Why Do We So Badly Want to Bring Billy Bush Back?

Photo: C Flanigan/FilmMagic.
On Sunday, disgraced Today Show co-anchor Billy Bush published an opinion piece in the New York Times reiterating that the Access Hollywood tape where Donald Trump openly bragged about grabbing a woman by the pussy was in fact real. Soon after, I tweeted that I wouldn’t be reading it. A lot of interesting responses followed, and they left me incredibly concerned.
To briefly revisit the incident, Bush has claimed repeatedly that he was a host caught in an uncomfortable situation with Trump, a guest, and didn’t respond particularly well. According to Bush, he handled it like most men — and if we’re being real, most people — would.
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Playing along with a joke and being the person bragging about sexually assaulting women are two very, very different things. And that can’t be discounted.
But if we examine Bush’s role entirely separate from Trump’s, his complicity is the normalizing behavior that leads men to believe they can sexually harass and assault people in the first place and also boast about it. Plus, we have to admit to ourselves that hindsight is 20/20: In October 2016, we were all convinced that this incident would be the downfall of Trump. And if Trump had in fact lost the election, we may feel very differently about the ousting of Billy Bush. Trump getting the big “L” on election night would’ve meant some form of “justice” served to both parties.
Instead, a man who’s been accused by 16 women of sexual harassment and assault was elected by the American people to the White House. And a guy who most of us didn’t really care about to begin with got fired from his job. “Where’s the larger justice in that?” we’ve all asked.
But we also need to put Billy Bush in context here, and make no mistake: He’s attempting a second comeback after his first one failed. Back in late May, Bush gave an interview with The Hollywood Reporter about the incident and said his mea culpa, but that Q&A got lost in the flaming turd that is our news cycle.
What changed? Now there’s an opening. Everyone is talking about sexual harassment and assault. We’re reaching a new peak in the rage that Trump is still in office despite the allegations against him. And to top it off, the president decided for Lord knows what reason to spread his latest lie that the Access Hollywood tape might not be real.
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Access Hollywood has already called bullshit on Trump. If Bush really wanted to verify that tape’s authenticity, he could’ve just issued a statement to the press and peaced out. Instead, we got a lengthy New York Times op-ed. On Monday night, we’re getting him on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I won’t be the least bit shocked when we get a glimmering profile somewhere else followed by a job announcement soon after. In his op-ed (which I finally did have to read), Bush said he laughed along with Trump for his own selfish career gain. But is this time really all that different?
The Billy Bush case also opens up another important question: When we pull back all the rallying around Bush and stop comparing his actions to Donald Trump’s behavior, is he himself really worth all the hullabaloo? Bush is a rich white guy from one of the most politically and culturally entrenched families in the country. A month and a half before the Access Hollywood tape dropped, Bush was mired in controversy for the largely panned interview he conducted with swimmer Ryan Lochte following his bizarre Rio Olympics robbery lie. Bush’s ongoing defense of Lochte made the whole situation worse; it got so bad that Matt Lauer was essentially called in to redo the interview in a follow-up, and Al Roker called out Bush on television. And when the tape broke the internet, word on the street was that the cast and crew of The Today Show didn’t really like Bush to begin with, so he didn’t have any allies behind the scenes when the Trump incident blew up.
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For its part, NBC tripled Bush’s salary because of his work with guests like Trump, according to Bush himself. The fact that Bush was even hired for The Today Show despite a serious lack of hard news experience — a benefit of the doubt that women and people of color rarely receive — was also Not A Good Look. This is white male mediocrity playing out at its finest on so many levels.
So, if Billy Bush is just a tiny player who’s not even on the map when it comes to these sexual misconduct allegations, why should we care? Here’s the thing: These men — the ones we’re swearing off now — are watching him. Their ridiculously overpaid crisis communications and PR teams are watching him, too. And they’re taking notes on every step he takes and every step we take in response. Are people eating up his op-ed? Will they find him charming and funny in his interview with Stephen Colbert? Are they tuning in to watch him when he takes on his next gig?
People keep talking about the careers of these men who’ve been in the news like it’s a foregone conclusion that their public profiles will never be resuscitated. But then again, people were literally saying the same thing about Billy Bush a year ago; at the time, the Washington Post posited that his career was “perhaps beyond repair.”
Again, I’m not drawing false equivalencies between what Bush did and what Donald Trump bragged about on that tape. But we can’t ignore that the fact that there are so many men inhabiting the shades of grey between Bush and Trump, and they’re the ones we need to watch out for. Bush got a full op-ed in one of the most widely read publications in the world in addition to a Q&A-style interview focused on letting him “break his silence.” Both formats let Bush tell his version of events with virtually no critical analysis or challenge to his narrative. I don’t doubt for a second that others will follow suit.
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So, what do we have to do if we want to prepare ourselves for the other men who’ll inevitably come forward? If we’re serious about ripping up the patriarchy and actually creating a world where we don’t have mediocre wealthy white men running the show, we have to come to terms with our blind spots and our biases. We have to ask why we’re so keen on forgiving a man like Billy Bush and watching his star rise when there are so many people — and so many women — who could be in that position doing better work. We have to ask why we set up this storyline that these men’s lives are “ruined,” when there aren’t any criminal and financial repercussions, and there often aren’t long-term social or professional ones, either. We have to unpack why we feel the need as a society to repair their lives in the first place. And we have to question why we treat grown ass men like they’re children deserving of our forgiveness and then some but treat women like they should’ve known better the first time around.
America loves a comeback story. We always have and we always will. But we have to ask ourselves whose comeback stories we encourage and whose we dissuade. If our concern over giving these men second (and third and fourth) chances outweighs giving second chances to the millions of women who were affected and continue to be affected by our insidious culture of sexism, we’re taking away all the wrong lessons from this moment in our history.
The reckoning isn’t just happening in these industries. It’s happening within all of us, too.
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