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With The Simpsons now in it 25th season, it is so hard to remember just how controversial the animated series was when it premiered in December 1989 (after appearing as animated shorts from 1987 to 1989 on The Tracey Ullman Show). Just the idea of young Bart Simpson, who flouted authority and got away with it, was seen as a dangerous addition to popular culture. Early on, one of the primary “adversaries” for the show was the First Family of the United States, then-President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara. I’ve written about how The Simpsons “got revenge” on an annoying guest star in a 2001 episode, but when it came to criticisms by the First Lady, the show’s producers were a good deal more civilized, and Barbara Bush’s response was remarkable!
An interesting fact about her criticism that rarely gets reported is that she qualified her statement, making the critique seem harsher than it was intended. In an October 1990 People magazine interview with the First Lady, the subject turned to popular culture and The Simpsons, with Bush saying that, “It was the dumbest thing I had ever seen, but it’s a family thing, and I guess it’s clean.”
Only the first part of the quote — “It was the dumbest thing I had ever seen,” usually reworded as “was the dumbest thing she had ever seen” — was passed around, and that was the part to which producer James L. Brooks and The Simpsons writing staff decided to respond, in the form of a letter written (and signed) by Marge Simpson.
Here is a snippet from the letter (Letters of Note has a photocopy of the original):
I try to teach my children Bart, Lisa, and even little Maggie, always to give somebody the benefit of the doubt and not talk badly about them, even if they’re rich. It’s hard to get them to understand this advice when the very First Lady in the country calls us not only dumb, but “the dumbest thing” she ever saw. Ma’am, if we’re the dumbest thing you ever saw, Washington must be a good deal different than what they teach me at the current events group at the church.
The letter, signed “With Great Respect, Marge Simpsons,” ends with a request for the First Lady to end the controversy.
Remarkably enough, Bush responded to Marge with a letter of her own!
How kind of you to write. I’m glad you spoke your mind; I foolishly didn’t know you had one.
I am looking at a picture of you, depicted on a plastic cup, with your blue hair filled with pink birds peeking out all over. Evidently, you and your charming family — Lisa, Homer, Bart and Maggie — are camping out. It is a nice family scene. Clearly you are setting a good example for the rest of the country.
Please forgive a loose tongue.
P.S. Homer looks like a handsome fella!
That’s pretty awesome.
However, the Bush-Simpson truce didn’t last that long, for in early 1992, when President Bush was running for re-election (one of his major campaign stances was “family values”), he gave a speech to a religious organization where he said, “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
The next episode of The Simpsons scheduled to air on Fox was a re-run, but the staff quickly worked up a new opening to the episode in which the Simpsons are shown watching the speech on TV, with Bart quipping, “Hey, we’re just like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the Depression, too.”
Four years later, The Simpsons released a classic episode titled “Two Neighbors,” where the now-former President Bush (as he lost his 1992 re-election bid) ends up moving next door to the Simpsons. and he and Homer become enemies. Marge and Barbara, however, remain friendly. A testament to the power of polite letter-writing!
The legend is…
Thanks to reader Omar M. for suggesting that I feature this one!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!