Under the Radar
Bethesda's Doro Bush Koch has turned to mindfulness to cope with the stress of having a father and brother who were president-and another brother who wants to be
When Doro Bush Koch heard her brother Jeb was running for president, she had to take a deep breath. Literally.
“Honestly, it felt jarring,” she says. “It was hard to believe. Like, whoa! Another person in my family running for president? That’s really unusual.”
Koch is a devoted practitioner of “mindfulness,” a mental discipline with roots in Buddhist meditation. When I ask her to define the concept, she replies, “My favorite definition is: paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
Mindfulness has been a “huge lifesaver” for Koch over the years. And she turned to it again last June, when Jeb launched the Bush family’s seventh national campaign since 1980.
“I knew it was a possibility, but when I heard it was definite I had to breathe a little bit,” Koch recalls. “The whole reason we want to be mindful is that we want to reduce stress. Stress kills us.”
Koch tries to avoid stress by “flying under the radar.” Now 56, she’s been married for 23 years to Bobby Koch, a former aide to House Democratic leaders who is president of the Wine Institute, the lobbying arm of the California wine industry.
They’ve lived for 19 years in the same house on a wooded cul-de-sac off Seven Locks Road in Bethesda. As we talk in her cozy living room, her dog Tess, a silky Maltese-poodle mix, curls up next to me. It’s a placid private space, but the public side of being a Bush is never far away.
Koch is the first American since Abigail Adams Smith, who died in 1813, to be both the daughter and sister of a president. A sketch of her father, Bush 41, dominates the front hallway. Two paintings by her brother, Bush 43, depict her dogs and her garden. Framed White House Christmas cards line the walls.
When her father was elected to Congress from Texas in 1966, the family moved to Washington and Koch attended National Cathedral School. Then came boarding school in Connecticut, college in Boston, young married life in Maine.
After a divorce in 1990, she returned to Washington with two small children, and found a job raising funds for the National Rehabilitation Hospital. Her parents would occasionally babysit, taking the kids to Camp David for the weekend or to Maine for summer vacations.
A co-worker introduced her to Bobby, who grew up in Potomac, attended Landon School and learned about politics from his father, a prominent lobbyist for the grocery manufacturers. “We didn’t connect at all,” Koch recalls. “I thought he was a little arrogant, very sure of himself. He was very handsome though, I did give him that.”
Her mother worried that the budding romance would be squelched by her daughter’s family obligations. “When we started dating, she would say things to me like, ‘Do not take the children. It will kill it!’ ” Koch says now with a laugh. “And I’m like, ‘Mom, he likes the children.’ ”
They were married in 1992, the only wedding ever held at Camp David, and had two more children together. Both are now in college and their absence gives Koch more time to pursue her passions: books, health and faith.
Her brother Neil struggled with a learning disability that helped inspire her mother’s devotion to literacy, “so by osmosis, I wanted to be part of that,” Koch says. For years, she headed the Maryland arm of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, giving grants to local programs that encourage reading. When the foundation expanded, she became the national co-chair with her brother Jeb.
“That didn’t work out; he decided to do something else,” she laughs. But she’s still deeply involved and cherishes a 12-volume set called My Book House, a collection of stories and poems that her mother read to her as a child. She yearns for grandchildren, and with her older daughter recently married, “I have [the books] there, just waiting for someone to read them to.”
Koch’s older sister, Robin, died of leukemia at age 3 before Koch was born, so she’s the only surviving daughter. When I ask if she’s close to her mother, she answers: “I had a special relationship with my dad. When I was born, he wept when he saw that it was a little girl. I’m close to my mom, too, but you know my mom, she’s very direct. My dad’s the softy.”
Koch was introduced to “mindfulness” by her sister-in-law, Tricia Reilly Koch, a nutritionist and health counselor. On long walks through Great Falls Park, the women discussed how Doro could cope with the pain of hearing her family criticized.
“Politics for me is personal,” she explains. “I’m not political, but I don’t like seeing my family hurt. Mindfulness was a way to be able to breathe. When my mind would get all upset and angry and tangled up, I learned to become a loving observer of my thoughts, and say, that’s just a thought, it’s not true, let it go.”
Eventually the sisters-in-law created a consulting business that trains clients in the practice of mindfulness. But profit is only part of their motive. Koch sees a direct link between her secular and spiritual lives. Mindfulness, she says, “goes hand in hand with my faith.”
An Episcopalian, Koch took classes at the Wesley Theological Seminary but left during her brother’s presidential campaign in 2000: “Some of the professors were a little negative about George, it was not pleasant. I just felt, I’m too sensitive, it’s not a good fit for me right now.”
Once her children left home, she “gravitated” back to the National Cathedral, where she once attended school. “It’s just a warm feeling to be there, even though it’s big and vast,” she says.
Today, she’s a regular at Sunday morning services and a trained Eucharistic minister. “I’m a chalice bearer,” she says proudly.
At those moments, Doro Bush Koch is nobody’s daughter or sister, wife or mother. She is simply a server, a believer, bearing wine and bearing witness. And she is at peace.
Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Send ideas for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.