Billy Bush: ‘I Think Al Franken Was Sacrificed. I Feel Empathy For Him’
In a candid interview with Lloyd Grove, Billy Bush opens up about #MeToo, Al Franken, Donald Trump, his ‘suicidal thoughts’ after being fired by NBC—and his return to TV.
There were moments during his nearly three-year banishment from television, when Billy Bush felt the lowest he has ever felt.
“Suicidal thoughts pop into your head,” Bush told The Daily Beast—a raw revelation from a man whose life and career, by all outward appearances, had been charmed by privilege and good fortune until things abruptly fell apart in October 2016 when he was fired from NBC's Today show.
“I’d never seriously do it—because I have children that matter. But when you’re really low—and this is important to include—you’re emoting at the most extreme,” Bush continued. “But I’m never ever a serious candidate for that. I would not, could not do that to those who count on me and love me and need me. Absolutely not.
“But you think, ‘Oh, I would do it!’ No, no you won’t. But you’re upset. Look, everybody has something. Everybody has something that is really, really deeply upsetting. And if you haven’t, you will. That’s for sure. And I may have something again. I hope I’m conditioned to take a deep breath, acknowledge the feelings, and know that they’re not here to stay.”
In the aftermath of his sacking by NBC, Bush said, he self-medicated with alcohol, although he’d never previously had a drinking problem. “Yeah, at the beginning, it was numb, numb, numb,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out life, and I think I’ve gotten pretty close—that life is lived in the middle. I have been really high in life, and I’ve been really low now. Really low—like all the way low.
“I was at a moment this past Christmas where I was feeling quite lost and abandoned,” Bush said. “Kinda like, ‘Where’s my industry? Where’s my life? What am I doing here?’
“It was Christmas Eve. And I ended up reading a book called The Purpose of Christmas by [megachurch pastor] Rick Warren. And I felt this unbelievably overpowering presence come over me,” Bush recounted. “And it took me from the deepest feelings of despair to a warm glow of everything’s gonna be just fine. A very powerful moment. And I won’t forget it.”
Meanwhile, “the negative feelings and the depression feelings don’t go away,” Bush said. “But you can get through them and recover from the episodes quicker.”
The 47-year-old Bush—looking tan and rested—confided his extreme despair this week while nursing a tequila cocktail at a rooftop hotel bar in Manhattan and celebrating next Monday’s premiere of his brand new anchoring gig on the Fox Television entertainment show Extra.
It’s the first job he’s had since his life imploded on Oct. 7, 2016, when a 2005 outtake surfaced of Bush, then the 33-year-old co-host of Access Hollywood and the father of three daughters, laughing along—and worse—as then-Apprentice star Donald Trump let fly with a creepy, misogynistic rant.
“Sheesh, your girl’s hot as shit!” Bush bantered with Trump on the Access Hollywood bus 14 years ago as he spotted Days of Our Lives star Arianne Zucker, with whom the reality TV mogul was scheduled to make a cameo appearance. “Yes! The Donald has scored!”
Trump then remarked that he needed some Tic-Tacs, “just in case I start kissing her… When you’re a star, they let you do it.”
“Whatever you want,” Bush agreed.
“Grab ’em by the pussy,” Trump infamously added, to general hilarity from Bush and members of the Access Hollywood crew. “You can do anything.”
Shockingly, Trump went on to win the presidency a few weeks after the outtake turned up; despite increasingly abject public apologies, Bush was promptly fired from his dream job cohosting the 9 a.m. third hour of the Today show—a position he’d held for less than two months.
After waiting seven months, during which he avoided publicity and kept his own counsel, Bush attempted to rehabilitate his public image with sympathy-generating interviews with The Hollywood Reporter and Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts on ABC, and seven months after that, a soul-baring New York Times op-ed along with an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show on CBS.
Bush said his emerging post-catastrophe public profile was less a calculated PR strategy than “an eagerness to say something at some point.”
He added: “Of course underneath it all you want to get back to working and living, and you want to be understood… You want to communicate and let people see your heart. I think people know the kind of person I am. I’m happy with the way I handled myself publicly—which was not very much. I popped up here and there. When it was time, it was time.”
