Billy Bush’s Biggest Mistake in the Trump-Tape Aftermath

Zucker, Bush, and O'Dell. Photo: Getty Images

Even though it wasn’t official until Monday afternoon, Billy Bush’s nascent career as the Today show’s 9 a.m. co-anchor was probably over the moment the Washington Post published audio of his now-infamous conversation with Donald Trump, in which he could be heard in a leaked Access Hollywood tape from 2005 giggling and egging on the now-presidential candidate as he bragged about sexually assaulting women. Senior NBC management may not have immediately realized it, but most folks outside the 30 Rock bubble immediately saw how having someone who said the things Bush said continue to host a fluffy, feature-packed hour meant to appeal to middle-aged female viewers was … ridiculous. And yet, as awful and damning as the audio tape was for Bush, it’s his behavior since that has made me question what sort of future he has in mainstream TV. Specifically, it’s what Bush has failed to do, even 11 days after the fact: Offer a specific and sincere apology to both Nancy O’Dell and Arianne Zucker, the women whom he and Trump verbally degraded on tape.

Sure, Bush had a publicist put out a statement saying he was “very sorry,” coupling a blanket expression of embarrassment and shame with the ridiculous non-excuse excuse that he was “younger” and “less mature” 11 years ago. Nowhere, however, did Bush acknowledge he had personally mistreated a co-worker (O’Dell) and an interview subject (Zucker). Trump’s casual bragging about the ease with which he sexually assaults women has (rightfully) overshadowed everything else on the tape. But remember: At the very start of the conversation, Bush is heard saying of O’Dell, “She used to be great. She’s still very beautiful.” Bush and O’Dell were co-workers on Access Hollywood for years, but he apparently had no problem objectifying his co-anchor as a woman who “used to be great.” He didn’t just stand by as Trump described his failed attempts to bed O’Dell; he added his own assessment of her physical worth. What’s more, at least according to the audio that has been released, it is Bush — not Trump — who initiates the verbal assault on Zucker. “Sheesh, your girl’s hot as shit. In the purple,” Bush says, referring to the Days of Our Lives actress waiting just outside the bus. “Yes, yes! The Donald has scored!”

Bush may think his all-purpose apology sufficiently expressed regret for his actions. Had he and Trump been talking about women in general, perhaps they would have been. But Bush’s biggest sin isn’t that he engaged in what Trump likes to call “locker-room” talk, or that, as Melania Trump claimed on Monday, he “egged on” Trump. What is so awful is that Bush, someone who has played a journalist for more than a decade, felt okay engaging in such talk about a longtime professional colleague and an interview subject. Then, when he got caught, he didn’t see a need to apologize for those specific transgressions or to offer any acknowledgement of the very specific pain they caused.

As women in Hollywood, O'Dell and Zucker almost surely encountered sexism and probably harassment of some sort long before they heard Bush and Trump treat them like meat. But imagine being O’Dell two Fridays ago, hearing the man who likes calling himself “Bushy,” the man who stood next to you for years on the set of Access Hollywood, saying you “used to be great.” Put yourself in the shoes of Zucker, who now knows Bush’s on-camera attempt to get Trump and Zucker to kiss was preceded moments before by Trump telling Bush about how he grabs women by their genitals. If you were O’Dell, you might feel just a bit better if Bush had taken the time to tell the world that he had worked side-by-side with you for years and that he thought you were a smart, professional co-worker who deserved more respect than he had shown. If you were Zucker, the audio tape might sting a bit less if Bush acknowledged that you weren’t just a body to be objectified but a successful actress with a hugely loyal fan base.

Instead, all you got was a CYA PR “apology” from Bush, followed Monday by an even more worthless statement of non-regret: ”I am deeply grateful for the conversations I've had with my daughters, and for all of the support from family, friends and colleagues,” he said. It’s possible Bush has reached out to O’Dell and Zucker privately, but whether he has or not is beside the point. Bush’s comments were broadcast to the world, and they caused particular, and public, pain to both women. His response so far has been to express ambiguous regret. “I look forward to what lies ahead,” Bush concluded in his Monday statement. Hopefully that future includes a lot of soul-searching.