Dubya ain’t all that, Ellen

What do you know about George “Dubya” Bush, former Texas governor, polarizing president and now artist for veterans? You may remember that his administration was responsible for the Iraq War and the No Child Left Behind Act, but most of all, his “Bushisms.”

These included incorrect phrasing, word usages and pronunciations that Bush used in his speeches; it was the “covfefe” of the early 2000s. Regarding his rationale for declaring war on Iraq, he once told Bob Woodward of 60 Minutes, “I’m the commander, see. I don’t need to explain — I do not need to explain why I say things.”

It’s a quote I’m remembering now as Ellen DeGeneres, comedian and host of her own talk show, and George W. Bush enjoyed a Sunday NFL football game together alongside their respective spouses, which set off a Twitter firestorm when DeGeneres talked about the incident on her show.

“When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t only mean the people who think the same thing you do. I mean be kind to everyone,” was DeGeneres’s argument. But given Bush’s decisions on the Iraq War, his administration’s policies on LGBTQIA rights and DeGeneres’ status as a celebrity who identifies as a lesbian, it ignited a flurry of opinions that either lauded her actions or rebuked her tone deaf statement.

In our culture of idolizing celebrities, it is strange that we can simultaneously hold Degeneres as a beacon of tolerance for what she did, shame other people for not doing the same and explode in shock that she would dare to say this.

Degeneres’ current net worth is $450 million, and she’s come a long way from being ostracized when she came out in the late 90s. At that time, she commented on the criticism she got from the LGBTQIA community.

“I didn’t say I was your leader and I didn’t say I have done more…I just want to be a comedian and I just happen to be gay,” DeGeneres said.

She never wanted to be an activist. All she wanted to do was promote her work in an industry that was fighting to keep her out.

DeGeneres is a celebrity and talk show host who is married to a woman she loves in what is still a highly homophobic society. Despite that, she has now attained what many dream of and few achieve. What obligation does she have to care about what messages she’s sending out, when she has already achieved much of what she wanted in her life?

Representation is a complex notion. It is assumed that it merely gives inspiration to those who identify with it. While it does do that to an extent, it is important not to ignore that how we usually decide whether someone represents us depends on how much power they have in the larger social sphere.

In comparison to DeGeneres’ net worth, Bush’s net worth is peanuts at $39.5 million. Her show is still broadcast in 12 countries internationally, and she’s won numerous awards in her career. I doubt that she was concerned about being invalidated by an elderly president whose policies made her struggle a bit in her early career, which has anyway been eclipsed by her current wealth.

So, can a friendship bridge a political divide? I believe the ideal model was followed by the 1971 friendship between Ann Atwater, a Black woman advocating for better housing conditions for low-income Black people, and C.P. Ellis, president of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a friendship that happened in my hometown, Durham, North Carolina.

Her determination to understand Ellis’ motivation for belonging to the KKK (despite their mutual rivalry) inspired him to not only leave the organization, but burn his membership card. However, she never said, like many people do, that she was willing to agree to disagree. Instead, she inspired him with both her compassion and her conviction to abandon his racist views and help her desegregate Durham.

Healthy friendships are based on compassion and a mutual desire to see the other person thrive. DeGeneres should be free to make her own decisions and accept the resulting consequences. However, her narrative should not reframe the need for kindness as an obligation to agree to disagree about views that either perpetuate or excuse injustice. For a true meeting of the minds, both individuals have to take the first step, not just to create a bond, but to work to dismantle the beliefs that undermine it.


Editor’s note: This story originally was published in Volume 106, Issue 4 of The Guilfordian on Nov. 1 2019.