Politics & Policy

Don’t Bet against Bill Cosby

At least six reasons the beloved comic could rise again.

Things continue to look grim for Bill Cosby — still more women have emerged to accuse him of sexual assault; his Hollywood-and-Highland star on the Walk of Fame has been repeatedly defaced; and even the U.S. Navy has stripped him of an honorary C.P.O. rating — but there are signs that the veteran entertainer’s luck may be turning around.

For starters, the attorney repping the new accusers is Gloria Allred, the most shameless slip-and-fall lawyer in Los Angeles and a litigator whose presence in any case is a virtual guarantee that it is meritless. (Allred in this case has taken even less care than usual to disguise the dollar signs in her irises.)

Cosby himself has also started to fire back at his accusers, filing court papers against his alleged Playboy Mansion victim Judy Huth, whom Cosby accuses of having tried to blackmail him for years. Among other things, the filing declares that the expert word-slurrer is in fact a lifelong teetotaler, which if true is interesting given how many of the accusations (that Cosby drugged and raped numerous women in incidents dating from 1966 through 2004) center around alcoholic beverages. The filing also gives a fuller response from the shrinking Cosby camp than has been heard so far.

But it’s also notable that plenty of people have not stopped believing in Cos. Although most of his public appearances have been canceled, the cancelations have come from above, not below. The Tarrytown Music Hall last week announced that the decision to postpone two scheduled Saturday performances had been made by “Bill Cosby, in consultation with the promoter.” A representative of the Music Hall tells National Review Online that both shows were sold out.

One recent show that did go on suggests Cosby still enjoys a substantial reservoir of public goodwill. The longtime television and standup fixture got a standing ovation and had the audience roaring during a late-November routine in Melbourne, Fla.

Nor is it only self-selecting audiences who still hold a torch for the 77-year-old entertainer. BET’s Centric channel will be showing two episodes of The Cosby Show Tuesday night, including “Where’s Rudy” (“Theo and Vanessa are charged with watching Rudy, while Clair enters her squash in a contest at the mall”). Magic Johnson’s ASPiRE network is giving heavy rotation to Cosby’s first two scripted television series: I Spy, a secret-agent buddy dramedy pairing him with the late Robert Culp, and The Bill Cosby Show, in which he plays high-school teacher Chet Kinkaid. ASPiRE even runs interstitials touting the comedian’s scrupulously non-blue material. “They say comedy is hard, and clean comedy is nearly impossible,” the house ad declares. “Not if you’re Bill Cosby.”

ASPiRE is available in 20.6 million households, and Centric, according to Entertainment Weekly, is available in 51 million. Centric did not respond to queries about the series’ ratings and the decision to keep running Cosby programming. An ASPiRE spokeswoman tells National Review Online and other media only that ”the series are currently running on the network. We are closely monitoring the situation.”

While many experts have declared Cosby’s career over, a precedent from less than ten years ago suggests otherwise. In 2005, many years of official and unofficial allegations of child sexual molestation against Michael Jackson — during which the king of pop reportedly spent more than $35 million on settlements with at least 24 accusers — culminated in a criminal trial in which he was charged with 14 counts related to child molestation and intoxicating a minor. Although Jackson was acquitted on all charges, several witnesses for the defense subsequently said the singer had sexually abused them and coached them to conceal incriminating stories. Unlike courts of criminal law, courts of public opinion are not bound to proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and yet the public remained committed to Michael Jackson until the end. Though he probably did not suspect it at the time, Jackson (presumably like Cosby, who is quite old and has health problems) did not have long to live at the time of his trial. Yet when he died in 2009 it was in the midst of a popular and high-profile comeback. Rather than hailing quack doctor Conrad Murray as a hero who inadvertently protected the children of California when the courts couldn’t, the public cried out for Murray to be punished for having administered a lethal drug cocktail to a beloved national treasure, friend of popes and presidents. (Murray was convicted in 2011 of involuntary manslaughter.)

Though none of the entertainment-industry sources contacted for this article would comment on the potential upside of continuing to serve the market for Cosby fans, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s a major business opportunity being left on the table. Simon & Schuster has declined to respond to queries by phone, e-mail, and fax, but Mark Whitaker’s biography Cosby: His Life and Times has reportedly been a sales disappointment, selling about 6,000 copies since its September publication, according to Neilsen Soundscan, and currently showing up at number 24,853 at Amazon. But what if the widely decried failing of Whitaker’s book — that it lacks any mention at all of the multiple rape accusations against its hero — were actually a selling point? The publishing industry is not brimming with innovative thinkers, but it doesn’t take the business vision of Jeff Bezos to see the potential in a marketing campaign emphasizing the book’s family-friendliness, with bookstore displays along these lines: “Say No to the Haters: If you still love Cos, buy this book.”

Hollywood, along with the history of the Democratic party–controlled South, has etched in the American memory an image of the torch-wielding mob demanding summary punishment of suspects. But often it is the masses who are determined not to believe the frenzies whipped up for them by the coastal media. As the apparent collapse of Rolling Stone’s University of Virginia rape story suggests, that skepticism is often well founded. But sometimes it comes from the less rational regions of the heart where love and fandom reside. The American people have been willing to forget credible rape charges against other notable men, including one rape accusation against a president of the United States.

In the few venues where it is still on display, Cosby’s charisma — which was always rooted as much in his amiability as in the actual funniness of his comedy — is not to be underestimated. This reporter is pretty well convinced that there is at least something to at least some of the charges against Cosby. But watching a few of ASPiRE’s Bill Cosby Show reruns (including one in which the great Don Knotts plays a repo man trying to get Chet’s TV, and another in which Chet and his buddies argue over whether Josh Gibson could have caught a baseball thrown from the top of the Washington Monument) was like a presentation of forensic evidence leading to an inescapable conclusion: There’s no way somebody as likeable as Cos could have done all those terrible things. It’s a stupid reaction, but then gut feelings don’t come from the brain.

One common element linking the Rolling Stone debacle, the Cosby allegations, and Lena Dunham’s apparent libel of a campus Republican she describes in specifically Ron Burgundy terms has been an assumption that civilization and civilized behavior began just a few years ago, that all these sexcapades took place in a benighted era among people who lacked our fine powers of discernment. (Not for nothing has Mad Men become the go-to pop reference for no-talent hacks from the White House to the Washington Post.) This is clearly false. The Cosby allegations, and the horror of them, were discussed widely nearly ten years ago. (As is often the case, it was Tina Fey who pointed the way for America in an eerily perceptive Saturday Night Live sketch.) That the charges fell out of popular discussion was not a sign that the nation’s consciousness hadn’t been sufficiently raised. It was a sign that people really love Bill Cosby, to the point of not wanting to believe, or at least not wanting to recall, bad things about him. Some of that trust has slipped recently, but surprisingly little, given the extensive coverage of the accusations. According to a company that purports to measure celebrities’ perceived trustworthiness, Cosby’s “trust rating” fell from 76.3 in March of last year to 57.1 last month. That’s a steep slide, but it also means that as of March 2013, nine years after the first charges against him were made, Cosby was still the third most trusted celebrity in America.

It’s more than possible he could get back up there again. Celebrities and politicians fall on the basis of public frenzies, but they also rise on them.

— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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