Seven months after the infamous “grab them by the pussy” recording got Bush fired (and nearly toppled Trump’s White House run), the former ‘Today’ host goes public with what happened on that bus, the people who knew about the tape, how he broke the “awful” news to his daughters and his bold comeback move: “I plan to return to the job that I love.”
Billy Bush was on the tarmac at New York’s JFK International Airport waiting to take off for Los Angeles when his world imploded. It was Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, and an 11-year-old tape of a lewd conversation with Donald Trump — in which the then-Apprentice star could be heard bragging about sexually assaulting women with a chortling Bush egging him on — was leaked to The Washington Post. The tape was supposed to end Trump’s improbable presidential run. Instead, it torpedoed Bush’s job at NBC’s Today, turning the former Access Hollywood host into a late-night punch line and media pariah. “I could not put two thoughts together,” Bush, 45, tells The Hollywood Reporter in an extended interview, his first since the scandal erupted more than seven months ago. “Things were happening way too fast.”
Captive on that airplane for nearly six Wi-Fi-enabled hours, Bush read news reports in disbelief as a real-time train wreck engulfed his career. By the time he arrived in Los Angeles, a horde of paparazzi had materialized at LAX and, later, at his L.A. home, where they remained for more than a week. Ducking out only through a back path, Bush spent the remainder of that October weekend desperately trying to save his job, then just a few months old and already off to a shaky start after a much-criticized interview with embattled Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte. Though Today long had been among Bush’s ambitions, his hiring as the co-host of the 9 a.m. hour was somewhat controversial given his lack of hard-news experience and a snarky red-carpet presence. Initially, NBC News signaled Bush would return that Monday to apologize on-air. “I would have welcomed addressing the audience,” he says pointedly.
That opportunity never came. Though Bush issued an apology statement, and Trump dismissed his own remarks about grabbing women “by the pussy” as merely “locker-room banter,” many enraged viewers vowed never to watch Today again. That rancor could be felt internally, too, with several NBC News staffers, many of them women, incredulous that Bush would be allowed to return so soon — or at all. By Monday, Bush was suspended. Seven days later, on Oct. 17, he was out with a multimillion-dollar severance package and a nondisclosure agreement that prevents him from going into detail about his exit from NBC News. He still has no idea who leaked the tape.
Where has Bush been since then? Engaged in a lot of soul searching, a process that included time walking on fiery coals with spiritual guru Tony Robbins and a stint at a Napa Valley healing retreat. He took up yoga and meditation, developed a boxing routine and read books like 10% Happier, written by ABC News anchor and buddy Dan Harris. Bush, the nephew of President George H.W. Bush, also spent more time than he had in years with his family, including daughters Lillie, 12, Mary, 16, and Josie, 18. “It was fun to have his undivided attention,” says his older brother, Jonathan. “There was no rushing off to do this or that.” He’s also stayed in contact with his former Today colleagues; he recently saw Hoda Kotb and her baby and was invited to lunch with Matt Lauer.
What Bush refrained from doing is watching the infamous three-minute tape from 2005. While he long has been aware of its existence and says “plenty of people” at NBC knew about it, too, he claims he has seen it only three times: once, three days before the rest of the world did, and then twice more in preparation for this interview. Each time it left him “totally and completely gutted,” he says, his voice shaky and eyes watery. “Looking back upon what was said on that bus, I wish I had changed the topic. [Trump] liked TV and competition. I could’ve said, ‘Can you believe the ratings on whatever?’ But I didn’t have the strength of character to do it.”
On the morning of May 17, Bush is in New York, sitting in the living room of his parents’ Upper East Side apartment, which he called home during his brief tenure at Today, when his family had not yet relocated from Los Angeles. Lining a built-in bookcase are family photos: his daughters, a picture from his 1998 wedding to wife Sydney, and one of Bush and his brother as children at a cousin’s wedding (he won’t say which cousin, which leaves a visitor to guess whether it was a former president or a former presidential contender).
Over the next hour and a half, Bush will recount his descent from successful TV host to the bizarre casualty of a presidential campaign scandal. His lawyer and publicist are present, but he is relaxed and open about his failings and fears. He becomes emotional as he talks about disappointing his family, his friends and himself, and animated when he recounts the spiritual awakening that led him to become “a better man,” he says. “I was kind of bopping along, and I don’t know if it was God or what that said, ‘OK, you’ve developed. You’re a pretty good guy. Let’s see how you handle this.’ And ka-boom!” He puts his hands to his face. “It all comes apart.”
His friends and family are quick to suggest Bush got a raw deal. After all, the other guy on the tape is now in the White House. “He got lumped up with Donald Trump, and his last name is Bush, and all of a sudden he got bushwhacked,” says pal Howard Owens, a TV producer and co-CEO of Propagate Content. “And not to say that he didn’t think what came out was terrible and certainly would have been something he would have had to deal with to regain the respect of his audience, but to never get that chance and to go down in a tidal wave of political anger is a tough thing.”
Though Bush never utters a disparaging word about his former bosses, Jonathan allows that his brother was perplexed by the way his exit was handled by NBC News executives. “NBC News and [their] crocodile outrage: ‘We are so disappointed with Billy,'” says Jonathan. “I think Billy was angry, notwithstanding his own devils to reckon with. You build an identity and reputation over 15 years, and you lose it over 15 hours. And you don’t get to be part of it. You don’t get to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute.'”
Bush seems to have come to a place of acceptance, however. “I am not grateful for the moment,” he says. “But I’m grateful for what I’ve gotten out of it. I’m grateful that it hit me all the way to my core.” And now, the Manhattan-born broadcaster is ready to get back to work. With Propagate’s Owens and co-CEO Ben Silverman, Bush has been developing a series designed to show audiences a deeper and more empathetic side to him. The trio are light on details but say that pop culture, sports and interviews likely will play a role. And though the project won’t be the right fit for A+E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc’s portfolio of channels, she suggests she’d have no hesitation about putting Bush back on the air.
“I don’t think anyone deserves to be sidelined in a way that’s vengeful, especially if they’re truly remorseful,” says Dubuc, one of the industry’s highest-ranking female executives and a personal friend of Bush’s. “That action, while not right and a deep-seated reflection of some of the things that are not only wrong in our industry but in our country, doesn’t mean that he’s a bad person and doesn’t mean that he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven.”
An edited transcript of Bush’s conversation with THR follows.
SOURCE: Lacey Rose, Marisa Guthrie
The Hollywood Reporter