Bill Cosby and the crumbling of an icon
WASHINGTON – The final chapter of Bill Cosby's public life is far from the most important spectacle we are witnessing, but it may be the saddest.
Cosby's trial in Pennsylvania on rape charges ended with a hung jury Saturday, which means it didn't end at all – prosecutors announced immediately that they will try him again. I fully understand that decision. This may be the only chance, in a criminal court, to hold the 79-year-old Cosby accountable for dozens of alleged sexual assaults. His accusers deserve a verdict.
And there are so many accusers – at least 60, according to the most reliable count I can find.
I confess that I've watched the crumbling of Cosby's iconic persona mostly with peripheral vision, glancing and then quickly turning away. I haven't wanted to delve too deeply into the allegations or even closely follow the trial. I didn't want to deal with the fact that a man I admired so much was accused by dozens of women of being a serial sexual predator.
It is hard to overstate Cosby's cultural importance. I doubt there are many African-Americans of a certain age who don't remember how thrilling it was when "I Spy" debuted on NBC in 1965. Cosby, a black man, co-starred and shared equal billing with Robert Culp in a series whose improbable premise – the tennis circuit as a setting for espionage – did not detract from the show's social impact.
It didn't matter that Culp played the tennis pro and Cosby played his trainer. Cosby's character was an equal partner in the duo's exploits; he was smarter, just as brave, and possessed of great dignity. Culp always got the girl, but it was beyond the realm of possibility that Cosby would have on-screen relationships with white women. The film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," starring Sidney Poitier, wouldn't challenge that taboo for another couple of years.
Cosby was also known in my family's household as the greatest stand-up comedian of his time. Unlike other top black comics, such as Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley, Cosby never worked blue and never spoke in stereotypical dialect. He was funny in a circumspect, respectable way. Parents could let the children listen.
Fast-forward to 1984 and "The Cosby Show." This time, Cosby's influence on the culture was even greater. In its portrayal of an upper-middle-class black family, the show was uplifting and aspirational – not just for African-Americans but for the whole country. In retrospect, the show gave a false impression of how far we had come in bridging the racial divide. I believe that failing was outweighed by the fact that the show never allowed white Americans to see the Huxtables as "them." They could only be seen as "us."
I've met Cosby a couple of times. Once was a chance encounter, six or seven years ago, at a fancy restaurant in Washington. We ended up having a long and pleasant conversation, mostly about education, which has been his great public passion. The second was in 2014 – a few weeks before the first rape and sexual assault accusations became public – when I emceed a fundraising gala for Claflin University, a historically black college in my hometown. Cosby was the headliner.
He was obviously infirm, his vision so impaired that he had a young man with him to help him navigate. He performed his stand-up routine from a chair. This was long after he had lost touch with the black American zeitgeist by railing against saggy jeans and preaching as if he had invented the concept of personal responsibility. So there was skepticism in the audience – and, with a magical performance, he totally dispelled it. I came away marveling at his talent.
I write all of this not to excuse Cosby's alleged crimes, but to explain why I am so conflicted. Did he, in fact, drug and sexually assault, Andrea Constand in 2004? The jurors, who could not reach a verdict, heard testimony from only one of the other women who have accused him of similar deeds. I can't help thinking the outcome would have been different if, say, a dozen other accusers had told their stories.
After the mistrial was declared, Cosby's publicist proclaimed that "Mr. Cosby's power is back!" – a boast that was absurd and obscene. Cosby's greatness came in the way people could look at him and, in his reflection, see themselves and the nation in a better light. That power is forever gone.