On Monday, Billy Bush contributed a seemingly heartfelt and introspective op-ed to the New York Times. “Yes, Donald Trump, You Said That,” the column’s title reads, handily refuting the president’s claim that the voice on the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood tape—leaked to the Washington Post weeks before the 2016 election—belonged to someone else. Fact check accomplished, Bush reflects on his own role in grab-’em-by-the-pussygate. He tries to account for his goading and snickering, explaining that he initially didn’t think the Apprentice star was serious about sexually assaulting women: “There were seven other guys present on the bus at the time, and every single one of us assumed we were listening to a crass standup act,” he writes.
Now, though, Bush believes the victims. (He lost his perch at the Today Show in the wake of the recording’s dissemination—maybe unemployment forced insight’s hand.) And after weaving that faith into a kind of refrain (“Her story makes the … routine real. I believe her,” he vows about two different women), Bush climbs out of the somewhat slippery posture of only now coming to realize that Trump meant what he said. In the more persuasive second half of the piece, a man strong-armed into soul-searching starts to unpack the motivated reasoning that led him to incredulity: Trump was powerful; Trump dominated NBC. It was best, as the campaign goonies might have put it, to let Trump be Trump. Toward the end of the essay, Bush calls for “constructive dialogue,” reform, and reawakening. He promises he has “real thoughts” on how to advance the conversation, ones that he will divulge later, but for now the important thing is not reducing this moment to a “media drama.” The former Access Hollywood reporter greets the imperative for newfound seriousness stoically. “After everything over the last year, I think I’m a better man,” he writes. “Far from perfect, but better.”
That op-ed proved to be the first entry in what is apparently a fledgling redemption tour for Billy Bush. Stop two on the atonement express was Monday night’s appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where Colbert posed not-too-tough, not-too-soft questions while the ligaments of Bush’s baby face danced in ways suggestive of regret and affability. How does it feel to listen to the Access Hollywood tape today? Colbert inquired. (Despite Bush’s protestations, the lewd clip began to roll, and the then-33-year-old underling was heard giggling along with the tycoon almost 30 years his senior.) “It’s a gut punch. … It will always be,” he replied. What are the former anchor’s thoughts about being dropped by NBC? “It was a difficult time … very hot emotionally,” Bush answered, adding that the network “may have moved a little quickly” in firing him.
Dismissing the public apologies of men directly accused of harassment as insincere and opportunist is easy. Bush’s complicated role in Pussygate makes his image-rehabilitation attempt feel harder to process. NYT readers appeared to love his opinion piece. (“From his fall from grace to his candor and reflection here, Billy Bush has emerged as Trump’s unlikely foil,” went a typical comment on the article, ushering the prodigal son into the ranks of the resistance.) But the mood on The Late Show seemed more ambivalent. Colbert referred to the column as “well-written” but also ribbed his guest about encouraging Trump’s grotesque boasts. When Bush recalled how “everybody had to sort of kiss the ring, a little bit, of the Donald,” Colbert waggled his eyebrows. “And where was he wearing the ring?” he quipped.
Yet Colbert also sheltered Bush—who had withdrawn from the public eye for more than a year after the scandal broke—by inviting him to join in the show’s mockery of the president. And when Bush, addressing an imaginary Trump, fumed that “you don’t get to say” you weren’t shit-talking on the bus, because “I was there, and the last 14 months of my life I have been dealing with it,” Colbert didn’t push back on his self-pity. Later, Bush railed that “20 women don’t get together and say, ‘Hey, you know what would be really fun? Let’s take down a powerful guy together.’ ” His performance of righteous (and convenient) feminism likewise went unchallenged.
This halfway approach, mirrored by a wary and muffled audience response, makes sense. It is tough to know how to integrate Billy Bush into the Excel spreadsheet of victims, bystanders, allies, and harassers that has unfurled in our brains. On one hand, he stands in for a culture of enablers who allowed predators like Trump to flourish—who egged them on and dismissed the voices of those who spoke out. “I think a lot of us were, the big word is, complicit,” Bush admitted to Colbert. (“How about a little hug for the Donald,” he prompted the actress Arianne Zucker in 2005, when he and his charge debussed.) Before playing the hyena to Donald’s lion, Bush drew criticism for defending the American swimmer Ryan Lochte after he lied about getting robbed in Rio. The man was prime time’s best privilege whisperer. And as an avatar of NBC, now beset with its own set of sexual ignominies, the former anchor evokes the apologists who would rather look the other way than fire Matt Lauer, run the Weinstein story, or release the Access Hollywood tapes.
But Bush also represents something more sympathetic: a scapegoat. “Stephen, it’s an unbelievable irony,” he told Colbert. “The very day that he [Trump] was swearing in as the 45th president of the United States, I was checking in to this soul-searching retreat in St. Helena, California, nine days off the grid. … It was the beginning of me saying, ‘All right, get up … be a better man.’ ” Optics of Bush’s retreat to an internet-free restorative sanctuary aside, it is clearly true that the brute who boasted about pawing female genitalia ascended to the world’s loftiest seat while his timid bootlicker got scrubbed off the map. In addition to our contempt or anger, Bush has a credible claim to our pity.
If we accept his change of heart as genuine, Bush emerges as an ally, to be embraced with open arms. (Such a result is likely the desired endgame for a man solemnly quoting “the activist and gender-relations expert Jackson Katz” in the paper of record.) Or is he— squicky as it feels to suggest—another victim, a casualty of a flattery-hungry star’s unchecked talent for damage? In his op-ed, Bush wisely distinguishes between himself and the women whose lack of relative social clout made them vulnerable to Trump’s advances. But casting Bush into the outer darkness for his reluctance to stand up to our current president, NBC’s one-time sacred cow, feels like a willful evasion of the lesson of this moment: that power differentials often operate in imperceptible, irresistible ways.
There is no script for Billy Bush, or there are too many. Despite the depressing familiarity of the sexual harassment pageant at this point, we don’t know quite how to situate him among the contrite abusers, the brave accusers, the shocked colleagues, the chastened onlookers. The man himself repels nuance; he is about as far from a morally serious figure as you can get. Asking a goofus like him to pronounce on the improvised and murky conditions that define the past year’s spiritual reckoning feels like taking a smiley face decal on a surfboard and forcing it to develop self-consciousness. Fourteen months ago, a plausible defense from this grinning Ryan Seacrest prototype might have sounded something like: “Whoa whoa whoa! I’m Billy Bush! Yikes. Huh? No harassing. OK, we good?” But now we look to him for illumination, even catharsis. It is yet another sign of our deeply weird times.