"I just saw the goodness in it," Hager tells PEOPLE of the moment that had some people smiling and other people scratching their heads
The pairing of George W. Bush and Ellen DeGeneres had some people smiling and others scowling or scratching their heads — “a gay Hollywood liberal sitting next to a conservative Republican president,” as DeGeneres put it — but Jenna Bush Hager “personally thought it was great.”
“My dad likes people that think differently than him, that believe differently, and people are surprised by this,” Hager, who turned 38 on Monday, told PEOPLE in a recent at-home interview. “But my parents raised both [twin sister] Barbara and I had to have our own opinions.”
The Today co-host says that, even when they were young and in middle school, “Barbara and I were sitting around the kitchen table, and obviously we talked about a lot of mundane things, but if we had opinions we were allowed to share them.”
Discussing the dust-up around her dad’s relationship with DeGeneres, Hager pointed to his bond with former First Lady Michelle Obama, including meme-able moments passing her a cough drop and hugging her.
“I personally, and I think so many of us, miss a time where people who have different opinions get along,” Hager says. “And I yearn for that. I want my kids to realize that we live in a world when people are think tons of different things and we treat everybody with respect and kindness.”
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“And so just like Ellen, my dad does that,” she continues. “And if you ask anybody that’s worked for him or knows him, plenty of the people that worked for him have different opinions or different lifestyles, thought different things and felt comfortable sharing that with him because he’s open.”
“I personally thought it was great,” Hager says of her dad joining DeGeneres at the Oct. 6 Dallas Cowboys game.
According to USA Today, the Fox broadcast of the game showed a snippet of President Bush and DeGeneres — who attended with their wives, former First Lady Laura Bush and Portia de Rossi — smiling and chatting in a private suite while DeGeneres looked at her phone.
The responses, including those spotted by USA Today, ranged from the surprised to the silly to the sarcastic and critical.
ESPN commentator Clinton Yates tweeted: “Ellen sitting next to Dubya definitely qualified as a Sunday shocker.”
Wrote a third user: “Name a more weird couple.”
There were also many Bush detractors who took issue with DeGeneres being seen with him, given his conservative politics and anti-gay record while in office.
In a characteristic response, one user wrote on Twitter: “So quirky and fun to see George Bush out with Ellen at a Cowboys game after his terrible foreign policy decisions killed thousands of innocent people.”
Another Twitter user wrote, “As a gay man, my life and the rights I have are often under attack by people like George Bush …. He appointed judges who will likely try to take away my ability to live authentically at work.”
DeGeneres herself defended the moment while on her talk show later that week.
“I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have,” she said.
“We’re all different, and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different,” DeGeneres said. “For instance, I wish people wouldn’t wear fur. I don’t like it, but I’m friends with people who wear fur.”
Hager echoed that as well, telling PEOPLE:
“I was on maternity leave so I didn’t read all the bad stuff, but I was also taught as a child if there was bad things being written about anybody I love, I sort of ignored that. I just saw the goodness in it.”