This week, a social media controversy erupted when footage of prominent comedian Ellen DeGeneres and former president George W Bush emerged, which showed the unlikely pair laughing together in the owner’s box of a Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers game.
Amid protests and disbelief, DeGeneres appeared on The Ellen Show today, saying: “ I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs I have… And I think we’ve forgotten that that’s OK, that’s we’re all different.”
Yes, that was me at the Cowboys game with George W. Bush over the weekend. Here’s the whole story. pic.twitter.com/AYiwY5gTIS— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow)October 8, 2019
But although Bush and DeGeneres have previously exchanged joking and friendly interactions — notably on her talk show after Donald Trump’s inauguration — Bush and DeGeneres’ differences are not subtle and easily overcome by chit-chat. The two should be diametrically opposed.
A celebrity with openly liberal politics, DeGeneres became an LGBTQ icon and role model in 1997, when she came out on the cover of Time magazine and then to almost 36 million viewers on her ABC sitcom Ellen. DeGeneres – who has been married to her wife, actor Portia de Rossi, since 2008, the same year that same-sex marriage became legal in California — has long fought for LGBTQ rights, even calling out trans woman Caitlyn Jenner for her past views on gay marriage.
During an October 11, 2000 presidential debate, then-candidate Bush affirmed his opposition to gay marriage, on the basis that it was “a sacred institution between a man and a woman,” and that LGBTQ people shouldn’t be given “special rights... [or] special protective status” — although he did claim he wanted them to have equal rights.
In fact, Bush’s support for ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — even in the midst of numerous sexual assault and harassment allegations — was instrumental in Kavanaugh’s confirmation. And now, as I write this — the same day DeGeneres defended her friendship with Bush — the US Supreme Court is deciding whether to allow employers to discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation. Keep in mind that this is a case with deadly consequences, that can affect housing, healthcare, and the violence that LGBTQ people (especially black trans women) are forced to endure. If the court rules in favor of bigotry, Bush’s support of Kavanaugh contributed to it, not to mention the other ominous consequences of having Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court.
And if we zoom out beyond DeGeneres’ own identity, the gulf between Bush’s beliefs and DeGeneres’ self-proclaimed ones becomes even wider. Bush, who instigated a decades-long war on the basis of a lie for oil, destabilized entire regions in the Middle East and Africa. His War on Terror led to countless civilian casualties across the world and a refugee crisis, and he oversaw horrifying inhumane torture practices at Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay. Over 750 Muslim-Americans were detained after 9/11, solely for being Muslims, mostly Muslims of color.
Jacobin magazine also points out that Bush was found guilty of “crimes against peace” in absentia by a seven-member war crimes tribunal in Kuala Lumpur. They also highlight the fact that Richard Clarke, a former top Bush administration counterterrorism official, went on the record saying he thinks he and his administration committed war crimes.
Bush additionally displayed gross incompetence and a stunning lack of compassion when the predominately black city of New Orleans drowned during Hurricane Katrina. Bipartisan groups have said his education initiative, “No Child Left Behind”, failed miserably and disproportionately harmed low-income students and students of color. He shares a great deal of the blame for the disastrous Great Recession.
The list goes on but the message is clear: George W Bush was one of the worst presidents this country has ever seen. He’s only separated from the much-reviled Trump by a thin layer consisting of his veneer of upper-class gentility and his attempts to revamp his image into a lovable grandpa who paints watercolors of dogs, gives warm hugs, and “doesn’t like” the blatantly shocking racism of the Trump era. His attempts are successful precisely because they are made possible by the public friendship of people like deGeneres.
But Bush is a figure of horror for many, and attempting to get his victims to forget this under the guise of civility and unity is abhorrent.
In defense of DeGeneres’ actions, some on social media have claimed that it’s a slippery slope, because then we would have to condemn people like Former Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton and Former First Lady Michelle Obama for showing affection towards Bush.
But as writer Imraan Siddiqi says on Twitter, that’s kind of the point. We should always be critical of people in the elite classes, no matter how cool or likeable they are. We should be critical of those they choose to surround themselves with, the policies they support, the atrocities they remain silent about, and the amount of self-reflection and remorse they engage in.
The ability to refrain from engaging in this kind of self-analysis and criticism lies only with the elite classes, whose money and status insulates them from oppression. As writer Hamilton Nolan writes for Splinter News: “Whereas the average person is forced to spend a good deal of time contemplating problems—from mundane to existential... the people at the top of the world are under no such obligation… Their needs are met. They are free to direct their mental energy towards achieving ever higher levels of self-realization. Though they may recognize the world’s problems in an abstract way, they are not true obstacles for them.”
I can’t speak to what DeGeneres perceives as a true threat to her life or well-being, but the fact that she is able to be friends with George W Bush despite the widespread destruction he wrought – and his apparent lack of remorse — shows that she is not afraid of the potentially destructive international consequences of rehabilitating him.
If we accept a president who enacts xenophobic policies, strips citizens of rights, and levels entire countries — as long as he does it with a polite smile and platitudes about peace and unity — then how will we ever truly achieve liberation and escape the Trump era?