It’s been a little over a year since Billy Bush was exposed as a former Donald Trump fanboy with the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which the now-president of the United States bragged about sexually assaulting women. Lest we forget, Bush went cheerfully along with him, commenting on actor Arianne Zucker’s appearance and encouraging her to hug the man he had just heard brag about touching women without their consent.
Shortly after the release of the video, Bush lost his job as a Today host and immediately became persona non-grata. Now, following a widespread movement of outing sexual assaulters and harassers and attempting to hold them accountable, Bush is attempting to make a comeback. On Sunday, Bush wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled, “Billy Bush: Yes, Donald Trump, You Said That.” The piece was a response to reports that Trump, in private, has claimed he wasn’t saying “grab them by the pussy” in the Access Hollywood video. It also served as a hell of a public relations coup for Bush. Instead of merely asking Bush to confirm or deny Trump’s claims, the Times gave him over 900 words to ideologically distance himself from Trump, explain that he wasn’t “alone” in enabling him, and detail his “odyssey” of self-improvement complete with a Jackson Katz reference. At one point Bush references an October 2016 Washington Post article in which Kristin Anderson recounts Trump’s sexually assaulting her. “That makes the “grab ’em by the pussy” routine real. I believe her,” Bush writes of the article, despite the fact that Bush was face-to-face with Trump when he divulged his disgusting and illegal modus operandi.
To be fair, Bush’s confirmation of what happened on that bus was timely — and besides, the Times is no stranger to giving terrible people platforms to share their terrible opinions. But the excuse-heavy article has a sinister bent, as it seems to be the launching pad for an unnecessary redemption tour. On Monday night, Bush appeared on The Late Show to yuk it up with host Stephen Colbert. He opened his appearance with a joke, and a sly positioning of himself as a victim of media fallout. “By the way, I would also like to say that’s not me on the bus,” he told Colbert, the audience, and Trump. “You don’t get to say that, because I was there and the last 14 months of my life I have been dealing with it. You dealt with it for 14 minutes and went on to be the president.”
He went on to explain how much Trump’s denial of the Access Hollywood tape upset him, especially after reading the accounts of Trump’s accusers. “Enough’s enough. Stop playing around with people’s lives,” he said to a round of applause. While Colbert did, at times, push back against Bush’s attempts to paint himself as a martyr, the appearance still felt largely congratulatory, applauding Bush for not being a bona fide abuser, for not supporting Trump as a presidential candidate, and for “doing the work” of unlearning toxic masculinity. In keeping with the spirit of the show, Colbert kept it light by peppering the conversation with jokes. “Did they move on you like a bitch?” he asks Bush when they came to the topic of his firing from NBC. The line got laughs and applause.
Bush represents what those in power desperately want to see: a white man who has reformed, and promised to do better. It isn’t like he needs to come back in the public eye: With a $9 million net worth, and the name of one of the most prolific political families, Bush can easily disappear into comfortable obscurity for the rest of his life. Instead, he can now position himself as someone’s who’s learned his lesson — someone whose indiscretions weren’t even all that bad, compared with the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.
The optimist in me wants to say this is a fluke — that Bush’s return to the public eye is a temporary result of the Access Hollywood tape making news again and he’ll return to obscurity soon enough. Perhaps people can really become better, even if they need The New York Times to tell everyone. But this sprinkling of activity also serves as a warning to watch out for other disgraced, famous men looking back in the spotlight. Will a year be long enough for Louis C.K. or Matt Lauer to come back on the air? Bush wasn’t even particularly talented or beloved by audiences; his presence was hardly missed over the past year. Meanwhile, his partner on that bus became the leader of the United States. It’s not at all difficult to imagine the conversation reverting back, once the people in power decide their friends deserve a second chance.