By MARSHA MERCER
Once upon a time, Bill Cosby made us feel good about America. Then his victims told us what we didn’t know.
It seems incredible in our #MeToo era that any man – even someone as rich and powerful as Cosby -- could drug and sexually assault dozens of women over decades with impunity.
To understand how it happened, we need to remember what TV and America were like when a young Cosby started telling us stories we wanted to hear.
The stooped 81-year-old sexual predator being led away in handcuffs Tuesday was nothing like the wholesome, vibrant Dr. Cliff Huxtable viewers respected and loved for the eight seasons of “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s and ‘90s and later in reruns.
Cosby created, produced and starred in the first TV sitcom hit that depicted a successful, upper middle-class black family. He played an obstetrician married to a lawyer.
It’s hard to underestimate the show’s cultural significance.
“For me being on `The Cosby Show’ was like being a part of history,” Lili Bernard says in a new BBC documentary, “Bill Cosby: Fall of an American Icon,” on YouTube.
Cosby drugged and raped her in the 1990s, she says.
Her interview is one of several victims’ accounts woven into the documentary. The film contends white and black viewers alike so loved the fictional America Cosby created that he was able to continue his double life even as woman after woman reported his sexual misconduct.
For a long time, many Americans simply found it inconceivable Cosby did what he was accused of doing.
Not only was he reportedly the world’s highest paid entertainer for a time, but he also won several Emmys and Kennedy Center honors -- for lifetime achievement in the performing arts in 1998 and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2009.
Fans dismissed as supermarket tabloid trash a National Enquirer story in 2000 about a Cosby victim. As other women’s stories appeared, people blamed the victims, calling them gold diggers and worse.
Despite rumors of marital infidelity, Cosby was revered. He was married – to the same wife! – and like Huxtable had five children. A philanthropist, he gave millions to black colleges and universities.
As “America’s Dad,” he went on tour, lecturing black men and women about responsibility, but his scolding did not sit well. It’s safe to say his hypocrisy led to his downfall.
In 2014, a black comedian named Hannibal Buress doing stand-up in Philadelphia called Cosby the “smuggest old black man” and “a rapist.” Do an internet search for Cosby and rape, Buress suggested. A reporter in the audience filmed and posted the performance, and the video went viral.
Only then did decade-old events get the attention they deserved.
Andrea Constand was 30 and a Temple University women’s basketball administrator when she went to Cosby’s mansion in the Philadelphia suburbs in 2004. Cosby, a member of the Temple Board of Trustees, was her mentor.
He gave her pills and then molested her, she told authorities a year later. But it was a he-said, she-said situation, and no charges were filed.
Constand filed a civil suit against Cosby for sexual battery and defamation. After he gave a four-day deposition, they settled the case in Constand’s favor for nearly $3.4 million.
Finally, nine years after she first reported Cosby, police used his admissions in the deposition to pursue the criminal case.
More than 60 victims found the strength to come forward, some after staying silent since the 1960s. Cosby was charged only in Constand’s case as others were beyond the statute of limitations.
His family and friends tried to portray Cosby as the victim of racism and sexism, but his victims were black and white.
He so carefully crafted his persona that people thought he was Cliff Huxtable – thoughtful, funny and upright. But reality was far different.
As the real Cosby was revealed, he lost endorsements and reruns of “The Cosby Show” were canceled, costing him income. The Kennedy Center rescinded his honors.
Declared a sexually violent predator under Pennsylvania law, Cosby was sentenced to three to 10 years in state prison for aggravated indecent assault.
Then they locked him up.
If nothing else, we should learn a TV character is just a TV character – no matter how beloved he seems.
©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.