Two standing ovations. That’s what Bill Cosby, in a “Hello Friend” sweatshirt and with a fist clenched above his head in defiance, received Friday night at a performance in his “Bill Cosby 77” tour at a Melbourne, Florida, theater.
This fervid show of blind loyalty was only one shocker in a series of revelations about the man we once thought of as America’s Dad. More than dozen women, and counting, accusing Cosby of sexual assault. A former employee of NBC studios telling the New York Daily News that he guarded Cosby’s dressing room when models were brought in for “mentoring,” as well as providing copies of the money orders sent to keep them quiet. The lingering effect of Hannibal Buress calling Cosby a “rapist” during his comedy act. A tweet asking fans to create Cosby memes getting hijacked by his detractors. The most well-paid public relations team is having difficulty containing the damage.
Even giving the Melbourne audience of 2,000 some leeway in the presence of a cultural icon, the outpouring is deeply disturbing. Sure, Cliff Huxtable was the perfect parent, the be-sweatered obstetrician in “The Cosby Show,” the most popular sitcom of the 1980s. In recent years, Cosby endeared himself to a large chunk of white America by acting as the outspoken scold of his own people, blaming poverty on the pathologies of black culture.
But if a fraction of what we’ve heard about Cosby is true, how could Friday’s crowd shout its approval? Understandable, perhaps, that the ticketholders showed up: the sunk costs of the ticket, the parking, the babysitter. Some may have gone as rubberneckers to get a closer look at the crash of a celebrity. But most went to cheer him on. The sorry display could arise only from a blend of misogyny and denial.
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In that, this theater was like the wider world of the military barracks, college campuses, corporate suites and locker rooms where we treat sexual-assault victims as culprits, guilty until proved innocent. This despite studies showing that a scant 2 percent to 8 percent of charges of rape are false.
Those in denial often cite the lack of criminal charges. But often that decision reflects not the prosecutor’s belief in the accused’s innocence but the difficulty of making charges stick. No one wants to believe the worst of respected men, and often the “real rape” markers juries need – force, screams, bruises, a witness – are missing.
Cosby’s minions think they can stonewall. Before Friday’s performance, his lawyer Martin Singer called the new claims “ridiculous, and it is completely illogical that so many people would have said nothing, done nothing, and made no reports to law enforcement or asserted civil claims if they thought they had been assaulted.”
Oh, but they did. In one lawsuit in 2005, Andrea Constand, a former director of women’s basketball at Temple University assembled 13 “Jane Does” with similar allegations about assignations in studio bungalows, chauffeured limousines, luxury hotels and a New York City brownstone that were arranged by coterie of enablers often under the guise of mentoring. Cosby settled, and they were never called to testify. Still, over the years, most of them told their stories and some have again in the past two weeks.
The suburban Philadelphia district attorney, Bruce Castor, whose decision not to prosecute Cosby is used as evidence of his innocence, said in an interview last week that it meant no such thing. “I didn’t say that he didn’t commit the crime,” Castor said. “What I said was there was insufficient admissible and reliable evidence upon which to base a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s ‘prosecutors speak' for ‘I think he did it but there’s just not enough here to prosecute.’”
In contrast to the crowd in Melbourne, there’s hope in the reaction of corporate America, its finger always to the wind of a cultural shift. NBC, Netflix and TV Land have canceled multimillion-dollar projects with Cosby. David Letterman and others have refused to have him on their talk shows. And in the wider world, there’s finally an effort to bring military officers, star athletes, frat boys and CEOs to account for sexual assaults.
At the University of Virginia, fraternities have been closed until the end of the year after Rolling Stone published a report of gang rape of a freshman at one of the wealthiest, most established houses on campus. She faced immense pressure to keep quiet about the attack and did. Since the article published, other women have told of similar experiences and of UVA administrators allegedly discouraging victims from reporting assaults to preserve the school’s reputation.
The default response when powerful men behave badly is to say they didn’t: priests, presidents, athletes, TV evangelists and movie stars. Last month we learned that the nice star of the show “7th Heaven,” Stephen Collins, had been arrested and accused of molesting girls as young as 10 while playing the role of a pastor. We swallow excuses. It was an “honest mistake” when football player Ray Rice punched his fiancée in an elevator. Let’s build a shrine to Penn State coach Joe Paterno and have campus police move away the few with the temerity to protest on behalf of the children who endured years of sexual abuse because he turned a blind eye to it.
We don’t let go of our myths easily, but we do eventually. That likeness of Paterno has been removed, Rice is benched, and Catholic bishops have been banished. Cosby doesn’t know it yet, but Melbourne is an intermediate end for him; seven of his remaining 35 appearances have been canceled. No matter his celebrity, in a better, fairer world, Cosby should have had to answer his accusers. The statute of limitations makes it too late to do anything about it legally, but not socially.
All we have is to treat him like a pariah, to take away his pedestal, to tell the women that we’re sorry we couldn’t hear you and that we'll listen next time. And to stop cheering.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.