Ellen's defense of being friends with the former president is "the kind of speech Ellen has been making for most of the time that she’s been famous," says Constance Grady. "The whole Ellen DeGeneres thing is performative kindness — or, more specifically, niceness — that can be directed at anybody. Despite persistent tabloid rumors that Ellen is not particularly nice to work with, once the cameras are rolling, any kind of celebrity can drop by Ellen’s talk show — politicians, actors, viral YouTube stars — and she’ll be aggressively nice, beaming and sunny and joyous, until her guest reflects Ellen’s sunniness back out to the audience and they, too, appear to be nice. That’s why Ellen the TV show exists: to make celebrity guests look good, and to let audience bask in that goodness, in the name of entertainment. In that context, Ellen’s friendship with Bush might appear to be more of the same: more of the niceness that she is famous for performing at all of her guests, no matter who they are. And a few years ago, she might have been able to use her brand to sway public opinion to her side. But in 2019, Ellen’s niceness is no longer playing to her audience as an unalloyed good. In our current political moment, niceness no longer appears to be a cure-all. And uncritical niceness may no longer be a viable brand, even for someone as good at wielding it as Ellen is."
Ellen's job is to make famous "friends" for a living, but George W. Bush is different: "The Ellen DeGeneres Show largely depends on DeGeneres’s ability to be a fast ally to celebrities who will sit, and maybe even dance, on her Burbank set," says Justin Charity. "She’s defended her friends, as once-and-future guests, from Twitter mobs before. She defended Kanye West against criticism about his support for Trump. She defended Kevin Hart after he withdrew from hosting the Academy Awards amid criticism about anti-LGBTQ remarks he made on Twitter. DeGeneres’s famous friendships can feel like commercial partnerships or shrewd networking choices. Her friendship with Bush shouldn’t surprise anyone who watches her interviews—DeGeneres is 'friends' with anyone who has ever graced an Us Weekly cover. It’s her job, after all, as a famous talk show host, to fraternize with other celebrities in an exceedingly uncritical TV format. But Bush isn’t a celebrity entertainer; he’s a former U.S. president whose inglorious legacy isn’t comparable to Hart’s antigay tweets. DeGeneres betrays her political significance as an openly gay entertainer and a prominent LGBTQ advocate through her friendship with Bush. She’s the most widely admired TV talk show host since Oprah Winfrey, and possibly has more in common with the Bush family than their obvious partisan differences might suggest."
Ellen's speech showed the limits of unconditional kindness: "Throughout her address, DeGeneres reduced this history to a difference in 'beliefs,'" says Laura Bradley. "She compared their would-be tension to that shared between Cowboys and Packers fans—or those who enjoy wearing fur coats and those who oppose them. But when one person has historically believed other people should not have the same basic rights as another, it’s hard to treat these differences as benign—especially when that person once exercised their power to help make their beliefs a reality."
What Ellen's critics get totally wrong: "To those who believe DeGeneres' actions were some sort of betrayal, I ask what significant civil rights movement occurred without support from those on the 'other side?'" asks LZ Granderson. "Would women have gained the right to vote without men in Congress supporting the 19th Amendment? Of course not. Tweets can inform, protests garner attention, but changing hearts and minds requires genuine human interaction. Like the kind captured in a photograph in which DeGeneres and Bush dared to sit next to each other and share a laugh."