Open mind, shut mouth


This week I had an enjoyable conversation with someone for whom I had previously carried around much hatred in my heart, and it made me think of former First Lady Barbara Bush and the Muppets.

Let’s back up. I have been reading “Everything Beautiful in Its Time” by Jenna Bush Hager. A good portion of the book is dedicated to telling stories about the three grandparents Hager lost in the span of about a year.

The first was Barbara Bush, who was followed by her husband, George H.W. Bush, and then Hager’s maternal grandmother and namesake, Jenna Welch.

One of the chapters tells the story of a lunch that involved Barbara Bush, Jon Meacham, who was working on a biography of George H.W. Bush, and author Timothy Naftali.

The lunch conversation turned to President Obama’s appointment of several transgender persons and the media obsession with Caitlyn Jenner. The former First Lady didn’t understand the fuss.

Naftali tried to explain the importance of role models but later regretted pressing the issue with Bush, who was then 90. He thought of all the good things Bush had done for the country and for the AIDS community when she hugged a man living with HIV/AIDS while cameras rolled.

Now that she was nearing the end of her life, did it really matter how she felt about transgender rights?

Bush later wrote a letter to Meacham in which she said that Naftali had convinced her that being transgender wasn’t simply a life choice. “Please tell him that at 90 I learned a lot from our lunch,” she said.

In a conversation with Hager after Bush’s death, Naftali revealed that Bush also mentioned how much she had come to appreciate Michael Dukakis, who ran against her husband in 1988.

Naftali then asked Hager if she had ever changed her mind about anything. She replied that she didn’t know, but she admired that her grandmother had never felt that she was too old to admit that she had been wrong.

“In this day and age, it seems as though people write 150-word credos and then live by them until they die. No one ever seems to say, ‘Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about’ or ‘Teach me more,’” Hager said.

Which brings us to the Muppets. Last week, Disney added all five seasons of "The Muppet Show" to its streaming service, Disney+. I had planned to write a column soon about hidden gems of Disney+ because there is so much buzz around “The Mandalorian” and “WandaVision.”

I was excited about watching "The Muppet Show" because I know it was the fulfillment of years of hard work on the part of Jim Henson to convince the powers that be that his Muppets could carry a primetime show and because episodes have never aired in reruns during my lifetime. I didn’t think the rest of America would notice, though.

What I didn’t anticipate was the content warning that would be placed before certain episodes and draw the ire of some people decrying cancel culture.

I would think it is very difficult to cancel a show that went off the air five years before I was even born, but that isn’t the point.

I haven’t had much time to watch the show yet, so I don’t know what sketches are problematic. The only one I have read about so far is one in which Johnny Cash performs in front of a large Confederate flag.

I watched an episode with Jim Nabors that has the content warning, and I was struggling to figure out which joke or character raised a red flag. Nothing struck me as offensive. I imagine it was a stereotype issue of some sort.

The fact is that some comedy doesn’t stand the test of time. I listen to a podcast that replays episodes of Jack Benny’s radio show, and there are a lot of fat jokes made at the expense of announcer Don Wilson. Wilson always seems to be in on the joke, but the frequency of the jokes not only dates the show but also diminishes it in a sense because after a while they aren’t even that creative.

I personally don’t have a problem with the content warnings. I much prefer them to removing the episodes altogether. If anything, I think the warnings should be more specific for someone who is genuinely trying to grow and understand which jokes are problematic.

Times change. People change. In fact, that was the title of Naftali’s article in "The Atlantic" after Bush's death – “Barbara Bush Changed With Her Country.”

No one who knew Bush would accuse her of being a flip-flopper or a pushover. However, she was willing to listen to another person’s point of view and adjust her own thoughts where she found arguments that had merit.

So this week I talked to someone I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the same room with a few years ago. I not only survived; I learned a thing or two.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.