Something about that leaked tape caught my attention: the way that Billy Bush, the other guy on the tape, behaved while Donald Trump was trumping along pissing on everything in sight.* While I don’t want to derail from the actual content of the tape, I do want to show you how Billy Bush’s not-pology fits in with right-wing Christian culture and why they’re so willing to accept it as a justification for his behavior.
Mr. Bush’s excuse for why he played along with Donald Trump doesn’t hold water, and we should not accept it as any kind of excuse. As they used to say back in my old stomping grounds, that dog won’t hunt. Today I’ll show you why.
A Family Tradition.
Billy Bush is, as you might guess from the face and name, a younger scion of the venerable Bush dynasty. His uncle is George H.W. Bush, which makes Dubya and Jeb his cousins; his father is a mega-high-end bank CEO (his bank was caught laundering money in 2004). He’s in his mid-40s now, which means that when the tape leaked he was in his mid-30s. He was generally useless in that way that only coddled younger scions of venerable dynasties can be (though in fairness, not all of the Bushes can become Presidents or governors), so his family was probably pretty relieved when he was hired by Access Hollywood in 2001 to report on celebrity news. He became a co-anchor of the show in 2004. Through his work he’s been a general presence in the entertainment scene ever since, even hosting pre-show presentations for the Oscars a few times and reporting on the Olympics in 2008. If you watch this kind of programming, then it’s a sure thing that you’ve seen him at some point, while if you don’t then you’ve probably never heard of him.
Until very recently, his big success was being selected to co-host The Today Show a couple of months ago, a gig that seems permanently scuttled thanks to what got revealed in that tape that leaked to the Washington Post last week.
This tape isn’t the first time that Billy Bush has gotten in trouble, of course, though really only people who care about entertainment news probably heard of his other gaffes. The biggest of these involved a segment regarding the fallout of the revelation that Ryan Lochte lied about crimes he committed while representing this country at the 2016 Olympics. Billy Bush tried to hand-wave away the lies on Today as being about “some details.” He subsequently got skewered by Al Roker.
He might well have chosen to defend Mr. Lochte because he was one of the first journalists** to report that the athlete had been robbed and he was feeling stung over the reporting having been inaccurate, but the ethical thing to do would have been to immediately retract the reporting, not try to defend someone who got caught red-handed lying. This interview happened very soon after he’d joined the show and did not do much to endear him to its fans; they were already iffy about him.
Dishonesty and a dogged unwillingness to accept being wrong appears to run in this family. I’m not surprised. In temperament they are as fundagelical as it comes, for all that their affiliations are mainline as often as they are right-wing. They are just as conservative as any fundagelical could possibly want, adhering to the point of lockstep to every one of its social policies. The only thing that people like that hate more than losing power is being wrong about anything. Even though he appears to eschew strong displays of religiosity himself, Billy Bush hails from that environment, and I can’t see how it wouldn’t be a big influence on him.
An Unknown Man.
The tape was devastating. I’ve watched it. For obvious reasons people are focusing on Donald Trump’s contribution to it; it is vile and disgusting in a way that shocks the sensibilities of anyone with the vaguest hint of a moral barometer. It’s three minutes of sheer, unmitigated misogyny (CN: C’mon, folks–you know why).
The men were traveling by bus in 2005 to the set of a soap opera called Days of Our Lives, which had asked Donald Trump to cameo on an episode. Mr. Trump, then about 60 years old, was using the occasion to get in an interview with Access Hollywood. Billy Bush, as the relatively-recently-crowned co-anchor of the show, was conducting the interview as part of his job.
As you watch it, if you do, then listen for the “unknown” male voice’s response as Mr. Trump trumps along. “Whoa, that’s huge news!” says this other voice, as Mr. Trump reveals that he’d once tried–and failed–to seduce a particular woman. As the Republican Presidential nominee describes what sound like quite pathetic attempts to impress this woman with his wealth and mad furniture-shopping skillz, the other man laughs and giggles and gives numerous “verbal head-nods” (the cues that people give to show their conversation partners that they’re listening, like “uh-huh” and “sure”).
At one point this man tells Donald Trump, “Sheesh, your girl’s hot as shit. In the purple,” and then exultantly crows, “Yes! The Donald has scored! Whoa, my man!” This statement is important, as we’ll see in a moment, in establishing who this unknown man might be.
