Billy Bush, Active Bystander
His New York Times op-ed offers that rarest of things: an individual story of harassment that captures the network effects of harassment.
Of all the ripe metaphors for the absurdist moralities of the 2016 presidential campaign, the Access Hollywood tape might be the ripest. Donald Trump’s words, as he bragged to Billy Bush in 2005 about his exploits with women, operated with a kind of poetic ruthlessness: pussy, Tic Tacs, like a bitch, when you’re a star. And Bush’s words in response—all I can see is the legs, how about a little hug for the Donald?—revealed their own kind of insights: about the contagions of sexism, about how easily a bystander to misogyny can be made into an agent of it. The tape’s fallout was similarly revealing: After it was made public, Bush, the responder to the comments, swiftly lost his job. Donald Trump, the maker of them, attained the highest one in the land. It’s a discrepancy that has helped to fuel the outrage that helped to fuel the latest version of the #MeToo movement. And it’s a discrepancy, too, that has remained with us, still largely unaccounted for, still largely unreckoned with: Bush, removed from the scenes; Trump—who 16 women say harassed or assaulted them—part of most every scene.
The absurdity has recently taken an even more absurdist turn: Trump has been arguing to friends, reportedly, that the voice on the recording was not, in fact, his—that the Access Hollywood tape is yet one more piece of conveniently fake news. And in response, the tape has had another kind of rebirth, this time in the form of the public return of Billy Bush—via an op-ed in The New York Times.
Bush’s piece, which begins with a blunt “He said it” and which is headlined “Billy Bush: Yes, Donald Trump, You Said That” on the Times’s website, is presented—and has largely been received among the public—as an eyewitness rebuttal to the president’s latest denials of reality: yet another instance, the framing suggests, of someone being unable to stand idly by while there is hypocrisy afoot. The timing of the piece, though, is extremely convenient, extremely strategic, or both at once: On Monday, after all, the former Today show host will appear on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, an event which was arranged late last week and which CBS has been aggressively advertising. And there will very likely be more appearances to come, as Bush partakes in time-honored rituals of public redemption: CNN’s media reporter, Brian Stelter, mentioned on Twitter that “TV execs are already speculating about where he might end up.” The op-ed kicking all this off, after arguing that harassment is “not a women’s issue—it’s a men’s issue,” adds, suggestively: “That’s a great place to start, and something I have real thoughts about—but it is a story for another day.” Could the Billy Bush Center for Sexual Harassment Studies be far behind?
The redemption of Billy Bush is fascinating, certainly, but it, too, is a story for another day. Because what’s most striking about the op-ed the former news anchor has published is that it explores, in much more detail than the American public is used to encountering, the tricky dynamics of complicity when it comes to harassment. For all the current talk about #MeToo and public apologies and belated reckonings, we have—in general—done very little work when it comes to reckoning with harassment’s network effects: the way each moment of abuse radiates out, to bystanders and colleagues and friends and family, the way each one affects victims’ confidence and careers, the way all of them together insinuate themselves on the messages sent from the highest levels of the American media.
So, yes, “he said it,” Bush announces at the outset—that he would need to say so at all is indicative of the epistemic state of 2017—but then he moves on to explore the more meaningful thing: the guilt he himself bears, as a reactive bystander, for enabling the commentary that was, it seems ever more clear, anything but “locker-room talk.” It’s atonement in the form of an op-ed: an act of contrition, written in an appropriately confessional tone, that considers how it was that Bush managed to be both a victim of Trump’s misogyny and an enabler of it. Bush was, in the tape, at once passive and active, his crime not so much a sin of commission or a sin of omission as it was a kind of third-way affront: a sin of permission. Bush encouraged. Bush calculated. Bush laughed. Bush talked about “the Donald” and “the Bushy” and “the legs.”
He assumed it was a joke, he says now, partly because bragging about assault in the way Trump did is such a shocking thing to do, but partly because, as Bush explains it, he had a vested interest in assuming the farce of it all. Bush, he suggests, needed the approval of Trump in the same rough way that so many victims of harassment need the approval of those who harass them. And in treating Trump’s words as suggestions of a spectacle rather than as evidence of crime—in responding to them with equal lewdness—Bush made himself complicit in those words. As he puts it now:
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.
With lines like these, as my colleague James Fallows argued on Twitter, Bush is exploring the very particular strain of Faustianism that so many celebrities—and politicians—have engaged in with the president. But Bush is also, in all this, serving as a more extensive metaphor: for the producers who enabled, for the assistants who stood by. Bush is the nexus of so many webs: a close relative of two former U.S. presidents—one of whom also faces allegations of groping women—and an employee who was fired, of course, by the same network that sat on the Access Hollywood tapes, that sat on the Weinstein story, that allowed Matt Lauer, Bush’s former Today colleague, to flourish despite the abuses for which he has since apologized. Here, distilled in the person of Billy Bush, is the diffuse network of people who allow misbehavior to continue, who allow open secrets to stay open for so long: Here, in one person, is the sum of all the eyes averted, all the heads shaken, all the shoulders shrugged. And all the laughter uttered in the name of guileful levity. How about a little hug for the Donald? He just got off the bus.
It has, in recent weeks, become something of a standard practice among the American media to analyze the apologies of the men felled by the “Weinstein effect.” (On Friday, The New York Times collected some of the more high-profile of the apologies and then republished them on one long-scrolling web page, its staffers picking particular sections and sentences to annotate.) The practice is necessary and urgent, to be sure—the language used in each apology will set the tone for the norms that will settle into place in response to whatever changes may come because of #MeToo—but it also serves to highlight the cynical consistency of each public statement: Devastated to learn, sorrow and regret for the pain I have caused, I’d thought I was pursuing shared feelings, a different memory of events. Mad Libs, made maddening.
Billy Bush, however, who himself has a lot to apologize for, has provided something else: an apology that is also an explanation. An apology that recognizes the complexities of complicity. We Americans tend to be, as a culture, skilled at telling and reacting to individual stories, and much less good at appreciating the systems that give those stories their broader shape. That’s the case not only with matters of harassment, but also with so many other phenomena that affect American lives: The GOP tax bill is so much easier to talk about in terms of intra-party competition than it is in terms of slow-moving economic impact. It’s so much easier to analyze the individual moments of Trump’s revealed racism than it is to reckon with the racist structures that allowed him to come to office in the first place. It’s easier, too, to be outraged by each new story of sexual harassment, each new case of the Weinstein effect in action, than it is to consider that effect as a cultural, political, and economic shift.
But Billy Bush has, at the outset of his attempted redemption tour, provided that rarest of things: an individual story of harassment that neatly captures the network effects of harassment. (Was I acting out of self-interest? You bet I was.) At the core of his piece, certainly, is a request for public forgiveness—Bush, the prodigal son, feted not with a fatted lamb, but with the rough equivalent in this age of mass media: a New York Times op-ed. But he is offering an apology that, through its own admission of self-interest, acknowledges the extremely complicated economics of harassment: transactions that involve not just individuals in a moment, but also systems over time. Soon as a beautiful woman shows up, he just, he takes off, Bush said, of Trump, in 2005. This always happens. Not always, though—not anymore.