In the midst of a tumultuous month of political transition, one open letter humanized the presidency. Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Bush wrote to Sasha and Malia Obama, just as they did when their own father left his post as a two-term President in 2008. Dozens of national news media and public figures reposted and tweeted the letter because it was such a refreshing message compared to the other headlines related to Washington this month. What’s more, it presented a rare example of genuine, empathetic exchange, a stark contrast to the discourse of their parents.
The genre of the open letter is usually meant to bring light to an injustice or publicly chide someone for wrongdoing. It often galvanizes a readership who relates to the author and wishes to express the same frustration publicly. This open letter does the opposite. Jenna and Barbara sentimentally reflect on their shared experiences, commend the Obamas for their maturity, and offer advice going forward. This open letter also softens the critics of President Obama, who are likely fans of George W. Bush, and cements the legacies of two divisive presidents as positive ones.
The brilliance of this letter as an image booster lies in both the message of the letter and the simplicity of its authorship. It’s not a series of tweets back and forth, or an Instagram picture of all four women together, but it’s a classic correspondence, without political undertones or pithy language. In a world of 140-character diatribes, this almost 800-word letter effuses more grace and poise than any opinion piece or speech could.
“When you slid down the banister of the solarium, just as we had done as 8-year-olds and again as 20-year-olds chasing our youth, your joy and laughter were contagious.” They draw upon shared memories that remind readers that the first families aren’t all that different from themselves.
“In eight years, you have done so much. Seen so much. You stood at the gates of the Robben Island cell where South Africa’s Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for decades, your arms around your father…We have watched you grow from girls to impressive young women with grace and ease” They recognize the personal impact from being exposed to historical events and notable people around the world, implying that they made the most of the opportunity.
“And through it all you had each other. Just like we did.” Now they’re just tugging on our heartstrings. Readers can remember the pairs of sisters, always photographed together behind their parents.
The tone of their advice is like that an older sister, someone who has walked in their shoes and endured the same challenges they will likely face. “Take all that you have seen, the people you have met, the lessons you have learned, and let that help guide you in making positive change. We have no doubt you will.” They affirm the character of Sasha and Malia throughout and end with a powerful statement:
“You have lived through the unbelievable pressure of the White House. You have listened to harsh criticism of your parents by people who had never even met them. You stood by as your precious parents were reduced to headlines. Your parents, who put you first and who not only showed you but gave you the world. As always, they will be rooting for you as you begin your next chapter. And so will we.”
It seems that since such a letter is unwarranted that its content is genuine. I hope it is. Critics may argue that this is a mere publicity stunt, or that their message is incongruent with their parents’ opinion, but it seems to me to be a refreshing glimpse into the experience of four teenage women whose fathers happened to be former Presidents of the United States. And if only for a brief moment, political differences are cast aside in favor of goodwill and congratulations.