Then some men get off of the bus. At the 55 second mark, another man asks about who is getting off the bus and in what order–while the unknown man is still crowing about “The Donald’s” hunting prowess. So whoever this other voice is, it isn’t this guy. It’s also not the blond guy in shades who got off the bus right in front of that new speaker. A succession of men disembark at that point, all while the unknown man is still horsing around with Donald Trump on tape. It’s probably the responsible journalist-y thing to do to pretend that this “unknown” voice is a mystery, but I don’t think any careful listener can mistake its owner’s identity in any way.
After the third speaker closes the bus door, driving that point home, we still hear those two voices talking about women in the crudest terms possible and describing how Mr. Trump typically prepares to assault them (he munches plenty of Tic Tacs first because he’s classy). WaPo now identifies this speaker as Billy Bush without any question. While Donald Trump describes how he “just kisses” women and can’t stop himself from committing these assaults, Billy Bush snickers and joshes along with him. When Donald Trump exults in how his wealth gives him a feeling of permission to do “whatever you want” to women, including grabbing their crotches, Mr. Bush murmurs, “Whatever you want,” in a tone that suggests starry-eyed admiration.
The two men discuss women’s bodies in crudely-objectified ways, with Billy Bush freely offering up his own observations. Finally, they exit the bus to meet with Arianne Zucker, an actress who would be working with Donald Trump on the soap opera. At 2:05, Billy Bush demands that Ms. Zucker “hug the Donald,” which is the second time the fellow’s nickname has surfaced. Put on the spot, Ms. Zucker complies, and when he demands “a little hug for the Bushy,” a phrase that makes me cringe so hard my spine goes on walkabout, she gives him one as well.
Toward the end, Billy Bush asks her who she’d choose as a partner between the two of them. Her noncommittal answer suggests that she thinks that both of them are lower than pond scum.
An Excuse that Only a Fundagelical Could Love.
Fundagelicals and Republicans alike went into full damage-control mode the second this tape surfaced. They rightly sensed what a complete, unmitigated disaster it represented for their standard-bearer–and their own image. And as they panicked, so did Billy Bush. Remember, though he comes from a very religious family, he’s not terribly fervent. But Donald Trump’s supporters sure are. So both his and their responses are going to look very familiar.
We’re accustomed to fundagelicals trying to negate and hand-wave away their misdeeds. They’ve evolved a whole arsenal of techniques for dealing with their inevitable scandals. They focus on two tactics:
First, they try to invalidate the source of the criticism somehow. It’s classic ad hominem reasoning in that it totally does not focus on the criticism itself, but rather tries to completely negate the criticism by criticizing the source of the criticism. Should we be leery of unreliable sources? Yes, absolutely we should. But that doesn’t mean that such a source is not accurately relaying information. So when Michele Bachmann tried to negate the leaked tape by focusing on how it came to light, she’s only performing a long-established, elaborate dance.
I think I’ve got a pretty accurate idea of what’s on the tape. I don’t really care how it came to light; what matters to me is what’s on it. When fundagelicals go this route, it makes me wonder if the real problem here is not that something horrible was said, but that it was exposed. That says some truly horrifying things about their own group. What horrible secrets lurk under those Jesus smiles and wild-fanatic eyes? Do they really think that wrongdoing is okay as long as it’s kept secret? Wouldn’t any moral person want to know about a serious misdeed committed by a potential world leader? Under what exacting circumstances, if any, would Michele Bachmann and her pals say that it’s okay for this tape to have come to light?
The answers to these questions and more besides only highlight more problems for fundagelicals than they conceal. I wish I could make them understand that when they even try to go this route, things just backfire worse for them.
Second, they try to re-center the conversation on the person receiving the criticism. In effect, they declare, “You have a shortcoming that renders you incapable of forming an accurate opinion of this situation, so use my judgment instead.” In one Christian’s post about why fundagelicals should not support Donald Trump, the guy’s comments got flooded with fundagelicals hotly defending their golden-orange boy. Many of their comments, I noticed, centered around the idea that nobody is allowed to “judge” Donald Trump because everyone’s a sinner. Comment writers slammed the post’s author, David Marshall, as spiritually-defective in some way for speaking against their candidate, which must have been quite startling for Mr. Marshall as he’s distinctly a die-hard fundagelical himself.***
None of Mr. Marshall’s critics really engaged with the fact that Donald Trump has done and said some truly reprehensible things–things that should instantly disqualify him as the standard-bearer for the Religious Right, and would definitely would have them screaming in outrage had a Democrat or non-pandering Republican said any of it. I can’t really blame them there; they really can’t engage with those things. Doing so would mean that they were wrong. And as I’ve mentioned, being wrong is literally the worst thing that anybody can ever be.
