On the first weekend of October 2019, there was a football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Packers. The cameras captured the game, the roars of the crowd and the celebrities that were in a stadium suite. This in itself is nothing unusual. Yet spotted in these photos were none other than Ellen Degeneres and Portia De Rossi, seated alongside George W Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush, laughing and smiling. There were immediate comments, mostly ones expressing disappointment. As Ellen, herself said on her TV show as a response to the uproar, “why is a gay Hollywood liberal sitting next to a conservative Republican president?”
She continued in her usual sunny manner to remind the audience in front of her and those of us watching at home that she’s friends with lots of people who don’t share the same beliefs that she does. She ended the segment by stating that it’s important to be nice and kind to everyone. Not just those that share our beliefs.
Everything that Ellen said in that short segment in response to the bewilderment and disappointment online is what has made Ellen…well Ellen. She was the woman who taught middle belt America that lesbians are not monsters or “strange girls from the city.” But instead that they are every woman and everywhere. In doing so, she weathered many a difficult storm including the cancellation of her TV sitcom.
George Bush, on the other hand, built a considerable part of his political base on being anti-LGBTQ. By refusing to classify crimes against gay people as hate crimes and standing firm on agreement on a constitutional amendment that would have defined marriage as strictly between a man and a woman. In the context of the performative “uh shucks, we’re all one and the same,” that has made her so successful, being friendly with George Bush makes sense. Ellen’s kindness as she’s shown over and over again extends to everyone, even when it makes her look stupid.
Thankfully, the world has changed profoundly since Ellen became a household name in 1997. In our society today, unfettered and more importantly uncritical niceness is not seen as a virtue.
As Laura Bradley said in Vanity Fair, “when one person has historically believed other people should not have the same basic rights as another, it’s hard to treat these differences as benign—especially when that person once exercised their power to help make their beliefs a reality.”
We simply cannot afford to continue to rehabilitate the image of a person that invaded Iraq. Or trampled on our civil liberties (ahem, Patriot Act), or his terrible response to Hurricane Katrina and a plethora of other issues.
The presidency of Donald Trump has been one of the best things to happen to George Bush’s image. Charming interviews with Jimmy Kimmel and appearances on Ellen’s day time show haven’t hurt either.
Neither has the much-discussed friendship between him and Michelle Obama. Respectability politics have shown us that George Bush is a nice man; charming, even, but it doesn’t absolve him of his crime.
But being nice and being polite is not the same thing as being good and just. Plenty of racist and homophones have the best manners, but it doesn’t mean anything. This is what Ellen and many moderate boomers can’t seem to grasp in the waves of criticism of their actions.
Not one person expected Ellen to remove herself from that box in a dramatic fashion. Instead, her dissenters were asking her the value in elevating a run of the mill exchange with a famously anti-gay and very pro-torture Republican leader. What do we gain painting this encounter like some sort of Kumbaya or come to Jesus’ moment?
This encounter can be a learning moment if we let it. Not just for Ellen but for ourselves. Too many of us focus on surface-level politeness and cordiality. It’s the first thing we are taught as children. And to a degree, it’s necessary for civil society (in fact it can make your career). But what we really need in order to create a just society is goodness. It is honesty and the ability to hold people and ourselves accountable.
Ellen had the opportunity to approach the criticism of her and Bush being (seemingly) bosom buddies differently. If Ellen is so committed to being kind, maybe she should be a bit kinder to the most vulnerable in our society. Not the person who aided in making them so in the first place.
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