Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Did First Lady Barbara Bush write an apology letter to Marge Simpson?
With the Simpsons now in their 25th season, it is so hard to remember just how controversial the show was back when it debuted as a regular series back in December 1989 (after appearing as animated shorts on three seasons of The Tracey Ullman Show from 1987-1989). Just the idea of a character, young Bart Simpson, who flouted authority and got away with it, was seen as a dangerous addition to our popular culture. Early on, one of the primary “adversaries” for the show were the First Family of the United States, then-President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. I have written in the past about how the Simpsons “got revenge” on an annoying guest star in a 2001 episode, but when it came to criticisms of the show by the First Lady of the United States, the Simpsons decide to be a good deal more civilized and the response was remarkable!
An interesting fact about Barbara Bush’s criticism of The Simpsons that rarely gets reported is that she qualified her statement and the qualification is almost always omitted, making the critique seem harsher than it was intended. In an October 1990 issue of People magazine, there was a spotlight on the First Lady. In the article, the topic turned at one point to contemporary popular culture and Bush spoke about The Simpsons, stating “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 have ever seen”) was passed around and that was the part that the Simpsons staff decided to respond to. Producer James L. Brooks and the writing staff formulated a response to Bush and came up with a letter to Bush written (and signed) by Marge Simpson.
Here is a snippet from the letter (Letters of Note has a photocopy of the original Marge letter):
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 ends with Marge asking her to end the controversy, with the letter signed “With Great Respect, Marge Simpson.”
Remarkably enough, the Simpsons received a response!
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 did not 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 where 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 attempt) 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!
Years later, though, Simpsons writers discovered that Barbara Bush had no idea about the letter, so it is likely that someone else on her staff wrote the letter for her. So I guess I’m going with the legend as…
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 email@example.com.