Last Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys played the Green Bay Packers at the AT&T stadium in Arlington, Texas. In attendance was Ellen DeGeneres, host of the The Ellen Show and proprietor of The Ellen Show’s wildly popular streaming service, “ellentube.” Also present was former president and outsider artist George W. Bush. The two were seated together in a special suite for people so wealthy they get the best seats likely without having to pay for tickets. DeGeneres and Bush are no strangers — Bush appeared on Ellen in 2017, entering to Jean Knight’s 1971 soul classic “Mr. Big Stuff” (“Who do you think you are?”) and promoting his book of oil paintings, titled Portraits in Courage.
Reunited at the game, they shared a friendly laugh. Selfies were taken. The meeting was caught on camera, and became the subject of some distress online. Why would DeGeneres, a self-described liberal, be seen smiling peacefully with one of the most conservative presidents in recent memory, an opponent of gay marriage, purveyour of neglect in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, commander in chief of the illegal, destructive, globally destabilizing 2003 invasion of Iraq?
On her Tuesday show, Degeneres set a moment aside to address the uproar. She delivered a bizarre soliloquy:
The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Iraq, America; the world, the so-called world, knows everything about George W. Bush. The world knows the truth, because the so-called world is absent today, and not only today, not just here, I know I do not know, I do not know the truth, but I look. I'm listening, I'm feeling, I remember, for that I'm here today, near America, near Texas, near George W. Bush.
Ah, I’m sorry. There appears to have been a mixup. Ellen DeGeneres did not say the above words. These are actually the words of Austrian novelist Peter Handke, a newly crowned Nobel Laureate in literature, regarding Yugoslavia, Serbia, and the former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, in a eulogy he delivered at the murderous dictator’s funeral in 2006.
Handke was awarded the most prestigious prize in the world the week after DeGeneres attended the Cowboys-Packers game — a weird coincidence, given the company the two have been known to keep. Handke’s award has come as something of a shock to global observers of contemporary literature, given his longstanding record of sympathy for Milošević, the architect of a genocidal program of ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. Mats Malm, Permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which selects recipients of the Nobel Prize, told the New York Times that the decision was based on “literary and aesthetic grounds.” “It is not in the Academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations,” Malm said.
These two incidents have brought an unusual question to the forefront of the national conversation: is it okay to be friends with a war criminal?
This is not a question most of us will ever have to answer. We are not invited to that suite at the AT&T stadium in Arlington. We will not dance onto the set of The Ellen Show. But regardless, this question is one for which Degeneres has an answer. Here’s what she actually said on Tuesday, in somewhat more down-to-earth verbiage:
Here’s the thing: 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 that's okay 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.
This may well apply to those of us outside of the suite. But things are different on the inside. Inside of it are not just those who are glamorous and admired. It also includes the most powerful people in human history, about whom the terms are beyond matters of disagreement. Milošević and Bush didn’t just have opinions, they waged wars. Conservative estimates of the body counts are 100,000 and 500,000, respectively.
At this point, hardly anyone is likely to defend Handke’s position on Milošević, even his greatest admirers. But there are those who are eager to defend DeGeneres’s position on Bush. From Hollywood, a number of celebrities — the type of people who might well get invited to the suite — chimed in on Twitter. “Exactly,” said Reese Witherspoon, emphasizing her point with a bullseye emoji. “Let Love Rule!” suggested Lenny Kravitz, perhaps hoping to boost streaming counts of his 1989 single of that name. “Kill em with kindness,” said Orlando Bloom, which is admittedly a more cheerful thought than “Kill em with depleted uranium.” From Washington, Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, Obama adviser David Axelrod, and CNN pundit Chris Cilizza joined in on the pats-on-the-back party. “Anti-Trumpism in its purest form,” Cilizza said.
Why would DeGeneres, a self-described liberal, be seen smiling peacefully with one of the most conservative presidents in recent memory?
This juxtaposition of Bush and Trump is a revealing one. Opposition to Trump, from political insiders, has often required the construction of a fantasy, that of a once-honorable Republican Party. Before Trump, the legend goes, the GOP was a legitimate political agent. Reasonable people might have disagreed on matters of policy, but the world was in balance. The falcon could hear the falconer. Between two legitimate poles of political ideology, the American spirit marched on.