Yet he continued to languish in unemployed exile. Discussions with the Daily Mail to host the British tabloid’s television show came to naught when Bush decided that a TV gossip show gig would do little for his reputation.
The decision of NBC News chairman Andy Lack and Today executive producer (now NBC News president) Noah Oppenheim to sack him was looking increasingly like a career-ender.
“It’s a scary time. People are walking through landmines everywhere,” Bush said, by way of explaining why he found it so difficult to find gainful employment.
The nephew of one American president, the late George H.W. Bush, and the first cousin of another, George W. Bush, he’s the son of Bush 41’s younger brother, 88-year-old financier Jonathan Bush.
Yet his brash, occasionally abrasive TV persona—as when he and his Today cohost Al Roker engaged in an uncomfortably antagonistic August 2016 debate in Rio concerning the lies of disgraced Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte—is the polar opposite of WASPy politesse. The image of an entitled, arrogant frat-boy, and a crudely sexist one at that, has continued to dog him.
Bush seems to understand why.
“I felt the same things [as his detractors] when I watched that,” he said of the notorious Access Hollywood outtake. “It was a gut-punch, because I didn’t like what I saw.” He added: “It’s a snapshot. It’s not the whole man. It’s a snapshot of something that was there. And I reacted the same way others did. I didn’t like it… It was a bad moment in life. And I owned it and paid heavily for it.
“But I think I’m an improved person, because that’s what adversity does to a human being. These are character-building moments… I have extracted the good out of it. I didn’t miss the opportunity.”
Bush said he feels empathy for Al Franken, who quit the Senate last year after Democratic colleagues, led by New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, demanded his resignation amid allegations of unwanted touching by multiple women—allegations partly called into question by a recent profile of Franken in the New Yorker.
“I think Al Franken was sacrificed,” Bush said, adding that he has never met the former Saturday Night Live performer and writer. “But I think that was more about politics. That was more about a different Senate seat”—the Alabama special election between Democrat Doug Jones and his Republican opponent, credibly accused pedophile Roy Moore.
“They had to reach for that moral high ground. The fact is that there aren’t very many people out there, in my opinion, in politics or entertainment or anywhere that can claim the moral high ground.”
Bush sees parallels between himself and Franken. “I feel empathy for him because I think it was handled very quickly and rushed, and I know that there was a larger purpose”—in Bush’s case, as he would have it, the protection of NBC News’ most profitable franchise from unwanted controversy in the polarized environment of a bitter presidential campaign.
Along with everything else, Bush was grappling with a divorce from his wife of 21 years, Sydney—which he described as an “amicable” parting unrelated to the Trump incident and its aftermath.
“I love and respect her very much, and she was very supportive through the sacking,” Bush said, adding that he’s single and not dating seriously. “I’m waiting for what [New York Times columnist] David Brooks, in his book The Second Mountain, calls the ‘rapturous love.’ You see somebody and you know instantly. Lightning bolts!”
Three years after he trended on Twitter, Bush inveighs against what he calls “the outrage and faux outrage culture” that has invaded the media landscape.
“We’re looking for little things as we talk to people: ‘Ah! There might be a place to exploit some controversy that can get a bunch of clicks and page views!’ And usually, it ruins people’s lives because then people get on social media and ‘Cancel Culture’ begins and they attack. And corporations aren’t strong enough to stand behind their people. So, people live in a perpetual state of fear, and what we create ultimately is a society of liars, or people who are afraid to be honest and tell the truth, because somebody’s always ready to weaponize.”
Bush said he plans to address his ugly encounter with the future president during Monday’s Extra debut—both in the final segment of the half-hour program and a mid-show segment featuring a guest he coyly declined to identify.
“I can’t tell you,” he said. “But I do think it’s a good booking, and it could be fun, it could be self-deprecating, and it could be interesting.”
“I was determined to make some lemonade out of lemons”
Bush said he has made a special effort to use his hiatus to spend quality time with each of his three daughters aged 15, 18 and 21.
