A few minutes into the second quarter of Sunday’s game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, TV cameras at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, cut to owner Jerry Jones’ exclusive suite. Many viewers were perplexed by what they saw.
“Is my vision screwed up?” one person asked.
Clinton Yates, a columnist with ESPN’s The Undefeated, tweeted that the sight “definitely qualified as a Sunday shocker.”
Sitting side-by-side in black padded seats with prime views of the cavernous stadium were former Republican president George W. Bush and liberal television host Ellen DeGeneres, an outspoken LGBT activist. The pair was joined by their spouses, former first lady Laura Bush and Australian actress and model Portia de Rossi. At one point, DeGeneres and Bush were caught on camera sharing a laugh.
But it wasn’t long before confusion transformed into outrage as detractors slammed DeGeneres over appearing to share friendly exchanges with a president who started the Iraq War, and once endorsed a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. Some noted that Bush also lobbied for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced multiple sexual misconduct allegations last year ahead of his confirmation. (Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.)
The intense outcry prompted DeGeneres to take time address her relationship with Bush on her show. In a joke-filled monologue scheduled to air Tuesday, DeGeneres defended her interactions with the former president and urged people to “be kind to everyone.” Bush was a guest on DeGeneres’s show in 2017.
“During the game, they showed a shot of George and me laughing together and so people were upset,” the host said in an advance clip shared to social media late Monday. “They thought, ‘Why is a gay Hollywood liberal sitting next to a conservative Republican president?'”
She later added: “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 we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different.”
By early Tuesday, the roughly four-minute video had been watched more than 2 million times across Twitter and YouTube.
While some applauded DeGeneres for putting aside her political differences, critics argued that the segment illustrated her privilege, sparking a fresh round of backlash Monday night.
In the clip, DeGeneres explained that she and de Rossi were invited by Jones’ daughter, Charlotte Jones Anderson, who is also a Cowboys executive. One of Anderson’s unofficial duties is working with her mother, Gene Jones, to decide which guests will join them in the coveted seats on the 50-yard-line, the New York Times reported in 2015.
According to the Times, the goal is to fill the box with a “diverse crowd.” And for Gene Jones, the “task that concerns and vexes her like no other” is the seating chart.
“As if hosting a dinner party, she sketches out a schematic in pencil, always mindful of guests’ interests and personalities, and then solicits thoughts from her daughter up until their guests arrive,” the Times wrote, noting that the Bushes and family members are among the select few with standing invitations.
“We went because we wanted to keep up with the Joneses,” DeGeneres quipped in the segment. “His suite is fancy and he’s got fancy friends. I don’t mean fancy like ‘Real Housewives’ fancy, I mean like fancy.”
The daytime television host then played a video she shot from her seat that captured Bush making a funny face and laughing, drawing loud cheers from her studio audience.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s game, however, the sight of DeGeneres and Bush together sparked a different reaction online. The two appeared next to each other on Fox’s game broadcast several times, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
“I don’t care how nice of a guy George W Bush is,” Vox journalist Aaron Rupar tweeted. “He was one of our worst presidents and left our country and world in bad shape. . . . This is a bad look for @TheEllenShow.”
The Advocate and Out Magazine, both LGBT news organizations, published articles Monday that highlighted Bush’s push in 2004 for a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited marriage equality. Several critics pointed out that the amendment was a wedge issue in the then-president’s reelection campaign, contrasting his stance with DeGeneres’ activism.
“As one of America’s most visible (and powerful) queer celebrities, Ellen pal’ing around with those who have actively tried to harm us feels disappointing, irresponsible, and dangerous,” Out Magazine wrote.
Some were angered that DeGeneres would spend time with the architect of the Iraq War, which The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman called “the worst foreign policy disaster in American history.” It is estimated that tens of thousands were killed fighting, including 5,000 U.S. service members, The Post’s Philip Bump reported. A much higher number of civilians died during the ensuing years of conflict and an exact death toll remains unclear.
Actor John Cusack tweeted to suggest DeGeneres was “normalizing mass murderers.”
In the segment for her show, DeGeneres did not address any specific criticisms, only saying that “a lot of people were mad and they did what people do when they’re mad, they tweet.”
The host did point to a tweet she said she loved, which read in part, “Ellen and George Bush together makes me have faith in America again.”
DeGeneres also defended being kind to people regardless of their views. “For instance, I wish people wouldn’t wear fur,” she said. “I don’t like it, but I’m friends with people who wear fur.”
She continued: “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 mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone. Doesn’t matter.”
DeGeneres’ explanation drew a flurry of mixed reactions Monday night.
Supporters praised her “beautifully crafted message” and insisted she didn’t need to offer a defense.
“You shouldn’t have to apologize for sitting next to anyone as a guest in a suite,” one person tweeted. “But you did a great job descalating the ‘all or nothing’ approach of todays fringe (on both sides). America is diverse and all people deserve kindness and respect.”
But others remained unswayed, continuing to echo criticisms that DeGeneres and Bush’s Sunday afternoon represented “class solidarity,” as one user put it.
“Sounds about white,” one person wrote in response to the video.
Another tweeted: “‘Look, I’m too rich for his decisions to really affect me.’ Is what this boils down to.”
Several people asserted that Bush’s history amounted to more than just a difference of opinion.
“Disagreeing with friends that wear fur is not the same as being friends with an anti-gay war criminal President that directly and negatively impacted millions of lives,” one person tweeted.