This was a balance that was thwarted by the entry to the political arena of Donald Trump, a bull in a china shop who shattered the perceived sanctity of America’s highest office. Even the campaign against him often relied on this mythology, as Hillary Clinton did in a campaign speech in 2016:
This is a moment of reckoning for every Republican dismayed that the Party of Lincoln has become the Party of Trump. It’s a moment of reckoning for all of us who love our country and believe that America is better than this. Twenty years ago, when Bob Dole accepted the Republican nomination, he pointed to the exits and told any racists in the party to get out. The week after 9/11, George W. Bush went to a mosque and declared for everyone to hear that Muslims “love America just as much as I do.” In 2008, John McCain told his own supporters they were wrong about the man he was trying to defeat. Senator McCain made sure they knew: Barack Obama, he said, is an American citizen and a decent person. We need that kind of leadership again.
This fantasy requires two levels of historical amnesia. The first regards the record of the modern Republican Party, of which Bush was the most recent leader, after his father; it has become tedious to repeat the younger Bush’s curriculum vitae, which comprises some of the worst actions and biggest failures of the American government. The second is a problem of self-awareness. The rehabilitation of Bush and the GOP has required a collective forgetting of the liberal consensus about his presidency — that it was a total shitshow — which lasted up until 2016.
Bush was, like Trump, the winner of an election in which he did not receive a higher number of votes. Beyond even his loss of the popular vote, his victory was secured by means of blatant funny business in the state of which his brother was the governor. For many Democrats, his reign was (rightly) deemed illegitimate from the start. But his character came into question too; his demeanor, grammar, and general lack of dignity were a frequent target of political opponents. His most famous errors, like the portmanteau “misunderestimated,” have been mirthfully called “Bushisms.” In 2000, Christopher Hitchens described him in The Nation as “a provincial ignoramus who can neither read nor write,” while Jonathan Chait, at New York Magazine, has called him “an intellectual simpleton.” Neither Hitchens nor Chait extended their personal disdain for Bush to an opposition to the Iraq War, or skepticism of the Bush administration’s outright lies in its justification.
The rehabilitation of Bush and the GOP has required a collective forgetting of the liberal consensus about his presidency.
This kind of political stance — limited to standards of decorum and levels of intellect — is bound to hold the risk of obscuring actual politics. When the actual actions and consequences that constitute politics are secondary to the appearance of propriety, it becomes possible to salvage its worst elements. It also excuses complicity and collaboration. President Barack Obama went from promising the closure of Guantanamo Bay and the reversal of Bush’s attack on civil liberties to prosecuting more whistleblowers than any U.S. president, extending an aggressive drone warfare program, and spending his post-presidential years in the company of Silicon Valley’s ruling elite. (Not to mention Michelle Obama has been seen sharing a cough drop or two with Bush, calling him “my partner in crime.”)
The list of unlikely pals goes on. The chief rhetorician of the Bush Doctrine, speechwriter David Frum, has rebranded himself a leader of the #resistance to Trump, publishing his hot takes at The Atlantic. The pattern has extended to perhaps the only American politician with more blood on his hands than Bush, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom Hillary Clinton has called “a friend,” and who enjoys a peaceful elder-statesman status in Washington.
Last year, Ellen DeGeneres made $87.5 million, making her the 15th-wealthiest celebrity, according to Forbes. Somehow, she has had the gall to title her latest standup special Relatable. But the question of whether to associate with war criminals is, for her audience, nothing of the kind. Such acquaintanceships do not need defending, both because most of us will never face the prospect of doing it, and because no one who does is likely to face any consequences. “When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do,” DeGeneres said. “I mean be kind to everyone.” Kindness, to someone in her position, is not restricted by opinion. But it is only granted to those who sit in the suite. As for those on the business end of a drone, different, possibly deadly standards apply.
The composer Tom Lehrer famously remarked that satire died when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. Next year, maybe DeGeneres has a shot.