WASHINGTON – A few weeks ago, I spent a delightful afternoon and evening with Bill Cosby. I was the emcee of a gala for historically black Claflin University, which is in my hometown; Cosby was the headliner. Both of us were donating our time to a worthy cause.
It was just the second time I had met him, so I certainly don’t claim to know him well. It was apparent that he’s having serious problems with his eyesight; a young man was at his side to help him navigate. Otherwise, Cosby was just what you’d expect if you ever watched an episode of his eponymous television show – warm, funny, avuncular, mischievous, wise. He was Cliff Huxtable in winter.
Cosby does his standup routine sitting down these days, but he had the audience roaring. I was floored by his talent – the way he spun out multiple threads of narrative until he seemed hopelessly lost in digression, then somehow pulled everything together at the end. He’s still got it.
So was I having a jolly old time with a serial rapist?
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It is possible that all the women who accuse Cosby of sexual predation are lying, in the sense that anything not prohibited by the laws of physics is possible. But it doesn’t seem very likely.
I confess that I’m having trouble squaring the allegations with the man I was with that day. I suspect many people may be experiencing the same kind of cognitive dissonance. Cosby has spent his long, groundbreaking career in the entertainment industry being such a good guy. How could he possibly be such a bad guy, too?
I still remember the electrifying night when “I Spy” debuted in 1965. It was the first network television series to feature an African American in a leading role, with Cosby co-starring alongside Robert Culp. They played a couple of secret agents who pretended to be an itinerant tennis pro (Culp) and his trainer (Cosby).
The writers made Cosby’s character the brainy one. “I Spy” never once, to my recollection, dealt head-on with the issue of race. It didn’t have to. Seeing an intelligent, well-spoken black character, with no hint of subservience or buffoonery, was statement enough.
Cosby’s image as a paragon reached its apotheosis nearly two decades later in “The Cosby Show,” which began its eight-year run in 1984. One of the greatest sitcoms in television history, “Cosby” took viewers into the lives of a middle-class African American family. The cultural references were specific and revelatory – familiar music, historically black colleges, the “code-switching” that upwardly mobile African Americans learned to perform. Oh, and the sweaters.
“The Cosby Show” was a soapbox. Cosby used it to preach universal truths about love and family, but also to deliver targeted messages about the value of education for African Americans.
In recent years, his insistence on the theme of black self-empowerment has bordered on the shrill. At times, it seemed to me, he went overboard in “blaming the victim.” But his heart was in the right place.
Or seemed to be.
How am I supposed to reconcile this history with allegations of sexual misconduct and rape that span more than three decades? Five women, including supermodel Janice Dickinson, have come forward in recent days to charge that Cosby lured them on the pretext of mentoring their careers, plied them with alcohol and perhaps some unknown drug, and forced them to have sex when they were unable to resist.
A 2005 civil suit by a Philadelphia woman alleging that Cosby sexually assaulted her – and offered her money to keep quiet about the attack – was settled out of court.
It is important to note that Cosby has never been charged with any crime. It is also important to note that statutes of limitations have run out on most, if not all, of the alleged attacks. It may be unfair, but a rape that goes formally unreported for too long is no longer legally considered a rape.
Is it fair to Cosby, then, that his alleged victims come forward now, knowing they will never have to prove anything in court? Cosby’s defenders should be aware that some of the women have spoken publicly before; the difference is that now they’re being listened to.
Cosby’s new sitcom project has been canceled. “The Cosby Show” has been yanked from the rotation on TV Land. I’d like to believe the man I met is incapable of such monstrous acts. But his stony silence makes it hard to keep the faith.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.