Elton John, Ellen DeGeneres, and the limits of celebrity diplomacy

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Elton John was a guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition on Sunday promoting his new memoir, Me. After being asked whether he objects to his songs being played at Trump rallies, the iconic musician demurred, saying he doesn’t get involved in politics. He did, however, praise Ellen DeGeneres for her recent display of celebrity, um, diplomacy.

Earlier this month, DeGeneres was photographed sitting next to President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys football game. They took selfies together looking pretty chummy, and Twitter was incensed. DeGeneres addressed the controversy a couple days later on her TV show, turning it into a Mister Rogers-esque teaching moment.

“Here’s the thing. I’m friends with George Bush,” Ellen said. “In fact I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. [...] 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.” The audience cheered.

Sir Elton evidently isn’t friends with Mark Ruffalo, who last week condemned DeGeneres for getting cozy with a “war criminal.” The 72-year-old singer-songwriter praised Ellen’s eloquence. “I admire Ellen for standing up and saying what she did,” he said. “Yes, there were [bad] decisions that [Bush] made, but that was made by Democratic presidents and Republican presidents.”

Elton also implied Bush’s philanthropy absolved him of past sins. "George Bush has made a lot of mistakes. I have made a lot of mistakes. Ellen DeGeneres has made a lot of mistakes. But on the other hand, [Bush] was responsible for PEPFAR, which is the most incredible thing that a Republican president has done on a philanthropic level.”

Is the uproar over a comedian sitting next to a controversial former president worth all this time and energy? Honestly, probably not. But Ellen and Elton’s calls for kindness reveal a whole lot of elite privilege. As DeGeneres herself put it, that box she and Portia de Rossi shared with Bush at the Cowboys game was super fancy. “And I don’t mean fancy like Real Housewives fancy. I mean, like, fancy,” she said. Literally and socially cordoned off from the masses, most celebrities don’t have to reckon with the real-life fallout of Dubya-era policies and military conflicts. Ellen’s everyman public persona is at odds with this reality. She and Sir Elton might be singing a different tune if they took their own advice and made friends across tax brackets and not just the political aisle.