Wrecks in the city

By Rebecca Traister

Published September 1, 2004 8:49PM (EDT)

When first twins Jenna and Barbara Bush introduced their mother to Republican delegates on Tuesday morning, Salon was surprised to discover that they were not that horrifying. But our conclusion was violently reversed after Tuesday night's train wreck of a national television debut, as both women took the Madison Square Garden stage to introduce their father's satellite appearance.

"We love Arnold! Isn't he awesome!" Jenna yelped, in reference to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. I had, until this speech, been torn on the Bush girls. I think it's unfair to take out our dismay at a dopey but probably-fun-to-drink-with president on his dopey but probably-fun-to-drink-with daughters. They didn't choose to run for office, so let them be dopey, let them be young, let them be apolitical -- better, after all, than having them mimic their father's ideologies -- leave them alone.

But that was before they decided to take the national stage during a year when everyone is talking about how to woo young women into voting booths. Apparently, the Republicans think that it's by presenting the nation with a heart-stoppingly embarrassing burlesque of exactly how flighty, ill-informed, shallow and downright stupid two young women can be.

The two 22-year-olds came off as dopes. Memo to speechwriters: It's not actually a knee-slapper when the daughters of a man who calls himself the "education president" pretend to be unclear on who holds major national offices. "Who is this guy named Dick Cheney?" wondered Barbara. "We've traveled the world. We've studied abroad. But when we started coming home with foreign policy advice, Dad made us call ... Condi?" It wouldn't have been funny if they weren't the president's daughters. It wouldn't have been funny if they hadn't been gifted with pricey college educations. It wouldn't have been funny if they'd been ordinary 22-year-old American women who hadn't been able to afford college and attended a high school that never got around to the executive branch of U.S. government.

But they weren't done making light of themselves -- and their gender -- and their generation! No, they hit a deftly ageist note while mocking their 76-year-old grandmother for not being "very hip," even while getting the title of "Sex and the City" wrong. "Sex in the City," they alleged, is something that the former first lady thinks "married people do but never talk about." I'm no "Bar" cheerleader, but mocking your grandmother for prudishness on national television is neither classy nor respectful. And it doesn't even hit your target audience: a party that gets behind abstinence as the most effective form of birth control.

And hey, speaking of staying on message, how about that jab at their post-college slacker dad? "Since we've graduated from college we're looking around for something to do for the next few years ... kind of like Dad." Har! That's hilarious. It can only have been their sensitivity to the circumstances of their speech that prevented them from throwing out a zinger about how they're shirking National Guard duty!

You know it's been a rough night on the floor of the Republican powwow when even Rupert Murdoch's New York Post runs a headline that reads "Jen & Barb: More Gaffes Than Laughs" and makes sure to mention the "string of weak one-liners that drew cringes from the crowd." The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz compiled a roundup of thumbs-downs from Democratic and Republican critics including Amy Sullivan ("Even conservatives hated them"), William Kristol ("The last half hour did not help ... Bush's campaign for reelection"), and the conservative group Real Clear Politics ("The Bush twins were a disaster"). Oddly, the New York Times' Jodi Wilgoren called the performance "a sassy, sexy serenade."

It must have been the dead-hamster joke.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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