When Ellen Degeneres sat down next to former President George W. Bush to watch a Dallas Cowboys football game, she ignited a surprisingly complex national discussion about partisanship, forgiveness, and the legacy of the Bush administration. The debate was surprising mostly because it seemed like such a trivial event for people to focus on when so many other pressing issues are in the news cycle: impeachment of the president, the betrayal of our Kurdish allies in Syria, developments in the democratic primary race. But despite the usual twitter storm that surrounds other political stunts pulled by celebrities, this one was somehow both trivial and deeply troubling. Even for those who believe in forgiveness and healing the partisan divide, Ellen’s hang out session with George got under the skin in a way subtle way that ensured her stunt would backfire. It echoed Michelle Obama’s kindness in sharing a piece of candy with Bush at his father’s funeral. Both events highlighted Democrats’ desire to heal the wounds of partisan rancor. Both also highlighted the misguidedness of elites like Ellen offering forgiveness on behalf of the working-class and poor. Condemnation came swiftly from all sides. After all, George is responsible for torture, the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, the disastrously inept response to Hurricane Katrina, and countless other policy decisions that liberals find despicable. George is not well-liked by liberals despite the bouts of 2000s nostalgia that periodically grip them. Moreover, For anyone who remembers George’s opposition to gay rights, the sight of one of the most famous lesbians in the world palling around with him felt like a betrayal. Similarly, Michelle’s kind gesture, magnanimous as it was, also came off as implicit toleration of George’s legacy.
Surprisingly, this is not the first time Ellen has hung out with George. In 2017, Ellen hosted him on her show. They danced and chatted about like everything was hunky-dory. Since then and perhaps before then, Ellen and George seem to have developed a genuine friendship, which is head-scratching to many people across the Democratic Party and the Left generally. Why is Ellen making nice with George? Why is she choosing this moment, when partisan rancor is at an all-time high, to lecture the American people about bridging the gap between parties? There is something very noble about her attempt. One does almost get a whiff of Nelson Mandela from her focus on reconciliation. Almost. But still, there’s something missing, something that’s not quite right, that makes her casual goofiness with someone who is arguably a war criminal deeply unsettling.
One most common explanation for why Ellen and Michelle, but especially Ellen, would feel that it is not just OK, but important, to pal around with George right now is that they are representing a segment of elite liberals who are still uncomfortable with Trumpian coarseness in political discourse. Many people who are not elite are also uncomfortable with it, to be sure, but there is something revealing about seeing elite liberals, such as one of the wealthiest lesbians in the world, laugh and joke around with a man who did everything he could to suppress LGBTQ rights: they are not in the trenches of American poverty. Ellen is not suffering from the lasting consequences of the disastrous Bush administration's platform. The upper crust of American liberal society does not feel the effects of their so-called “political adversaries,” and so they are naive to the anger that seethes among the working class. In other words, Ellen is out of touch, and so are many liberal elites who offer clemency while suffering none of the consequences. It is not that forgiveness is inappropriate. It is that forgiveness is not Ellen’s to offer. George must be forgiven by the people, and they will do so when they are ready, not when a Hollywood one-percenter tells them to.
That’s the thing about forgiveness: it can’t be offered by those who have not been wronged. And Ellen has not been wronged, at least not in a way that is meaningful to anyone who has actually been through the suffering. It also can’t be forced. The partisan divide will not be healed by wealthy people telling everyone to just settle down and be polite. And it certainly will not be healed by Ellen and George sitting in owner’s suite at the Cowboys game. Whatever Ellen and George thought they were demonstrating about forgiveness or bipartisanship with their political stunt, the only thing they successfully proved is just how quickly elites will sell everyone else out for the sake of maintaining the status quo.
Fortunately for Ellen, she also happens to be a stand-up comedian and liberal darling, so she could use her humor and charm to get everyone who was offended by her silliness to forgive her overnight if she wanted to. Most people would forgive Ellen in a heartbeat. But she has not asked for forgiveness. Instead, she dug in her heels with a statement that was both misguided and trite. The pertinent part of her statement came toward the end, when she said, "In fact, I'm friends with a lot of people who don't share the same beliefs that I have. But just because I don't agree with someone on everything doesn't mean that I'm not going to be friends with them," she said. "When I say, 'be kind to one another,' I don't only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone."
Again, one can see a glimmer of a Mandela-style moment of reconciliation here. ‘Be kind to everyone, even those you disagree with.’ Ellen is, after all, correct about that. We must find a way to get along and even be friendly with those with whom we disagree. And Ellen’s attempt to set an example does deserve some credit for showing everyone that two people can get along just fine despite wildly different political beliefs. But the wisdom of Mandela’s legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation in South Africa was backed up and legitimated by the suffering Mandela endured during 27 in prison. What suffering has Ellen been through that gives her the right to offer George forgiveness on behalf of the American people? None.
As a result of her misguided attempt, American partisanship boiled just a little bit hotter over the past week. She might not realize her mistake, and many people might not be able to articulate just exactly why it was so upsetting to see her there sitting in the owner’s box enjoying the game with George. Most critics say she was wrong because George does not deserve forgiveness. But for those who do believe that forgiveness is possible and that the partisan divide can be healed if Americans were to focus more on forgiveness in general, the more subtle reason why Ellen’s display of peacemaking failed has to do with who Ellen herself is and therefore who she represents. She does not represent the poor and working-class who have been wronged. She cannot speak for them. She can only speak for liberal elites and the wealthy upper class of the Democratic Party, and it is not their place to offer George forgiveness.