Billy Bush Volunteers for His Own Reckoning With Colbert (Column)

The former NBC co-anchor appeared on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" for an unexpectedly candid Q&A

Billy Bush Stephen Colbert
Courtesy of CBS

Yesterday, former NBC host Billy Bush — who, until his firing, was a co-anchor of the much-discussed NBC morning show “Today” — went on an unexpected image rehab tour. First, he penned an op-ed in the New York Times, and then last night, he went on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” for a candid, top-of-show interview with the politically oriented comedian.

The studio audience didn’t quite know how to respond to Bush, possibly because no one quite seems to know what to make of him, or of this sudden media blitz. Bush — who is indeed related to the presidential Bushes — is a Ryan Seacrest type, one of those figures who professionally look good, talk into a microphone, and offer little-to-no opinions of their own. Bush was fired from “Today” in October 2016, after a tape emerged from his days hosting “Access Hollywood,” which captured now-President Trump describing to Bush how much Trump enjoyed sexually assaulting women. Bush was fired for his involvement, which included some back-and-forth banter with Trump. Seemingly, whenever we saw more of Bush than his tanned and smiling exterior, we saw trouble: Before the “Access Hollywood” tape, there was the infamous Ryan Lochte interview.

But since then — and arguably, just since six days ago, when “Today” lead anchor Matt Lauer was fired — the world has shifted and morphed around us. “Today” looks different. NBC looks different. Powerful men look different. America, headed by an unfit and abusive commander-in-chief, looks different. And the national conversation about sexual violence in the workplace, at all levels of harm, has metastasized from individual horrors to the discovery of an industry-wide malaise.

Looking back, the Bush firing seems like an atypical blip. NBC News quickly packed him out the door, but Trump — the actual offender — went on to become the most powerful man in the world. Arguably, Bush did nothing but sit there and laugh, and though he did describe a woman as “hot as s—t,” that’s hardly on the level of Lauer’s door-locking button. Did Bush get punished for participating in the misogyny of rich and powerful men? Or, at the network that employed Matt Lauer for 25 years — was it just for getting caught?

In the interview, Bush presented a coarser, more candid version of his glossy NBC persona. He evinced a genteel discomfort at hearing the tape one more time — which Colbert, his dander up, insisted on replaying in full. But Bush was not defensive or even conciliatory; he seemed to genuinely loathe himself as much as a listener of the tape might loathe him. He took his lumps from Colbert with admirable composure — even a kind of deserving grimace, like a kid about to swallow cough syrup. If this is a rehab tour, it’s a weird one.

Of course, some cynicism is warranted, because nothing happens on TV without a dash of the self-serving. But more than ingratiating or even apologetic, Bush seemed angry: What stirred him out of his imposed exile was the prevaricator-in-chief’s latest denial that that’s his voice on the “Access Hollywood” tape.  That Bush chose to appear on Colbert’s show — the rival to NBC’s “The Tonight Show” — seemed especially, pointedly significant. He was surprisingly honest about NBC’s relationship with Trump: “Everybody had to kiss the ring of Donald because he was making the big money for NBC at the time,” he told Colbert. How bizarre, and jarring, and possibly even betraying, for Bush’s former employer to first push him to suck up to Trump, and then to can him for the act of putting up with him. How bizarre for “Today” to sack Bush, when Lauer lorded over a small empire of his own illicit behavior. We know now what we didn’t then: That tape wasn’t an anomaly. Someone happened to leak a snippet of the licentious, entitled way that powerful men can discuss women’s bodies. Just a drop in the ocean.

Which is why, unexpectedly, Bush’s on-camera presence was less smarmy than cathartic. He was surprisingly amenable to Colbert taking the piss out of him in front of a live studio audience; he seemed to almost welcome it. And personally, anyway, it was a relief to watch at least one of the figures in this grand drama of misogyny answer a few pointed questions on-camera. It’s striking: Bush didn’t apologize or ask for forgiveness, which could be frustrating or welcome, depending on the viewer. But he did offer the audience accountability; he did offer at least a modicum of responsibility for his actions.

It’s amusing that Donald Trump made “You’re fired!” into his personal catchphrase, in this moment where disgust for behavior like his has reached such a fever pitch that women are cleaning out every broom closet in Hollywood of its predators, harassers, and creeps. But the problem with firing — and it might be a problem worth having — is that when someone is disappeared from public life, there’s no reckoning. Maybe we never need to hear from these men again, sure. But when it’s someone who wasn’t just behind the camera but in front of it — frequently as themselves, frequently truth-telling, whether that’s a news anchor or a stand-up comedian — their sudden disappearance is jarring, like the problem has been buried instead of addressed. Of course, any company seeks to protect its own reputation, which is why figures like Lauer aren’t just canned but erased. Maybe these people need to be forgotten as soon as possible. But maybe the audience can demand closure, too.

I find myself wishing, in an angry sort of way, that someone would ask these men the many questions I have — how dare you? have you always been such a liar? how could you have looked any of us in the eyes and smiled? — just so I could see their reactions, so I could try to make sense of who I thought they were with the repulsive acts they are alleged to have committed. More than that: I want to see the accusations recited back to them, just as they might be in court, if only to verify that these men have for once listened to the women they so systematically victimized. Bush himself wanted to face the audience, he told Colbert. But NBC opted against it. With Bush, Lauer, and MSNBC’s firing this week of on-air contributor Sam Seder, the network has eliminated employees that bring even a whiff of controversy to the network. And yet each case is so different; the levels of affront are so varied. Use it often enough, and firing looks like running scared — or trying to stifle something.

Reckoning is in the air. Yesterday, hours after Colbert taped his convo with Bush, John Oliver moderated a panel with Dustin Hoffman and pursued him on the allegations of sexual harassment that have been brought up against the celebrated actor. Hoffman’s answers might satisfy some, and not others; but it’s so refreshing, for once, to not ignore the elephant in the room. I attended the Gotham Independent Film Awards, where a tribute was awarded to Hoffman. Most of the room gave him a standing ovation. Undoubtedly, an awards event is not the perfect time for asking hard questions. But hard questions need to be asked.