In a year when we lost Prince and Bowie but elected Donald Trump, it’s safe to say we’re all among the ranks of 2016’s biggest losers, but sometimes the rotating stage of political theater conspires to spotlight and iconicize people who might have otherwise passed by in the shadows. Such is the case for two of the unlikeliest players in the grand American tragedy of 2016: Billy Bush and Huma Abedin. In the topsy-turvy show that we found ourselves unable to exit during this election, at least two of the year’s dueling ballads of regret were sung from the sidelines.
Despite Billy Bush’s political pedigree as the nephew of former President George H.W. Bush, and the cousin of both former President George W. Bush and 2016 primary candidate Jeb Bush, cousin Billy aspired for red carpets as opposed to Oval Offices. Since 2001 he has hosted Access Hollywood, delivering puff piece after puff piece on the dating lives of Hollywood’s elite and sub-elite. He was less competent than Katie Couric, less memorable than Matt Lauer, less qualified than Ann Curry, but perhaps by virtue of what could have been described before this year as his quality of inoffensiveness, Bush still wound up as one of the hosts of the Today show, hired in August of this year to expand his role from an Olympic commentator to co-anchor.
With the same well-oiled curls he’s been sporting for a decade, Billy Bush perpetually looks like he could be any anonymous bro who wears his polo shirts with the collar popped. But the first signs of Billy Bush as a singular figure, an emblem for more than his own immediate vacuousness, came over the summer during the Rio Olympics. Champion swimmer Ryan Lochte fabricated a story about being mugged at gunpoint to cover up an incident he instigated alongside other American swimmers at a Brazilian gas station, and Lochte’s lies became a point of contention among Lauer’s Today show co-anchors. Bush’s obsequiousness in defending Lochte, his insistence that boys will be boys, his mistaken trust that part of Lochte’s story must be true, his biased blindness to white American male entitlement made a meme out of Bush and his cohost, Al Roker, whose obvious disdain and cocktail-stirring frustration became emblematic for every person who’s had to suffer through the yawning stupidity of a coworker who believes his position of privilege to be the same as a position of neutrality.
But if the Olympics established Billy Bush as a scumbag, Bush’s year in shame peaked in October as the by now infamous video of Donald Trump bragging about groping women surfaced, with Bush acting as Trump’s interviewer and cheerleader on the set of Days of Our Lives. Though Bush stops short of condoning assault himself, he neither reprimands Trump nor steers the conversation away, instead laughing along and wrapping the interview by suggesting to soap opera star Arianne Zucker that she greet himself and Trump with hugs.
Within tragedies, there are always instigators who speed the process of destruction along. Bush is not strategic enough to be an Iago, not effectual enough to be the snake in the garden. Instead, he is the icon of everything subservient, the crawling henchman who draws pleasure from debasing himself, defender of nothing but his own proximity to power. His conduct in the video got him fired from the Today show, and maybe if the election had turned in Hillary Clinton’s favor, that might have been the last we heard of him, but even now, websites like Mediaite are publishing articles in defense of Bush. Breitbart expressed interest in hiring Bush as a pop culture contributor, and on a recent CNN segment a liberal law professor suggested Bush as an alternative to Trump for a gig on The Celebrity Apprentice. Bush is the icon for every ass-licker who fails up because he’s licked the right asses at the right time.
If the entire saga of Billy Bush unfolded as the result of a lifelong abdication of his responsibility to think, the tragedy of Huma Abedin is the equal and opposite result of a life devoted to strategy. Over the last decade, Abedin has been best known for her role as Hillary Clinton’s closest aide — “if I had a second daughter, it would be Huma,” Clinton once famously declared — although as this year wraps, even that most concrete of Abedin’s identifiers seems in question, with Clinton’s future in politics all but certainly over and Abedin’s emails still in FBI custody. For much of her professional life, Abedin’s protection of her privacy was one of her great assets as an adviser to one of the world’s most powerful women, but because we don’t know about Abedin’s beliefs beyond her political support for her boss and her husband, because she has kept the details of her own professional accomplishments within her own circles, we know Huma Abedin first and foremost as an image that arrived to us open to the whims of our own interpretation.
The documentary Weiner took audiences inside Anthony Weiner’s failed 2013 mayoral campaign, and if Abedin’s role on the sideline of the Clinton campaign remained much the same (if a little more Vogue-approved than usual) for the majority of 2016, the premiere of the film brought Abedin into the public eye with more access than ever before. Abedin was not the subject of the film, and if Weiner is to be believed, she never anticipated playing such a large role, but as she mills around in the background, she’s caught by the camera between Weiner’s events. Watching for Abedin’s appearances gives Weiner a kind of haunting purpose beyond simply gawking at the filmmaker’s access to a public figure in crisis. Abedin begins the film as Weiner’s biggest asset and advocate, but as his campaign unravels, she becomes the first audience for him to rehearse his too often false denials. By the end, she doesn’t want to be filmed, she doesn’t want to speak, she can’t bear to be seen in relation with Sydney Leathers, and the implication is that she also can’t bear to be seen with her husband.
The documentary was released in May of this year, and by August, Weiner was at the center of another lewd photo scandal, this time including his and Abedin’s son in his dick pics. Abedin announced their separation by the end of the week. The dissolution of a marriage under such circumstances would always be traumatic, especially since the marriage involves a small child, but the sensationalized nature of Abedin’s split with Anthony Weiner combined with the relative lack of information about Abedin’s personal politics made her an easy target for the right, as any and all means were used to destabilize Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Trump fixated on Weiner as a threat to national security, Abedin’s Muslim background became the center of conservative conspiracy theories, and the seizure of her emails by FBI director James Comey less than two weeks before the election became a point of contention that some, including former Senate minority leader Harry Reid, believe cost Clinton the election.
In happier times, Abedin’s wide smile, her bright red lipstick, her silky blowout, her dramatic coats, her presentation of perfectly coiffed professionalism made her instantly legible as a particularly feminine ideal of workplace competency. But looking at the most recent pictures of Abedin to surface after the election — her face crumpled under the same familiar crimson lipstick, her hair still caught perfectly in the wind — Abedin becomes the figure for feminine futility, and her efforts to maintain her composure only compound the effect of the image. No matter how hard you try, no matter how professional you are, no matter how poised or how principled, there are no guaranteed rewards for maintaining your own conduct. You can know yourself completely, but you’ll never know every facet of the people you surround yourself with, and their lack of self-control or self-knowledge can always be used against you in absence of your own failings.