The 45-year-old Bush has stayed away from the limelight and kept out of trouble since he was fired from the Today show last October after a mere two months on the job. Apparently a decent interval has passed.
Trump—like Bush’s first cousin, George. W., and his uncle, George H.W—is president of the United States, while Bush remains unemployed, albeit well-heeled, with hopes for a new gig. That can only happen, of course, after what amounts to the careful reconstruction of his shattered persona.
So the moment is ripe for an exquisitely calculated apology and rehabilitation media juggernaut.
Bush’s lengthy interview with The Hollywood Reporter, posted online Sunday, followed up by today’s empathetic sit-down with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts, displayed state-of-the-art proficiency by an uncharacteristically somber and message-disciplined Bush and by his showbiz publicist Jill Fritzo.
“She’s definitely followed the right rules,” said a public relations professional experienced in celebrity crisis communications. “You have to be absent for awhile and then strategize and plan on the reentry. The rules of reentry are: you own your mistake, and show authentic contrition. There has to be a deep understanding and acknowledgement of wrongdoing. I certainly think he did that.”
A second crisis communications expert told The Daily Beast: “Billy Bush clearly listened to his people and gave two effective interviews.” (Fritzo declined to make Bush available to this writer, and both PR pros asked not to be identified because they didn’t want to be seen kibitzing about the work of a colleague.)
In contrast to his initial statement after the Washington Post published the notorious 12-year-old outtake Oct. 7, Bush made no effort to explain away his “foolish” behavior by saying “I was younger, less mature…”
The ugly Access Hollywood tape was the venomous presidential campaign’s October Surprise in which Bush bantered and giggled with the then-star of NBC’s prime-time hit The Apprentice as Trump uttered a series of misogynistic remarks into a hot mic and bragged that his fame allowed him to “grab [women] by the pussy.”
“In his initial apology, he tried to equivocate,” said the second PR pro, citing Bush’s callow-youth excuse, “and you don’t do that.”
If all the above sounds paint-by-the-numbers simple, one only need recall the attempted image rehab of Brian Williams to realize that it is not.
In a Today show sit-down with his NBC News colleague Matt Lauer, Williams came across as elusive, defensive, and synthetic as he tried to persuade viewers—and an apparently skeptical Lauer—that he really had learned his lesson and would never again tell tall tales about his adventures in journalism. (No matter: the fix was in. The mere fact of that the interview aired on NBC—unlike Bush’s—meant that he had already been welcomed back into the family.)
This time, sitting opposite Roberts in a terraced Manhattan apartment tastefully decorated in muted hues, Bush said all the right things, with just the right tone and clearly practiced spontaneity (along with a frequent word-for-word matchup with his Hollywood Reporter interview; for instance, he used the exact same phrase in both interviews to describe a situation in which he lost his job and Trump was elected president: “glaring irony”).
"Based upon the moment that is on that tape, I understand people's reaction. I agree. I also felt that way," Bush answered when Roberts asked if he believes he should have been fired from the Today show.
"I should have known better, absolutely. There's no question about that," Bush said. "People also say, 'You should have stopped it.’ I didn't have the strength of character at the time to do that. I wish I did."
He even agreed with Melania Trump that he egged the future president on: "I definitely added to the conversation by, you know...keeping the ball in the air."
"I sacrificed, you know, my own dignity in that moment. I was very pleased to say goodbye to that guy," Bush added—“that guy” meaning not Trump but instead Bush’s younger self.
Bush revealed that he actually screened the Access Hollywood tape “days before” it exploded in the popular culture, but didn’t say what prompted him to consult the archives. Did he know it was about to be leaked? Fritzo didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
In the GMA interview’s emotional climax (ditto the Hollywood Reporter’s), Bush—the father of three daughters—recounted: “My now-16-year-old daughter called me, and she was in tears. And she was really upset and I said ‘Mary, it’s gonna be ok, don’t worry.’ And she said ‘No. Why were you laughing at the things he was saying in that bus? Why were you playing along, Dad? It wasn’t funny.’… And I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ She didn’t want to hear any explanation. Just ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
Then Bush—who confided to the Hollywood Reporter that he’d been meditating, doing yoga, reading self-improving books, and walking over hot coals with Tony Robbins—got to the main point of the exercise.
"I am only ready to get back to work now because there is purpose, and there is clarity, and there is acceptance, and there is a changed person," Bush said. "I do feel like a better man. I feel like...a better father, partner, friend. And I do think, better at my job than I ever was."
Needless to say, Bush’s full-on apology was far more forthright than Trump’s half-hearted acknowledgement that he wasn’t perfect before pivoting, via a campaign video, to an attack on the Clintons.
These days, it’s difficult to conceive that Trump would admit to any flaws at all. Being president means never having to say you’re sorry, while being an erring TV presenter means knowing how to say sorry to save your tanking career. How convincing Billy Bush has been on his apology tour remains to be seen.