George W. Bush benefits more than any other living American politician from naive, nostalgic contrast with President Donald Trump.
During his presidency, Bush launched two wars that killed about 500,000 people, including more than 240,000 civilians, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001, continues today; Trump scrapped his plan to meet with the Taliban at Camp David for peace talks last month. Iraq has yet to recover from the eight-year military campaign Bush launched in 2003—under false pretenses—to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Bush left office in 2008 with a 22 percent approval rating mainly owing to his disastrous management of two wars, Hurricane Katrina, and the Great Recession. In his retirement, Bush virtually vanished from public life, helping him escape the outrage that broadly defined his presidency. Bush and his predecessor, Bill Clinton, have become friends since they’ve left office—Bush describes Clinton as his “brother with a different mother”—and they’ve shared the stage at times. Last year, Bush greeted former first lady Michelle Obama with a cough drop at John McCain’s funeral. On Sunday, Bush and Ellen DeGeneres sat together at AT&T Stadium during the Cowboys-Packers game in Arlington, Texas. DeGeneres later said she and her wife, Portia de Rossi, were invited to the game by Charlotte Jones, the daughter of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. DeGeneres was criticized after a photograph of her laughing with Bush circulated on social media. Bush’s critics resent that his presence alongside progressives such as Obama and DeGeneres serves to rehabilitate his reputation when, before Trump, Bush embodied every vicious element in modern Republican politics.
On Tuesday, DeGeneres addressed the controversy during her monologue on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, in which she defended her friendship with Bush. “Why is a gay Hollywood liberal sitting next to a conservative Republican president?” DeGeneres wondered. “A lot of people were mad, and they did what people do when they’re mad—they tweet.” Here, DeGeneres posits her talk show as responsive to Twitter, but ultimately beholden to more than 4 million daytime TV viewers, including many fans who love watching her celebrity friendships unfold. “I’m friends with George Bush,” DeGeneres told her audience. “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have.” The show’s YouTube channel featured a video of DeGeneres’s monologue with the headline “This Photo of Ellen & George W. Bush Will Give You Faith In America Again.” Put together, the photo and the monologue might be construed as DeGeneres’s testament to tolerance, kindness, and civilized disagreement. If Twitter represents pessimism and polarization, DeGeneres’s show represents optimism, escapism, and redemption—available to even Bush. “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. Her audience cheered, their faith renewed.
DeGeneres makes famous friends for a living. The Ellen DeGeneres Show largely depends on DeGeneres’s ability to be a fast ally to celebrities who will sit, and maybe even dance, on her Burbank set. She’s defended her friends, as once-and-future guests, from Twitter mobs before. She defended Kanye West against criticism about his support for Trump. She defended Kevin Hart after he withdrew from hosting the Academy Awards amid criticism about anti-LGBTQ remarks he made on Twitter.
DeGeneres’s famous friendships can feel like commercial partnerships or shrewd networking choices. Her friendship with Bush shouldn’t surprise anyone who watches her interviews—DeGeneres is “friends” with anyone who has ever graced an Us Weekly cover. It’s her job, after all, as a famous talk show host, to fraternize with other celebrities in an exceedingly uncritical TV format. But Bush isn’t a celebrity entertainer; he’s a former U.S. president whose inglorious legacy isn’t comparable to Hart’s antigay tweets. DeGeneres betrays her political significance as an openly gay entertainer and a prominent LGBTQ advocate through her friendship with Bush. She’s the most widely admired TV talk show host since Oprah Winfrey, and possibly has more in common with the Bush family than their obvious partisan differences might suggest.
Bush may well be one softball interview away from hagiography. His critics fear the prospect of DeGeneres or Michelle Obama playing even the smallest conceivable role in repairing his legacy. They understand how frivolous the mass media can be in assessing politicians, especially as postpartisan nostalgia overwhelms the old malaise. But pundits afford so many celebrity entertainers like DeGeneres massive political credibility despite how detached they seem to be from the issues. DeGeneres isn’t a journalist. She’s a comedian. Arguing about Bush’s conduct during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is wasted on a daytime TV talk show host.
In fairness, these arguments have been wasted in more appropriate settings. Hence the urge to shame a gay, progressive TV talk show host, if no one else—no one who actually served in the Bush administration—for her frivolous association with a former president. The Bush-DeGeneres friendship is an alliance among two wealthy, famous people. Even the most demoralizing president can count on happy assistance from TV producers and celebrity-whisperers, who above all seek friendship with elites.