her shoulders, I think, including her personal grief, but I think for all those situations . . . she would have been the one holding people together and her own grief would have been more private."

One senses about the Hagers an assuredness, a belief in a right way of doing things. They are not about airs, not about proving themselves -- why would they need to?

In August, when the family was still talking to reporters about Henry's engagement, Maggie told The Washington Post that yes, indeed, her son had gone to the president to ask him permission to marry Jenna.

"Anybody raised in this family follows the rules," Maggie said.

By His Father's Side

When John Hager entered politics, the polio story became emblematic of his doggedness, his stubbornness. He would travel harder than anyone else. He would not be put off his task, even if it involved stairs and hills and was more difficult for him than for others. He would not alter his course -- there he was in 1997, running for lieutenant governor, telling a radio show he didn't think cigarettes were addictive.

Once, when he was lieutenant governor and driving to preside over a night session of the state Senate, he was hit by a kid in a stolen Jeep. His head banged against the roof as his Cadillac spun around. The first responders wanted Hager to go to the hospital, but he borrowed a hammer from someone on the scene, banged his wheelchair back into shape, and hitched a ride to the Capitol.

He had to be there to preside. He would not be put off task.

As a campaigner, Hager was not the best speaker. But he was -- well, dogged. The joke went that wherever two or more Republicans gathered, there was the lieutenant governor in the midst of them. (He went to everything. He once attended the wedding of a woman he met while campaigning at a pork festival in Emporia.)

With him often, especially during the gubernatorial run, was Henry. He drove his dad around, pushed his wheelchair, acted as a body man. Perhaps he absorbed some of his dad's lessons: the work ethic, the love of politics. Certainly, those who were in Hager's orbit at the time recall that Henry had a seriousness about his father's campaigns and a maturity that seemed beyond his years.

At the Republican gubernatorial nominating convention in 2001, Henry, then 23, made a moving speech to delegates introducing his father, recalls Kevin Gentry, a GOP activist who supported Hager's run. "A number of people said then, 'Henry, when are you going to run?' "

And when Hager lost the nomination to Attorney General Mark L. Earley (who went on to lose the general election to Democrat Mark Warner), Henry helped his father shut down the campaign.

Hager continued in politics: In the wake of 9/11, Warner appointed him to head the state's new Office of Commonwealth Preparedness. In 2004 President Bush appointed him an assistant secretary of education, overseeing special education and rehabilitative services. This past July he was elected chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.

Henry continued in politics, too. He was an intern and later a staffer for former presidential strategist Karl Rove, according to a family source. He worked for the 2004 Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, and it was during this time that he met Jenna Bush.

They were friends at first, because he was already taken. As Jenna put it in one interview, "I said, 'Of course, the cute guy on the campaign has a girlfriend.' "

After the election, Henry worked at the Commerce Department before pursuing his MBA.

It may be good for the young couple, says Henry Hager's first cousin Nell Daniel, that Henry comes from a family with its own distinguished history, a family that can hold its own, that's not easily impressed.

"There's been money; there's been political prominence," Daniel says. "We've known influential people."

But Jenna, at least, doesn't seem inclined to continue the legacy of politics. She is now making the rounds promoting "Ana's Story: A Journey of Hope," a nonfiction book for young adults about an HIV-infected teenager whom she met while interning with UNICEF in Latin America. In a television interview yesterday, Jenna was asked whether she might ever run for office.

"Never," she said three times. "I'm not political in that way, at all." As for Henry, she said, "He's ruled it out, too."

When Henry's brother Jack was married in Manhattan earlier this year to the daughter of a former president of HBO, Henry brought Jenna. She'd been sick recently, and Henry seemed particularly attentive toward her, Daniel says.

"I actually sat with her in the church," she says. "She was just so laid back and unpretentious and seemed very sincere and sort of felt honored to be part of this special family wedding."

It will be her family soon enough. The Hagers and the Bushes, two Good Families in one.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company


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