For seven-and-a-half long months, Billy Bush has been lying in wait. It was a period of great soul-searching: He fire-walked with Tony Robbins; he went on a retreat; he took up meditation. And only now, as a “better, fuller man,” is he ready to declare what he has learned: that he would like to be on television again, please.
After losing his job at The Today Show in the fallout surrounding the leaked Access Hollywood tape—the one where now-President Donald Trump talked about grabbing women “by the pussy” and Bush laughed along—Bush “breaks his silence” in a Hollywood Reporter cover story this week. It’s pretty obvious that the interview is part of a carefully orchestrated media strategy to mount a comeback; Bush’s lawyer and publicist sit in on it, and it’s timed to coincide with a Good Morning America segment. Bush tries to say all the right things: that he apologized to his daughters, that he doesn’t participate in that kind of “locker-room banter,” that as a younger man he lacked “strength of character.”
But many of Bush’s redemption anecdotes tinnily resonate like the prefabricated sound bites workshopped by a crisis PR team that they undoubtedly are. In between the lines, there’s ample evidence that Bush still hasn’t really reckoned with the scandal or his role in it. Of the moment when Trump began his now-famous comments, Bush says, “Looking back on what was said on that bus, I wish I had changed the topic. I wish I had said: ‘Does anyone want water?’ or ‘It looks like it’s gonna rain.’ He liked TV and competition. I could’ve said, ‘Can you believe the ratings on whatever?’ I didn’t have the strength of character to do it.” Bush wishes not that he had actually spoken up for respecting women like his beloved daughters, but that he had steered Trump toward a more friendly topic.
Bush seems fairly lacking in principles, except when it serves him. Later in the piece, when the interviewer asks if he voted for Trump, Bush says that as a journalist, he never discloses his political viewpoints. He did consider it part of his job to curry favor with talent, though: At the time of the Access Hollywood recording, Trump “decided a lot of times from day to day, moment to moment, who he liked, who was in and who was out, and my job was to remain in. I needed to be in, or maybe I’d be out.” Either he’s an upstanding journalist or he’s not, and Bush still doesn’t seem to see the distinction.
Bush displays this lack of backbone in ways big and small. At one point, he talks about his new hobby, boxing: “[I]t’s interesting; it’s 75 percent women in the gym. But I love it.” The but is what caught my eye there—are we supposed to be surprised that he can tolerate being around so many women? Bush also consistently falls back on the “Daughter Clause,” as my colleage Christina Cauterucci has called it, using his daughters as proof that of course he cares about and supports women. Bush calls the release of the tape and the subsequent firestorm a “big, traumatic event,” and it’s clear that he means it felt this way for him; he doesn’t seem to have ever considered how it might have felt for the women Trump was talking about and his colleagues Nancy O’Dell and Arianne Zucker. He didn’t publicly apologize to them in October, and all Bush said in the Hollywood Reporter story is that he “recently sent [O’Dell] a communication.” Just what every woman wants seven-and-a-half months after the revelation of a highly public degradation from a former co-worker: a communication.
Bush mostly talks around rather than about sexual assault in the interview. Like a lot of people, he doesn’t take Trump at his word: “I felt that, in that moment, he was being typically Donald, which is performing and shocking. Almost like Andrew Dice Clay, the stand-up comedian: Does he really do the things that he’s saying or is that his act? … When he said what he said, I’d like to think if I had thought for a minute that there was a grown man detailing his sexual assault strategy to me, I’d have called the FBI.” Instead of a more careful understanding of women and sexual violence, here’s what the scandal taught Bush about women:
I’ve come out of this with a deeper understanding of how women can connect to the feeling of having to fight extra hard for an even playing field. The ground isn’t even. Maybe it’s improving, but still it isn’t even. When a woman watches that tape — and this is what really hit me — they may be asking themselves, “Is that what happens when I walk out of a room? When I walk out of a meeting, is that what they’re saying about me? Are they sizing me up?”
Bush is out to distance himself from Trump, but this string of words sounds a lot like something Trump’s daughter Ivanka might say. Sexual assault is brushed under the rug in favor of discussing more palatable, and vague, terms, like “an even playing field.” The phrase “sizing me up” also has the ring of sports, ignoring the real issue that a man who grabs women by the pussy isn’t sizing up female competitors in the workplace or in a baseball game; he’s sizing up whether a woman will be equipped to fight off an assault. Is this really all seven months of meditation taught Bush?
Despite this half-hearted showing, the truth is that Bush’s comeback plan may just work. In fact, it’s already working: He landed this sympathetic magazine interview and that GMA appearance. Television industry colleagues have accepted him back into the fold to develop a new show. Billy Bush is savvy—and cynical—enough to see in Trump’s eventual triumph in the presidential election evidence that the American public (and the media overlords that serve it) are way more comfortable with disparaging women than had previously been believed. Bush was fired before Trump won, but maybe if he had stuck it out a few weeks, viewers and advertisers would have just forgotten Bush’s involvement in the whole thing. Just another thing to cover up with light, harmless chatter about the weather and golf. That this is upsetting and unfair seems to bother Billy Bush not at all; he just wants back in. Television is an unfair, retrograde industry that employs people like Sean Hannity, Megyn Kelly, and, until very recently, Bill O’Reilly; next to them, and Trump, Billy looks like an angel. If America can forgive Trump, why not him?