“I was determined to make some lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “It can’t all be pitying myself and working through my own issues. So I took each girl on a dad-daughter mano a mano trip—one to Budapest, France and Japan for each kid. And it was amazing just to be alone with them and find our way through our GPS maps and stay in little hotels and go see different things.” (In Budapest this summer, Bush said, he had a friendly encounter in the hotel gym with Scarlett Johansson, who paused her exercise routine to come up and say hello when he was using a treadmill.)
As for how their father’s public firing, humiliation and lengthy unemployment has affected Bush’s daughters, “I don’t know—they’re resilient kids,” he said. “They get love from both of their parents. I think they’re just fine, honestly.”
After the Access Hollywood tape was released, Bush’s middle daughter, in tears, asked him why he was laughing at and encouraging Trump’s misogynistic repartee.
“I’m sorry,” Bush said he finally responded after she refused to accept his various quibbling explanations.
“You have to own it,” Bush said. “When something private and not flattering comes out, they don’t want to hear you explain around it. They see what they see.”
His eldest daughter, meanwhile, “is in recovery” from substance abuse problems that cropped up years before the Access Hollywood tape, said Bush, who joined this daughter for her 18th birthday in getting a tiny cross tattoo on his left wrist—a symbol of faith and sobriety.
Of the #MeToo movement, Bush said, “I think it’s a great movement. I think there’s tremendous integrity at the core of it and it’s tackling evils. I support it, and I’ve got three girls and I think they would agree with that. We’ve talked about it.” (Bush’s friends point out that while the Access Hollywood tape was bad, no stories about workplace misconduct, sexual or otherwise, have emerged since its release.)
By the time the tape leaked, “I was already a changed person,” Bush said. “Keep in mind, I was fired in 2016 for a bad moment in 2005. I was already a different human being. When judgment day came, it was not about me. It was supposed to be judgment day for someone else”—namely Trump.
Pressed repeatedly during the interview, Bush refused to share his feelings on the record about whether Trump is fit for office; a registered independent, he said he doesn’t want to engage in political chatter beyond saying “I’m not thrilled with either side.”
Probably equally salient, he doesn’t wish to alienate whatever percentage of potential Extra viewers who still count themselves among Trump’s fans. Yet all indications point to Bush’s disdain for the 45th president and his wish for him to make a quick exit from the White House.
In his Times op-ed, Bush wrote that after Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, “I was highly critical of the idea of a Trump presidency. The man who once told me—ironically, in another off-camera conversation—after I called him out for inflating his ratings: ‘People will just believe you. You just tell them and they believe you,’ was, I thought, not a good choice to lead our country.”
Bush told The Daily Beast that he’s had zero contact with Trump, the president’s representatives or members of his family since the October 2016 incident.
Bush said he had a friendly phone conversation with NBC Universal chief executive Steve Burke several months after his firing, but he’s unlikely to have similarly warm encounters with Andy Lack or Noah Oppenheim or, for that matter, Al Roker.
In his New York Times op-ed, Bush wrote about his feelings of “anger” and “betrayal”; after NBC offered him a low-ball severance package, Bush hired a litigator to fight his former bosses, and managed to get somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million. Yet Bush insists he’s not bitter.
“Forgiveness is about you,” he said, when asked if he’s forgiven the NBC News brass for what he considered their betrayal. “You can’t be bitter in just one area of your life and not be bitter anywhere else. ‘I’m only bitter here.’ No. If you’re bitter in one little area, it infects everything. It’s too much of a virus. So you have to. And I’ve done all that. I’m looking at going forward and doing a good show and making a living again.”
Bush described the new Extra, of which he is anchor and managing editor, as a departure form the run-of-the-mill entertainment news and feature show. Instead of packaged pieces introduced from the anchor desk, it will focus on the behind-the-scenes process of celebrity journalism. Bush will be followed by cameras all day long as the show comes together.
At a small cocktail party Wednesday night at the Hudson Yards headquarters of Warner Media, which is producing the new Extra, Bush told revelers, including several journalists, that he’s a different person from three years ago.
“I care about people’s well-being. The empathy is there,” he said about his enforced “vacation.” “I picked up a couple of missing things—a missing couple of tools from the toolbox that complete me.”
He added, concerning his Trump misadventure: “You can ask me anything. Ask me about the bus—until Monday. After that, I’ll never speak of it again.”
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741