After Ellen DeGeneres was spotted socializing with former President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game on Sunday, a slew of critics had a few important reminders about the optics of normalizing the 43rd president. Namely, that Bush is a president who led the country to war on a false premise, left poor black communities in New Orleans to drown, and more or less prepared the political and cultural soils for the Republican Party that would give us the Trump administration.
DeGeneres has, in the days since, attempted to turn this controversy into a half-baked meditation on acceptance, using her Ellen monologue Tuesday to say that she and Bush are friends, and that their friendship is a testament to the value of kindness. (Effectively taking a dump on my prized Rock Against Bush CDs compilations, volumes one and two, in the process.) But DeGeneres’s kindness to someone who, under reasonable circumstances, could be tried for war crimes, isn’t practicing compassion—it’s rich people schmoozing with other rich people they think are slightly ideologically different from themselves and calling it a model of friendship. While this socializing may seem harmless, it’s actually part of a broader narrative that’s helped Bush regain some semblance of power and nostalgia in the years since he stepped down.
On her show, DeGeneres explained that she and her wife Portia de Rossi were invited to the game by Charlotte Jones, the daughter of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. They accepted the invitation and were placed in what DeGeneres described as a “very fancy suite” with very fancy people—fancy people like Bush and former first lady Laura.
“During the game, they showed a shot of me and George laughing together, and so people were upset,” she continued. “They thought, Why is a gay Hollywood liberal sitting next to a conservative Republican president?”
DeGeneres highlighted one tweet she said she “loved” which read, “Ellen and George Bush together makes me have faith in America again.” The audience roared with applause and DeGeneres joined them, nodding: “Exactly!”
DeGeneres argued that her friendship with Bush is actually a core part of her personal ethos, which she laid out for the audience:
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. We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that OK that we’re all different... Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean 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.
Among her fellow celebrities, at least, DeGeneres’s monologue was a hit. Gwen Stefani sent her an “I love u” tweet while Reese Witherspoon tweeted, “Thank you for this important reminder, Ellen!” And on Instagram, DeGeneres received praise from celebrities like Jennifer Garner, Snooki, Jamie Foxx, Orlando Bloom, Kendall Jenner, and Lenny Kravitz.
But Bush isn’t your Aunt Karen who makes off-color comments at Thanksgiving, or a friend who’s supporting a different candidate during the primaries. He was the 43rd president of the United States who, during his eight-year tenure, oversaw the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people during his administration alone. He’s the harbinger of the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the lead up to the Great Recession. The sliver of decent beliefs he held—like a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, an impossible platform for a contemporary Republicans to run on today—are mitigated by his endorsement of the regressive Federal Marriage Amendment, the implementation of the Bush tax cuts, and human rights nightmares like Abu Ghraib.
In the years since his presidency, Bush has been transformed in parts of the public imagination into doddering, painting uncle. This affable reputation that has preceded his penchant for painting charming portraits of his dogs or sharing cough drops with Michelle Obama. His Texan drawl and boyish smirk have often lent themselves to caricature that he’s harmless, at best, or, at worst, was an idiotic puppet used at the behest of people smarter, more conniving, and bloodthirstier than he was.
As the Bush years faded—while his wars and economic crisis carried on—the man himself gradually became an afterthought; there was enough political turmoil to keep everyone busy, and to push Bush from the forefront of American minds. While the right was becoming emboldened by overt nativism and demagoguery—the kind that a compassionate conservative like Bush would never endorse in public—the former president was relaxing on his ranch in Texas, painting portraits of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin.
And now that the unique crassness of President Trump reigns, Bush nostalgia is in full force; his favorability numbers have nearly doubled since he left office in 2009. (DeGeneres herself has already had a small hand in Bush’s rebrand: he appeared on her show in 2017.) But as his image has been rehabilitated, Bush has continued to use his power in recent years to inflict harm: In 2018, Bush used his influence to persuade Senators to support Justice Kavanaugh, despite sexual assault allegations against him.
“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,” DeGeneres said during her show, laying out what she believes in her central motivation. It’s a good instinct, but as comedy writer Megan Amram observed, “You can’t be nice to everyone because nice to certain people is inherently cruel to others.” And when kindness is extended to those who have used their power to perform acts of abject cruelty, “kindness” becomes an endorsement.