Ellen DeGeneres Defends Friendship With George W. Bush, Says He Deserves Kindness
It’s not about kindness — it’s about whitewashing his anti-gay and warmongering history.
Ellen DeGeneres, a television celebrity, media mogul and gay icon, has come under scrutiny after she was pictured sitting next to and laughing with former U.S. President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys football game over the weekend. Bush has a history of actively advocating against granting gay people the right to marry.
After receiving widespread censure on social media for fraternizing with Bush, DeGeneres addressed the issue on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, saying, “I’m friends with George Bush. … I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs I have. … But just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be friends with them. … When I say, ‘be kind to one another,’ I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.” DeGeneres then went on to compare the differences between her and Bush — she is a lesbian; Bush has a history of being anti-gay — to those who wear fur and those who oppose it, or to supporters of rival football teams.
To begin with, advocating against the civil rights of a group of people — in this case, homosexual people’s right to marry — is not “a belief.” It’s a discriminatory action. Acknowledging gay people should have rights doesn’t fall into a gray area between right and wrong, and DeGeneres, of all people, knows this. Bush’s political campaign against LGBTQ+ rights counts as gross infringement, by the then-President of the United States, on the rights of people he took an oath to serve. There is no difference of opinion here that can be waved away by spouting ‘respect all opinions’ rhetoric, or by slamming Twitter users for the immediacy of their censure, as DeGeneres did. Bush’s disregard for queer rights was then, and is now, unforgivable and certainly not something to be respected or be kind toward.
DeGeneres has been a vocal advocate for queer rights, but this feels like a step back. For a self-proclaimed champion of queer rights, such as DeGeneres, not only to fail to hold accountable someone like Bush, but to be seen laughing with him, and on top of that, whitewashing his actions, reeks of indifference that only privilege accords people. It stinks of power, wealth and class unity — which DeGeneres proved she wasn’t about to compromise in favor of the issues she has been advocating for decades.
In 2004, when Bush won a re-election term, partly on the basis of his anti-LGBTQ+ campaign, Ellen had been publicly out for seven years; she had already starred in two eponymous shows, Ellen (1994-1998), which she lost at the time, and The Ellen Show (2001-2002), with which she bounced back. In 2008, despite Bush’s efforts, DeGeneres’ home state of California allowed gay marriage, and DeGeneres married her then-partner, Portia de Rossi. While there’s no doubt Ellen struggled, especially due to her sexual orientation, to achieve the success she’s had, it’s also apparent she has remained relatively untouched — professionally and personally — by Bush’s legacy of waging war against LGBTQ+ rights. So much so, she even hosted him on her talk show in 2017, when Bush talked about the time his dog met human rights violator Vladimir Putin.
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Speaking of waging war, it’s not just that Bush’s historic stance regarding queer rights goes against DeGeneres’ existence –– it’s that he’s a warmonger with little concern for human rights at all. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 and kickstarted a completely unnecessary war based on a fabrication, against the Iraqi people, wherein hundreds of thousands of brown Muslims were killed, in addition to U.S. troops. The consequence of the Bush administration’s lies regarding Iraq are still felt in the Middle East today. But little to no effect of Bush’s warmongering manifested in DeGeneres’ life.
Bush successfully finished two terms as president and was never held accountable for his actions. What is happening almost 15 years later? He enjoys friendships with progressive leaders, such as DeGeneres and former first lady Michelle Obama; Bush has shared several ‘heart-warming’ public moments with Obama, from dancing with her to offering her a cough drop at a funeral. “I love him to death. He’s a wonderful man, he’s a funny man,” Obama has said about Bush.
The support Bush enjoys from his progressive counterparts is baffling and seems to be reminiscent of the backlash that the supposed ‘cancel culture’ has sparked — as people are viewed as becoming more intolerant of problematic beliefs, others have doubled down on their efforts to be “kind to everyone,” as DeGeneres says, offering some sort of model humanity rubric to follow.
And DeGeneres has been a champion of the problematic (because she’s kind): earlier in 2019, when comedian Kevin Hart’s homophobic comments came to light and forced him to step down from hosting the Oscars, DeGeneres came out in support of him. “There are so many haters out there. … Whatever’s going on on the internet, don’t pay attention to them; that’s a small group of people being very, very loud. We are a huge group of people who love you and want to see you host the Oscars,” she told Hart at the time, Vanity Fair reported. By chalking off all hate as unwarranted and unreasonable, DeGeneres preserved the power, privilege and connections fame lends her, and all their benefits while failing to stand up for the rights of the people who look up to her as a role model.
There are times when we should hear people out; being open to different perspectives and belief systems is encouraged, even ideal, but only when that perspective or belief system is not injurious or discriminatory toward certain groups’ right to exist as equals. Actions such as Bush’s anti-gay marriage stance and unapologetic warmongering don’t merit this kind of tolerance.
In DeGeneres’ case, kindness would have been not to blow up in Bush’s face or to have left herself. Defending him on a hard-earned television talk show is going above and beyond kindness — it’s allyship, in which DeGeneres put her friendship with power over the issues she cares about. If this were an isolated incident, such brouhaha over DeGeneres’ actions would seem unwarranted. But it’s not an isolated incident — power and privilege work together, bolstering each other, almost all the time. We need celebrities who are willing to inconvenience that power and privilege, to not suck up to it under the pretext of being fair or kind. It’s time the advocates we look up to don’t advocate for reaching across the aisle to war criminals but instead work toward burning those bridges.
Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle's Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she's interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team's podcast, Respectfully Disagree.