The closing question at Tuesday night’s Democratic debate wasn’t focused on policy or how to defeat President Donald Trump in the general election. Instead, candidates were asked about Ellen DeGeneres and her friendship with former President George W. Bush, which has inspired both strong support and criticism.
After receiving some blowback for her friendly interactions with the former president, given his political record, DeGeneres defended her decision on her show as an act of kindness. Many celebrities either agreed with or came out against the talk show host’s opinion in the following days.
While announcing the last debate question to the 12 Democratic candidates on stage Tuesday, moderator Anderson Cooper said: “Last week, Ellen DeGeneres was criticized after she and former president George W. Bush were seen laughing together at a football game. Ellen defended their friendship, saying, ‘We’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay, that we’re all different.’ “
“So in that spirit,” Cooper continued, “we’d like you to tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us and what impact it’s had on you and your beliefs.”
First up to answer was former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, who said that “some of the most interesting friendships” he’s had “have been with people different from me.”
I also believe, to just speak about the incident last week with Ellen and George W. Bush, I completely understood what she was saying about being kind to others,” Castro, 45, continued. “I believe that we should be more kind to other folks.”
“I also believe that we should hold people to account for what they’ve done, especially public servants who have a record of having done something or not done something,” he added. “And I think that we can do both of those things. I think that we can be kind to people and also hold them accountable for their actions.”
(After the debate, some — including Castro himself, as well as former presidential candidate Jay Inslee — criticized the hosts for asking about DeGeneres instead of issues that they saw as more important, including climate change and immigration.)
On the debate stage on Tuesday, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard used her friendship with former Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy as an example of befriending someone with different beliefs.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar then spoke about her friendship with the late Sen. John McCain, as did Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke about writing McCain’s eulogy.
“On his death bed, he asked me to do his eulogy,” said Biden, 76. “John, I would say to John, ‘John, you didn’t see a war you never wanted to fight.’ And he’d say, ‘You didn’t see a problem you never wanted to solve.’ But he was a great man of principle. He was honorable.”
Other candidates also mentioned their Republican colleagues in Washington: Sanders referenced Utah Sen. Mike Lee, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke spoke about Texas Rep. Will Hurd, and California Sen. Kamala Harris discussed her friendship with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker also mentioned “making friendships across the aisle,” including with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Billionaire Tom Steyer answered with Deanna Berry, a woman from South Carolina whom Steyer says is “fighting for clean water and environmental justice in her community.”
“She’s a different gender. She’s a different race. She’s from a different part of the country,” Steyer said. “But she reminds me of my parents in terms of her courage and her optimism and her honor.”<
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang spoke about his friendship with a Trump supporter named Fred.
“He let me ride in his truck for hours. He spent some time in jail. I heard about his experiences trying to get other people off of drugs,” Yang said. “And I’m happy to say that, after our ride together, he actually said that he would move from Donald Trump to my campaign, which was a thrill for me. And we remained in touch ever since.”
During his answer, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke about his time in the military.
“I think about the friendships that I formed in the military, people who were radically different from me, different generation, different race, definitely different politics,” he said. “And we learned to trust each other with our lives.”
“When they got into my vehicle and when we went outside the wire, they didn’t care if I was going home to a boyfriend or a girlfriend, they didn’t care what country my dad immigrated from and whether he was documented or not,” Buttigieg continued. “We just learned to trust each other.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren discussed her friendships with Republicans including former U.S. Solicitor General Charles Fried as well as her own family members.
“You know, I grew up out in Oklahoma. I have three elder brothers. They all served in the military. Two of the three are still Republicans,” she said. “I love all three of my brothers. And there are a lot of things that we’re divided on, but there are core things that we believe in together.”
“We want to see all of our children get a good start in life. We don’t want to see any of our friends or neighbors not get covered by health care,” Warren, 70, continued. “We’re willing to get out there for the things we believe in.”