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It’s not about ‘beliefs,’ Ellen: Why DeGeneres’s weak defense of George W. Bush is a denial of reality

The comedian defended her decision to buddy up to Bush with a trite (and inappropriate) lesson about kindness. This isn’t ‘Sesame Street,’ Ellen.

It’s not about ‘beliefs,’ Ellen: Why DeGeneres’s weak defense of George W. Bush is a denial of reality
[Photos: George Pimentel/Getty Images for TINEPARK (DeGeneres); Paul Morse/The White House (Bush)]

The unspoken rule that allowed me and my friend Brandon to continue being friends well into George W. Bush’s second term was that we never talked about politics.

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We lived in separate states and hung out maybe once a year, and we had enough shared history and bad movies to debate when we did see each other that we were able to keep current events at bay. As the administration entered its twilight, our arrangement became fairly easy. The worm had turned for Bush as the Iraq War became an indefensible quagmire and the financial crisis hit hard. By the time Brandon quietly, unprompted, mentioned that Bush was “kind of a dipshit after all,” it wasn’t as epic a personal vindication as it might have been. The president’s favorability polls were in the low 30s and fading fast. Only the most faithful foot soldiers remained in his thrall. Considering that history was poised to be on the same side as me, I’d already assumed Brandon had come around as well. Finding out for sure felt like an afterthought. Now, we could hypothetically move on (dot org) and not even have to carefully avoid bringing up certain subjects when we hung out again.

I’ve thought a lot about Brandon the last couple days, thanks to Ellen DeGeneres.

The daytime talk show host has taken some heat since appearing in a box seat at a Cowboys game, laughing it up with none other than George W. Bush. She had already welcomed the former president on her show two years ago in a bizarre appearance during which he talked about his dog’s interaction with Vladimir Putin. Now the two were hanging out socially: DeGeneres, the dancing-prone, famously homosexual, beige West Wing liberal, and George W. Bush, the anti-intellectual, incompetent cronyist who had started an illegal war and ignored intelligence that could possibly have prevented both 9/11 itself and the deadly impact of Hurricane Katrina. What possible excuse could someone like Ellen DeGeneres have for giving this man the time of day, let alone airtime on her show?

Just over a day after the photos from the game went viral, we have our answer. The talk show host recorded a segment for Tuesday’s show in which she explained, Sesame Street-style, that one should never let a difference in beliefs stand in the way of friendship.

Let’s unpack this entire four-minute segment.

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DeGeneres starts with an extended explanation for why she was at the game at all, as though fans may have felt betrayed that she was secretly a sports nut. The host then shows a video she took of herself and Bush in the box seat, and the in-studio audience goes nuts, one assumes at the prompting of an off-screen segment producer.

“When we were invited [to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’s private box at the stadium], I was aware that we would be surrounded by people with different views and beliefs. And I’m not talking about politics—I was rooting for the Packers,” she says, trying to lighten the mood with jokes. She continues, taking a startling amount of time to explain why she was rooting for the Packers on the Cowboys home turf before turning back to the 43rd president.

“But during the game, they showed a shot of George W. Bush and I laughing together, and people were upset. They thought, ‘Why was a gay Hollywood liberal sitting next to a conservative Republican president?”

Already, we are way out in the weeds. George W. Bush is not just a “conservative Republican president.” He’s a collection of dishonorable misdeeds that have measurably made the world a worse place. Setting aside his stance on gay rights, which any Republican president likely would have shared at the time—he called the 2004 Massachusetts ruling in favor of same-sex marriage “deeply troubling,” and the issue became a focal point in his reelection—Bush’s presidency was uniquely disastrous. Even Donald Trump, another historically bad person, knew during primary season to distance himself from the illegal war Bush started, so toxic has it become. George W. Bush is a “conservative Republican president” the way that Jeffrey Epstein is a “finance guy.”

“A lot of people were mad,” DeGeneres goes on, “and they did what they do when people are mad: They tweet. But here’s one tweet that I love. It says ‘Ellen and George Bush together makes me have faith in America again.'”

The audience cheers once more for this preschool pabulum, applauding the popular idea that people who get mad on Twitter are always a mindless outrage mob. Obviously, people on Twitter can be hypercritical, but it takes a debilitating lack of critical thought to blindly endorse any misguided coupling of political opposites. (Especially when the people in question belong to similar tax brackets.)

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Hilariously, the one tweet the host holds up as an example of someone who got it right had to be edited in order to appear on the show.

“Here’s the thing: I’m friends with George Bush,” Ellen says. “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different. And I think that we’ve forgotten that it’s okay that we’re all different.” She then holds up as examples of the kind of differences she doesn’t let get in the way of friendship, no joke, people who wear fur and people already listening to Christmas music in October. What a reductive way to explain being friends with someone many consider a war criminal!

George W. Bush is not just someone with different beliefs, like the belief that oil and a paternal rivalry are worth starting wars over; he’s someone who acted on those beliefs and destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives in the process. Being friends with someone who voted for George W. Bush isn’t the same as being friends with George W. Bush himself. The latter isn’t reaching across the aisle to bridge the political divide; that’s reaching down into hell to pull up the devil.

“But just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them,” DeGeneres says, winding down. “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.”

To be clear, Ellen DeGeneres does not think you should be kind to everyone. She probably doesn’t think you should be kind to Ted Bundy or Larry Nassar or Emperor Palpatine. Even though she’s addressing her audience at a Sesame Street level, she’s giving advice that Sesame Street would never dare. We don’t teach our kids to be kind to strangers in vans offering candy, lest a potential friend opportunity wither on the vine. We teach them to deeply distrust anyone who gives us good reasons not to trust them.

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What has George W. Bush possibly done to earn Ellen DeGeneres’s trust or friendship? Even if he spent the last 11 years soul-searching, reflecting on, and attempting to atone for the myriad cataclysmic mistakes he made, even then he would fall short of deserving forgiveness from those who opposed him in 2001-2008. He doesn’t appear to have even done that, though. DeGeneres seems to have forgiven him on the basis of enough time having gone by and Bush being fun to watch a football game with.

This may be nearly as trite a message as DeGeneres’s, but there are more important things in life than friendship. My friend, Brandon? We survived the Obama years without incident, by continuing to not talk politics, but our lifelong friendship ended on the night of Donald Trump’s election. It was the night I realized the two of us didn’t merely have differences in opinions or beliefs; we were fundamentally different people. Some of the terrible things my friend had tacitly endorsed during the Bush years had become explicit in the lead-up to 2016. After an election-night Facebook snafu, I knew I didn’t want to be around to witness the difference in our reactions when those beliefs turned into policy decisions that hurt groups of people whose welfare I care about, which is what has of course happened. I didn’t want to wait for my friend to come around to the other side when history eventually did. Maybe history wouldn’t even come around this time; maybe we were finally doomed and deserved it. I knew where I stood, though.

A prominent liberal like Ellen DeGeneres being openly friends with George W. Bush doesn’t bode well for how history will remember the denial of reality and cheerleading of cruelty that are endemic among 2019 Trump supporters. Anyone who’s lived through the last few years and still finds political beliefs to be mere character quirks has no real beliefs to speak of. They look at the current battle for the soul of our country as though it were as ultimately meaningless as a game between the Cowboys and the Packers.

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