Cosby's Last Act
I came to Temple University several years after Bill Cosby. But the prominence he had by then achieved as a standup comic, along with the success of his comedy albums and the hit TV series, “I Spy” (in which he costarred with Robert Culp from 1965 to 1968), gave him something of an inspirational presence.
That was felt most vividly among the black students, for whom Cosby was held up as a paradigm of accomplishment. But the same was true as well among us (mostly white) denizens of Thomas Hall, an old church on campus, the basement of which had been converted to house the studios of WRTI, Temple’s radio station (90.1 FM).
My Friday nights during the ’67-68 academic year were spent hosting a classical music show in the booth from which Cosby had spun jazz records a few years earlier. I even got to know Harold, the building’s ancient custodian who, it was asserted, had been the model for one of Cosby’s stock comic characters, “Old Weird Harold.”
To me, Bill Cosby has always been the textbook example of an entertainer able to achieve universal appeal. I recall crafting an essay for my Editorial Writing class at Temple which cited his classic “Noah’s Ark” routine (“Uh, Lord…what’s a cubit?”) for its humorous blurring of ethnic and sectarian boundaries.
The warmth of Cosby’s personality and his manifest ease with children made him a “Sesame Street” favorite and the patron saint of Jell-O. (Remember those cute commercials with all the little kiddies?) And of course, his long-running and wildly popular “The Cosby Show” cemented his image as the embodiment of fatherhood and champion of family values, not to mention an unparalleled generator of high TV ratings.
Cosby’s reputation took a modest hit when word leaked some years ago that he had been involved in an extra-marital affair. But the accepting nature of the American public about weaknesses of the flesh -- and the general recognition that prominent male entertainers live in a world of adoring women fans -- allowed him to recover. And anyway, his wife of many years, Camille, seemed to have forgiven him, so (in the words of Pope Francis) Who am I to judge?
Now we’re told that everybody’s favorite dad has been a monstrous sexual predator all the years he’s radiated his appealing persona. Talk about cognitive dissonance! One can hardly accept such a shocking possibility.
That’s my first reaction, anyway.
My second reaction is: Well, sure, people are complicated. And famous people have plenty of sycophants around to keep their sins under wraps, burnish the celebrity sheen, and relieve a big star of having to address his own human frailties.
Look at John F. Kennedy. He was carrying on with some of the highest-profile women in the world, under the cover (not to say active collusion) of the White House press corps.
More recently, a documentary titled An Open Secret, focusing on sexual exploitation of young actors, premiered at the New York Film Festival, creating a good deal of, shall we say, discomfort among a circle of prominent Hollywood moguls.
So… could Cosby have done what’s alleged? Anything’s possible. Perhaps more than possible. Cosby has, himself, been a kind of Hollywood mogul, and I can’t account for his sexual predilections.
My third reaction has to do with timing. Permit me to digress...
In 2007, General Ion Mihai Pacepa, a former Romanian intelligence chief and a defector to the West, wrote an article for National Review, in which he detailed a plot hatched by the Soviet KGB to discredit the Catholic Church. It involved production of a 1968 play titled The Deputy, ostensibly by German dramatist Rolf Hochhuth, which charged that Pope Pius XII had collaborated with the Nazis. Though pretty much discredited right from the start, this claim has been the seed for a series of articles and books that have carried on a drumbeat of accusations about World War II papal anti-Semitism.
In truth, the Church had sheltered thousands of endangered Jews and trafficked in forged identity and travel documents to help many escape Europe. Pius himself was responsible for saving hundreds of lives by hiding Jewish fugitives in the Vatican.
But the bad-pope meme was hyped to international media from time to time over the years. It emerged again in a big way during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II when he was giving encouragement to the Solidarity movement in Poland.
Conveniently, the idea of one pope being the deputy of Nazism was made to impugn another whose actions, incidentally, were undermining the already shaky foundations of Communism. It was guilt by association. If Pius was a Jew-hating jerk, why should anybody trust John Paul? Didn’t they both wear the same funny hats?
We all know how that ploy turned out. But, what has this reflection to do with Bill Cosby?
Whether or not Cosby is guilty -- and, once again, he may very well be (I’m certainly not equating him with Pius XII) -- it strikes me as interesting that we should be hearing so much about his purportedly vicious antics just now.
While certainly no Tea Party icon, Bill Cosby has been a highly vocal, highly visible exponent of parental responsibility, youthful rectitude, and all-around self control.
What we’re hearing about him lately rather weakens his message, to say the least. And that’s very much to the point. Eliminating Bill Cosby as a dissident voice in the lefty atmosphere of Hollywood -- where it’s an article of Received Truth that the solutions to all social problems, and especially to the woes of black people, lie in government -- no doubt brings satisfaction to those who consider Cosby a right-wing pawn.
But let’s go a step farther.
Isn’t there another prominent figure who’s emerged from the African-American community with a similar personal-integrity message -- someone, moreover, who’s recently changed his party affiliation to Republican and is gaining traction as a possible presidential or vice-presidential nominee?
A certain retired neurosurgeon comes to mind: one Ben Carson.
Could it be -- is it within the realm of possibility -- that Cosby’s alleged crimes have been so glaringly brought to light with an objective not unlike that of those old KGB spooks who sought to tar John Paul with the smear on Pius? Is this a shot across the bow of black conservatives in general and Ben Carson in particular?
I don’t wish to minimize Cosby’s possible guilt, and I’m not suggesting that the women accusing him are willing participants in a political gambit. In fact, one of the alleged victims -- actress/producer Barbara Bowman, who claims Cosby raped her back in 1985 -- asked a very pertinent question in an op-ed she wrote for the Washington Post: “Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?”
But more to the point, why now?
Apparently, these lurid Cosby tales have been around for some time, though I wasn’t aware of them, and I dare say most people weren’t. Bowman herself has been interviewed several times. She was even scheduled to testify in a suit brought by another alleged Cosby victim in 2004, but didn’t get a chance because the matter was settled out of court with no admission of guilt.
So the question remains: Why has the media finally decided to focus so intensely on the alleged abuse of these women -- incidents that would have occurred over an extended period of time -- at this particular moment?
Supposedly, some other standup comic recently joked about them, causing a social network firestorm. But then, why did that happen?
If the charges against Cosby prove true, let him face whatever consequences are appropriate. But as more accusers emerge and more news outlets pile on, there’s an increasing smell of opportunism around this sad episode in the ongoing Cosby show.
The career of a great entertainer appears to be ending on a tragic note. And I wonder if a group of women who may have been exploited sexually aren’t being exploited again.
Bill Kassel is a writer, communications consultant, and media producer. His essays and random rants can be found online at: www.billkassel.com.