But for fired Today show co-host Billy Bush and his team of image consultants hoping to revive his television career, the troubles of Bush’s erstwhile Access Hollywood guest and the plight of his former employer constitute a huge opportunity.
Thus the 46-year-old Bush, out of work since the infamous “grab ’em by the pussy” tape was leaked to The Washington Post on Oct. 7, 2016, in the midst of a bitter presidential campaign, has seized the moment to pen an op-ed on workplace sexual harassment, Trump’s unfitness for office, Bush’s sense of personal betrayal by his NBC bosses, and other issues.
“He said it. ‘Grab ’em by the pussy.’ Of course he said it,” Bush writes in an op-ed for The New York Times, never mind the president’s recently reported claim that it’s not his voice on the tape.
“I have faith that when the hard work of exposing these injustices is over,” Bush writes, in a veiled reference to the Lauer scandal, among others, “the current media drama of who did what to whom will give way to a constructive dialogue between mature men and women in the workplace and beyond.”
The cold-open sketch on this weekend’s installment of NBC’s Saturday Night Live—in which a Billy Bush character haunts Alec Baldwin’s Trump as one of the Ghosts of Christmas Past—closely reflects Bush’s real feelings, according to sources familiar with his thinking.
“Frankly, I’m looking pretty good in the NBC News division right about now,” the Bush character, played by Alex Moffat, gloats to Trump/Baldwin. “Remember, Donald, these things catch up with all of us. If you worked at NBC right now, you would be fired, fired, fired.”
The real Bush, recovering from an unfortunate encounter with a golf ball last week that resulted in a brief hospital stay, posted an appreciative comment on Moffat’s portrayal to SNL’s Instagram account: “He’s looking slender. Might need to borrow him.”
By most accounts, Bush is deeply cynical about the motives of NBC News Chairman Andy Lack and NBC News President Noah Oppenheim in abruptly firing him last October, three days after he was caught “laugh[ing] along,” as he puts it in his Times op-ed, at Trump’s crass and disgusting sexual boasts inside the Access Hollywood bus prior to the taping of a segment featuring Trump and Days of Our Lives star Arianne Zucker in 2005.
In this view, the news execs sacrificed Bush’s career on the altar of presidential politics, so as not to further antagonize a Republican nominee already fuming over the critical coverage accorded his campaign by NBC and its liberal-leaning cable outlet, MSNBC. While the impression left by the tape was distasteful and smarmy—especially when Bush goaded the unsuspecting Zucker into hugging both Trump and himself—he was merely trying to create a rapport in order to produce an appealing segment, this argument goes.
The countervailing position is that the former Access Hollywood anchor, a program of NBC’s entertainment division, failed in his journalistic duties by not actively alerting his news division bosses to the existence of the bombshell Access Hollywood tape and his role in it—arguably encouraging Trump’s boasts about acts that were not only deeply misogynistic but amounted to a celebration of sexual harassment and worse.
Yet Bush is said to have assumed that the tape’s existence was widely known within NBC; while he mentioned it to his news colleagues during last year’s Rio Olympics, he didn’t actually screen it until a few days before its public release, when Oppenheim played it for him.
The execs’ treatment of Bush, a newcomer to the news division whose Today show stint had gotten off to a rocky start in Rio de Janeiro (with his hostile on-air argument with Al Roker over Bush’s seeming defense of mendacious medal-winner Ryan Lochte), was in marked contrast to Lack’s herculean exertions to save Nightly News anchor Brian Williams’ career after he fabricated his journalistic adventures during wartime and a hurricane on the NBC Nightly News and other public venues.
Matt Lauer had big-footed Bush in Rio by doing the on-camera Lochte interview concerning the swimmer’s false claims of Brazilian police abuse, after the brash newbie had managed to scoop Today’s alpha male with a cellphone chat with Lochte. More than a year later, Bush is said to be no less skeptical than the media world at large that NBC News’ upper management was ignorant of Lauer’s rampant workplace misconduct with female underlings. (Bush was unavailable for an interview, his publicist Jill Fritzo said.)
In the Times, Bush affirms that he believes and admires the nearly two-dozen women who’ve accused Trump of sexual assault, and repeatedly stresses that it’s definitely the Apprentice star on the audiotape.
“President Trump is currently indulging in some revisionist history, reportedly telling allies, including at least one United States senator, that the voice on the tape is not his. This has hit a raw nerve in me,” Bush writes. “I can only imagine how it has reopened the wounds of the women who came forward with their stories about him, and did not receive enough attention. This country is currently trying to reconcile itself to years of power abuse and sexual misconduct. Its leader is wantonly poking the bear.”
Bush writes: “In 2005, I was in my first full year as a co-anchor of the show Access Hollywood on NBC. Mr. Trump, then on The Apprentice, was the network’s biggest star. The key to succeeding in my line of work was establishing a strong rapport with celebrities. I did that, and was rewarded for it. My segments with Donald Trump when I was just a correspondent were part of the reason I got promoted.
“NBC tripled my salary and paid for my moving van from New York to Los Angeles. Was I acting out of self-interest? You bet I was. Was I alone? Far from it. With Mr. Trump’s outsized viewership back in 2005, everybody from Billy Bush on up to the top brass on the 52nd floor had to stroke the ego of the big cash cow along the way to higher earnings.
“None of us were guilty of knowingly enabling our future president. But all of us were guilty of sacrificing a bit of ourselves in the name of success.”
Bush adds: “This moment in American life is no doubt painful for many women. It is especially painful for the women who have come forward, at the risk of forever being linked to one event, this man, this president of the United States. (I still can’t believe I just wrote that.)”
When the Access Hollywood audiotape was originally released, Bush said he was “very sorry” and “embarrassed and ashamed,” but offered the excuse that it happened 11 years before and he’s more mature now—a response that did little to help his case. Apparently, in recent months, he has had his consciousness raised, all the better to position himself as an opponent of sexism and sexual harassment.
The message of Bush’s public re-emergence—his first foray into TV and print since giving interviews six months ago to Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts and The Hollywood Reporter in an earlier attempt to render himself employable—is that he is no longer the loud-mouthed, occasionally obnoxious, frat boy of years past, but instead has morphed into a deeply empathetic, thoughtful grown-up, humbled by his flaws and tempered by adversity. (And, by the way, you network suits who are looking to replace the banished Lauer or the disgraced Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning, he’s the father of three daughters, with a squeaky-clean record when it comes to workplace sexual harassment.)
In a less-than-veiled reference to how NBC News executives allegedly mishandled the Access Hollywood flap, Bush adds: “On a personal note, this last year has been an odyssey, the likes of which I hope to never face again: anger, anxiety, betrayal, humiliation, many selfish but, I hope, understandable emotions. But these have given way to light, both spiritual and intellectual. It’s been fortifying.”
Bush casts himself as a sharp critic of Trump from the moment he announced his presidential candidacy in June 2015. Calling Trump “not a good choice to lead our country,” he writes: “I tried to conduct a serious interview with him as a candidate; each time I requested one I was turned down.”
The nephew and cousin of two presidents of the United States—the 41st and the 43rd—Bush concludes his op-ed: “I know that I don’t need the accouterments of fame to know God and be happy. After everything over the last year, I think I’m a better man and father to my three teenage daughters—far from perfect, but better.”
And surely—shouts the subtext—Billy Bush deserves a job.