Ellen and President Bush's hangout is more problematic than it seems
When you think about politically charged debates regarding the nature of the Iraq War and the morality of American military activity on the world stage, does Ellen DeGeneres cross your mind? Until very recently, I’d assume that answer was a definite no.
Even in a format known for being the television equivalent of cotton candy, Ellen’s self-titled show is the fluffiest of the fluff, packed to the brim with enough cute videos and rapping children to create a Hallmark card out of thin air. But is there really anything wrong with that? If the viewing public wants to see Kristen Bell crying in joy at the sight of a sloth or Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson being shown an embarrassing photo of him in a fanny-pack, then why not give the people what they want? Not everything has to be Meet the Press. Unconditional niceness makes for easy watching.
However, this uncritical and universal niceness has its limits. You can’t get away with the all-loving approach when that unconditional love is directed at people who clearly aren’t sending love back. Chitchatting about relationships with Cardi B or discussing airline seat sizes with John Cena is one thing, but viewers and advertisers would balk if Ellen played Pictionary with Jerry Fallwell Jr. or went candy shopping with Richard Spencer.
Herein lies the Ellen-related problem that has engulfed the Twittersphere and the cable news industry for the past week or so. At a recent Dallas Cowboys game, DeGeneres was spotted watching the game from the AT&T Stadium luxury box with none other than former President George W. Bush, engaged in the kind of mindless banter that only friends are capable of. This was no chance encounter. Asked afterwards about her incongruous appearance alongside Bush, DeGeneres explained that they were in fact friends and that their personal differences don’t preclude that friendship.
“I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have,” Degeneres claimed on her Oct. 6 show. “Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them. When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean, ‘Be kind to everyone, it doesn’t matter.’” At face value, this seems simple enough: Ellen is just plain nice to everyone, even that scamp George W. However, look deeper and this begins to resemble an attempt by someone in Bush’s social circle of the ultra-wealthy to make Americans forget about the moral rot of his presidency.
An attempt at rehabilitating the reviled 43rd President was inevitable — Richard Nixon’s handlers attempted the same — but the speed at which it was accomplished is unprecedented. This is almost assuredly a product of the current guy in office, whose unhinged behavior and mask-off racism can make Bush seem positively cuddly in comparison.
The sight of the disgraced former President handing Michelle Obama candy was treated as a heartwarming moment of civility, but is rehabilitating one of the worst Presidents in American history really such a brave act of kindness? Michelle Obama has certain civic duties as a former First Lady, and one of those duties is making appearances alongside other former Presidents and their spouses. This might come as a surprise, but Ellen DeGeneres is not a former President or First Lady.
Barack Obama ran on repairing the country after Bush’s illegal actions and catastrophic mismanagement had sapped the country of its economic health and its dignity. Any respect he may have gained for Bush the Younger after eight years spent at the Resolute Desk aside, he and Michelle are somewhat bound by the norms of the office to pal around with Bush as if he did nothing wrong. What excuse does Ellen have?
In case you forgot, George W. Bush and his administration launched a little operation called the Iraq War. If you’re still defending the Iraq War in 2019, you’re either a Fox News contributor who thinks we need to invade Iran and Venezuela at the same time or you’re Bush’s old running buddy Tony Blair. Even Trump, who is so cartoonishly evil that he recently asked if his wall on the southern border could have a crocodile-filled moat in front, can’t find the words to pretend that Iraq was even a remotely good idea. Bush lied to the United Nations, he lied to the Department of Defense, he lied to our allies abroad and he lied to the American people.
Because a small cabal of paranoid neoconservative politicians had an imagined score to settle, one million Iraqis were murdered and millions more had their lives irreparably damaged. If Bush was the President of a small African nation, he and his entire cabinet would be on trial in the Hague.
Bush’s blatant crimes aside, does Ellen remember that the former President spent much of his political career trying to deny people like herself legal rights and basic forms of personal dignity?
In the late 90s when DeGeneres came out as a lesbian, life for LGBTQ Americans was a fitful and dangerous proposition. After she came out, DeGeneres lost her self-titled sitcom and risked losing her entire career. It was a brave and pioneering act — one that leaders like George W. Bush fought hard to prevent.
In riding to victory in the 2004 general election against John Kerry, Bush was more than happy to tap into the groundswell of homophobia. Bush supported a constitutional amendment that would make the definition of marriage between a man and a woman, opposed classifying attacks against LGBT individuals as hate crimes, refused to consider legislation that would protect LGBTQ students for being thrown out of their schools for coming out and allied with explicitly homophobic groups like Christian Voice and Focus on the Family.
As much as Ellen would love to spin this as an “I’m nice to everyone” bit, it’s still a damning moment to cozy up to someone as toxic and antagonistic to her existence as Bush. Whatever differences divide George W. Bush and Ellen DeGeneres are moot compared to their shared class interests. Sure, they might not agree on much, but they are part of the same elite class of millionaires, and we are not. Should we stop being nice to people, as Ellen suggests her critics claim? Absolutely not. However, simply being nice is no excuse for rehabilitating a war criminal. Don’t allow people like Ellen to pretend that the Bush years were hunky dory just because Trump is only slightly worse.