Margaret Valenti writes about the recent controversy surrounding the recent interaction between Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush.
Recently, Ellen DeGeneres attended a Dallas Cowboys football game and pictures went viral of her sitting next to George W. Bush while engaged in a seemingly lighthearted conversation. Smiles were on both of their faces in the midst of laughter. For context, Ellen and her wife, Portia DeRossi, were invited to the football game by the daughter of the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Charlotte Jones. The couple sat next to George and Laura Bush during the game. The Bush’s are both natives of Texas and prominent figures within the community.
It was not surprising that they were both there, what was surprising was that Bush and DeGeneres were seemingly engaged in a light hearted, friendly conversation. George Bush is a man accused of war crimes including allowing the inhumane torture of alleged terrorists, involving the U.S. in an endless war in the Middle East, and passing of The Patriot Act during his tenure as President of the United States. Ellen DeGeneres is a comedian and talk show host who supports human rights and equality for all, likes to help those in need and ends each of her daily shows with the phrase “be kind to one another.” DeGeneres went so far as to call herself and Bush friends when questioned about the interaction.
She defended her actions by saying that she is allowed to talk to — and supports any type of dialogue with — people she does not agree with, regardless of political views, past decisions, or opposing opinions. However, the controversy is not about whether people should or should not engage in discussions with people they disagree with, but rather whether or not Bush is a war criminal and if Ellen’s actions and reaction to the controversy amount to her condoning Bush’s supposed criminal behavior while President of the United States.
Context for The War on Terror
There is no doubt that the war in Iraq, and the Middle East at large, is an endless war with no exit strategy, a huge foreign policy blunder for the U.S.. The U.S. policy in the Middle East — the West’s policy in the Middle East in general — was always complicated and shrouded in cultural misunderstanding along with attempts to push U.S. democracy on the rest of the world. Also, the U.S. — specifically U.S. based oil companies — wanted and needed more access to the Middle East’s oil and would do seemingly anything to keep oil supplies coming into the U.S.
Obviously, the precursor to the modern “War on Terror” in the Middle East, mainly Iraq and Afghanistan, is the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, which were viewed as a declaration of war by many. At that point, popular opinion was for the War on Terror and those responsible for the attacks which led U.S. troops into both Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal of the U.S. was to serve justice for the over three thousand people killed that day. Bush, at the time, had many weapons manufacturers as cabinet members and advisors, chosen by the Republican party. Also, his Vice President was Dick Cheney, known by my generation as “Tricky Dick,” though the term was originally coined in reference to Richard Nixon for his Watergate scandal.
It was Dick Cheney who strongly suggested that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was connected to Al-Qaeda when U.S. intelligence organizations had no evidence to suggest that. For many, Dick Cheney was the President of the United States, not Bush. Therefore, a lot of the decisions under the Bush administration were made by Cheney. Cheney, perhaps, took on more power as Vice President than any Vice President of the United States in U.S. history.
Essentially, Bush was, to some, a negligent bystander to his Presidency. Whether that makes him any less culpable for what happened — starting a seemingly endless war, torture, illegal surveillance, and maybe other war crimes — while considering Cheney’s actions, is up for debate.
Ellen And Bush
Of course, Bush now takes most of the heat for what happened during his Presidency, as he should. However, does that mean he was completely unjustified or in any way unredeemable? Does that mean Ellen cannot talk to him, and perhaps enjoy a conversation at a football game? It is not simply about whether you can be friends with someone you disagree with because this situation is not a simple disagreement.
Many people, even eighteen years after 9/11, feel that Bush is responsible not only for the possible war crimes committed under his administration, but for much more. Bush, some believe, may also be responsible for his administration catalyzing ISIS’ creation and their inevitable power in the Middle East. Additionally, the number of deaths, including U.S. and international civilians in terrorist attacks, soldiers in combat, and civilians in the war zones, amounts to as many as hundreds of thousands of lives lost as a direct result of terrorism and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. The loss of many of these lives is directly a result of the U.S. decision to wage a war on terrorism and heading into both Irag and Afghanistan with no clear direction other than to break up terrorist factions and impose U.S. democracy in the Middle East.
Perhaps, instead, Ellen should argue that her friendship with Bush does not condone what happened during his administration. Instead of saying that she can talk to whomever she wants to, perhaps she should understand why there is a condemnation of her actions. She is a public figure who has been outspoken and taken a stand on many issues related to politics and social justice and generally in opposition to views held by the Republican party that George Bush represented. She is responsible for what message she portrays but still has her own agency when determining who she talks to.
No one is condemning Ellen for simply engaging in conversation with someone that has opposing views to her own. She is not the only one to seemingly develop a friendship with George W; he and Michele Obama shared a cough drop once. In this era of derisive behavior, no one should be condemning this interaction merely for crossing over ideological lines.
However, it seems as if Ellen has missed the main focus of the condemnation of her behavior. This is not simply a “why don’t we all just get along” situation that should be applauded.
She is ignoring the primary issue here. Ellen was engaged in a conversation with a man who is presumed by many to have committed numerous war crimes during his Presidency. Does she or does she not condone his behavior? That is the question that requires an answer which she may not be willing to provide.