Jimmy Kimmel interviewed former President George W. Bush on his show last week. The appearance was benign, and that was the point.
It took a few days, but eventually a tweet from the show’s official account went viral. It showed Kimmel and Bush smiling during the virtual interview. But the tweet wasn’t doing numbers for reasons the show might’ve liked. People, mostly on the left, expressed their frustration and disappointment with yet another example of legacy media laundering Bush’s reputation.
Let’s set the table here. Bush is currently doing an interview circuit discussing his new series of paintings. They’re portraits of immigrants—some famous, some “everyday heroes”—that Bush hopes will highlight them in a different perspective. It’s the latest part of the former president’s years-long media circuit to rehabilitate his image. When Bush left office in 2008, his approval rating was a dismal 34 percent—equal to Donald Trump’s final approval rating.
That brings us to Kimmel. Jimmy Kimmel Live! isn’t exactly an institution in the same way The Tonight Show is (even if that’s mostly due to longevity). Still, he’s on a major television network. Things he does and say cut through, even if the art form of late night television isn’t as culturally penetrative as it used to be. The main problem people have with Kimmel’s interview with Bush, though, is with how the late night host positioned himself during the Trump years. He regularly criticized the president. In fairness, most late night shows mined Trump’s idiocy for comedy and denounced his most egregious behavior. But Kimmel made a point of staking his flag on that hill. He tweeted at Trump while hosting the Oscars in 2017, and more famously called Trump out for tweeting about the Parkland shooting during a monologue in 2018.
After taking on such a stark anti-Trump position, you’d think Kimmel or his producers would be a little wiser to taking part in the George W. Bush rehabilitation tour. You might expect this type of thing from Jimmy Fallon or even CBS Sunday Morning, but after all that Trump hand-wringing, surely not Kimmel. After all, Bush’s presidency was demonstrably worse than Trump’s. His body count was higher, his domestic abuses were more thorough, and he leads in the all-important “illegal wars started” category 1-0. The nationalist xenophobia fomented under the Bush administration paved Trump’s path to the White House. No matter how many immigrants he portraits, he can’t paint his way out of hell.
Bush’s resume doesn’t matter to the political class or mainstream media types alike. He might’ve been an unrepentant ghoul, but at least he wasn’t as mean or rude as Trump was. If anything, Bush’s appearance on Kimmel all but proves how most mainstream distaste for Trump was purely aesthetic. Never mind the fact that he governed like virtually any Republican president would have—Trump’s dumb comments and mean tweets that were the real offenses. But give it enough time—say, 15-20 years—and they’ll rehabilitate him too.