Billy Bush himself went the first route by trying to make pretend that he’d been young and foolish and was caught up in a celebrity’s orbit. He made a statement to People soon after the tape leaked:
Obviously I’m embarrassed and ashamed. It’s no excuse, but this happened eleven years ago–I was younger, less mature, and acted foolishly in playing along. I’m very sorry.
And one source claims that in the days since the tape’s leak, Mr. Bush has been “a wreck” and “absolutely devastated.”
Yes, I’m sure that he is quite devastated.
His tribe has a long tradition of being very upset once they’ve been caught doing something really bad.
Why That Dog Won’t Hunt.
The charming phrase that dog won’t hunt (or its equally-charming variant “don’t hunt”) is a Southernism that describes a plan, excuse, or idea that simply doesn’t accomplish its purpose and is guaranteed to fail. Billy Bob’s excuse fits that bill perfectly.
First, there’s the matter of just how young and immature he was at the time. The tape leaked in 2005. Billy Bush was 33 years old then. He wasn’t a child. He was a grown-up man. He was married by then and might even have become the parent of at least one of his three daughters, so he was definitely taking on adult roles by then.
I’d initially read his response as discomfort and awkwardness, a simple inability to handle a celebrity being so out-of-hand, but he’d been in show business since 2001 and was the co-anchor of one of the biggest celebrity-news shows on the market. There’s no way he could possibly have been unfamiliar with celebrities behaving badly. One couldn’t even say that he was unfamiliar with Donald Trump himself; the two men had shared the camera before and Mr. Bush had hosted various beauty pageants owned by Mr. Trump.
Worse, Donald Trump’s behavior played into Billy Bush’s own lack of boundaries regarding women and his own total lack of respect for them. This is a guy who has, according to TV Guide’s bio page, “served pizza to Victoria’s Secret models and asked Penélope Cruz if she could spell then-boyfriend Matthew McConaughey’s surname.” There’s a picture on that site, as well, of him trying to stuff a doughnut into the mouth of supermodel Heidi Klum. His previous work in radio wasn’t much different. So this isn’t really very uncharacteristic behavior, nor an isolated incident.
He wasn’t a kid who slipped in a patch of dogshit and accidentally trailed it into the house. He is a fully adult man from one of the most privileged upper-crust families in America, one that is indelibly associated with ultra-conservative Christianity. He gleefully cackled and horsed around with a reprehensible human being, offering up his own uniquely reprehensible behavior. His past indicates a deep disrespect for women and a very loose attachment to the value of honesty–as well as a disturbing disdain for women’s boundaries and an equally disturbing admiration for narcissistic asshats. There is no sign whatsoever that in the intervening 11 years that he has done any kind of soul-searching or self-improvement that might have mitigated his behavior in 2005, or that he’s even remotely a different person now than he was then.
He is, in short, a perfectly representative example of both his family and of the Republican party in general, and a product of his environment and social milieu. I can absolutely see why people are not accepting his attempt to rationalize and excuse away his behavior. What he offered is not an apology. It’s more like a demand that people not hold him responsible for his own behavior. And we’re not.
People are getting way less patient with these excuses and are more aware of what real and false apologies look like. The more fundagelicals try to exonerate both men, the worse they look.
In summation: while we rightly remain focused on Donald Trump’s comments in the 2005 tape, we can safely dismiss Billy Bush’s claims that he was just a naive lil kid who just got all starry-eyed and flusterpated by a big-city tycoon’s wily ol’ wiles.
(As WaPo put it, the real irony here is that after all the insults that Donald Trump has hurled at the Bush family in his disastrous campaign, a Bush may finally have brought him down. Myself, I think I could go the whole rest of my life without ever again hearing a growed-ass man gleefully referring to himself as “the Bushy.”)
* If I can say that Bumble is “bumbling around” when he’s checking out his territory and making sure the house is running smoothly, then surely Donald Trump’s grandiose, swaggering act can be called “trumping around.”
** Sorta journalist, anyway. Billy Bush’s education and training don’t actually involve journalism or anything really media-related. He’s got a 1994 BA in government and international studies from the rather well-regarded and pedigreed Colby College. Its motto is “Knowledge is the light of the mind.” Billy Bush does not appear anywhere on its Wikipedia list of “notable alumni,” though he does concede that after all that education that he is not in fact “smarter than a 5th grader.”
***The hilarious thing? David Marshall, the writer of that post, is the same guy who thinks that Buddhism is really Christianity, as well as that one apologist who turned in quite possibly the world’s worst debate performance in his debate against Richard Carrier.