Billy Bush tried to revive his career on Monday, first with an op-ed piece in the he New York Times in which he had to insist that — despite denials made privately by the president of the United States recently — it really, truly is the voice of Donald Trump on the infamous 2005 Hollywood Access bus tape. The second way Bush attempted to justify his own behavior in that appalling mess was to go on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and submit to a grilling by the host, who called Bush’s bus behavior “boorish and callow.” Bush tried really hard to persuade Colbert not to re-air the “grab ’em” tape once more — yelping his protest even as Colbert cued it up — because he knew it would remind viewers one more time about the extent to which Bush played along with Trump’s worst instincts.
The Times piece is a carefully crafted bit of public relations strategy that capitalized on Trump’s staggering egotism and self-delusion. As Colbert noted, the Times probably wouldn’t have been interested in a Bush mea culpa at this point in 2017 had the president not brought up the whole ugly thing again. In the Times and on Late Night, Bush tried to set up the context in which he giggled and egged on Trump’s lewd behavior, insisting that Trump was a “huge” star for NBC because of the success of The Apprentice. “I was with him a lot,” Bush told Colbert. “You had to kiss the ring of the Donald.” Colbert shot back a quick joke: “But where was that ring?”
The humorous implication is actually a serious one: When does kissing butt cross the line into enabling dreadful behavior? I believe Bush when he says in the Times piece that he assumed Trump was exaggerating his sexual actions with women; that he was witnessing the public-image Donald Trump as opposed to the true man. In this, Bush’s comparison of Trump to “the crass standup act” of Andrew Dice Clay — the vulgar comedian who wants you to know he’s really not that crude — is apt. No one who works in celebrity journalism can hear Bush on that bus and not feel at least a smidgen of discomfort. To get access to and coax trust from a famous person, it is routine to think it’s necessary to smile and nod at opinions with which one might ordinarily disagree; “establishing a strong rapport with celebrities,” is how Bush phrases it generously for himself. Indeed, the frequent requirement to suck up to celebrity — to be polite to people who often are not polite to you — is one big reason I decided long ago to avoid interviewing famous folks as much as possible. The Access Hollywood tape is, in this sense, both an extreme example of the celebrity-coddling phenomenon, and an all too typical one.
What struck me watching Bush on Colbert is that, after a year-plus since the release of that tape, Bush still seems strikingly uninsightful about his role in this kind of cultural exchange. He makes all the right sounds, working up an indignant stance on Trump’s behavior by using a variation on the now-familiar “day of reckoning.” (A suggestion for people making apologies: Find your own words to express your remorse, and it will sound less like something you crafted by looking at other public apologies alongside your lawyer and your publicist.)
There’s a creepy side to what Bush did on Monday. He got his byline in the Times and his butt in Colbert’s guest chair by capitalizing on the fact that Trump reopened this ugly incident. Bush told Colbert that Trump is “reopening wounds on” the women who have accused Trump of assaulting them. “Stop playing around with people’s lives. That upset me,” he said. The studio audience broke into sympathetic applause. Sure, it’s a good sentiment. But let’s not reward Billy Bush too much for a scintilla of self-awareness now. And of course, the real bottom line is: Why the hell do we have a president who inspires everything I’ve written about here? That’s what you heard on Monday night, and it wasn’t coming from Billy Bush. No — it was in the weary, irritated tone of Colbert’s voice. Night after night, you can look below the surface of his Trump ridicule and see it plainly: He just wishes he didn’t have to talk about Trump anymore, ever.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airs weeknights at 11:30 p.m. on CBS.
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