Without having been convicted of or even charged with any crime, Bill Cosby this autumn became the subject of some of the most intense public vituperation in recent memory. Many tour dates have been called off; his comeback NBC sitcom and a scheduled Netflix standup special have been canceled; he has been disinvited from countless guest appearances. The popular and enduring entertainer is accused by a multitude of people, whose apparent ethical characters are varied but whose stories are strikingly similar, of drugging and sexually assaulting many women in incidents dating from 1966 through 2004. New accusers continue to emerge — including a second-hand claimant in Salon who says a friend’s consensual relationship with Cosby in the 1980s included at least one incident of non-consensual drugging and rape. “I had known the truth since that memorable night in 1981,” author and revenge porn activist Charlotte Laws writes of a friendly reunion with Cosby in 2004, shortly after a Temple University women’s basketball program director had publicly accused Cosby of sexual assault. “Bill had drugged my close friend, whom I will call Sandy, and then had sex with her.”
Laws is not the only Cosby accuser who discovered righteousness years after the fact. New York Times columnist David Carr beats his own breast and the breasts of others in demanding “What took so long?” Cosby biographer Mark Whitaker last week cleansed his own error in ignoring the longstanding rape allegations through the sincerest form of penance: a tweeted apology. In the New York Daily News, Frank Scotti, a 90-year-old former facilities manager at NBC, shared self-incriminating stories of having delivered hush payments to women and stood guard during Cosby’s closed-door encounters. In a separate article in the Daily News, an unnamed “stunned source” at David Letterman’s Late Show says that prior to Cosby appearances the show’s young female staffers “all had to gather around in the green room backstage and sit down and watch him eat curry” — an allegation that somehow seems even creepier if “eat curry” is not assumed to be a euphemism for an unspeakable sex act. In late November the Washington Post devoted the upper front page of a Sunday edition to a five-page narrative covering decades of allegations against the star. Colleges have severed longstanding connections with Cosby, culminating Monday with Temple University, where he had been a trustee for more than 30 years.
But the most striking feature of the Cosby pile-on is that it was brought on by almost nothing. The basic shape of the charges has been widely available for nearly ten years, having received extensive coverage in print and electronic media in 2005 and 2006. This season’s feeding frenzy appears to have been sparked by some offhand comments made during a routine by Hannibal Buress, a New York comedian so far below Cosby’s level of stardom that even his fans mix him up with similarly named former Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress.
The seemingly random timing of Operation Just Cos raises a question: Who’s next?
Many other prominent men have until now lived down plausible accusations of sexual misconduct. One of them is Bill Clinton, a former president of the United States and potential future First Spouse, among whose many proved and unproved sexcapades is an accusation that he raped and beat an Arkansas woman when he was the Razorback State’s attorney general. Another is the late senator Daniel Inouye (D., Hawaii), who was repeatedly accused of sexual harassment before and after his death in 2012. Although the post-Cosby dragnet has so far focused on supposedly powerful and influential entertainers, government officials have actual power, of a kind unknown to any comedian or rapper.
The kind of career-ending unrest Cosby is experiencing in his twilight years could happen to many other men — and it is not at all clear how or why the next uprising will happen. Why did the accusations against Cosby, by nearly 20 women, lay quiet for many years — so quiet that they don’t even appear in Whitaker’s brand-new Simon & Schuster biography of the performer — only to take by storm a country that once considered Cosby our collective dad? Why hasn’t the same thing happened to R. Kelly, or Kobe Bryant, or Woody Allen? Why has Bill Clinton never experienced sex-scandal reflux?
“I don’t know if there’s any excuse other than lazy journalism,” rock reporter Jim DeRogatis tells National Review Online. “When something is public record, especially in terms of lawsuits where accusations are laid out, reporters can report on that. They have a responsibility to report on it.” DeRogatis has spent many years reporting on sexual assault charges against R. Kelly, a singer whose career continues to flourish despite multiple accusations of statutory rape and other offenses, some of them backed up by video evidence. DeRogatis contrasts the supine behavior of U.S. media with the recent flap over former CBC personality Jian Ghomeshi, who has been accused by multiple women of violent abuse involving a stuffed animal nicknamed “Big Ears Teddy.”
“Because Canada has such restrictive libel laws, the Toronto Star was reluctant to go to press with the story they had,” he says. “But Ghomeshi got wind of the story; he hired a crisis consultant and he posted a 3,000-word rant about it on Facebook. It was only after he opened that can of worms that the Star went ahead with the story, because he had opened the floodgates himself. We in the United States are on much firmer ground. We have to be fair and objective and get the other side, but we are not nearly as restricted in what we can report. And as far as getting the other side in these cases: Cosby refuses to say a word, and Kelly never refuted a word I wrote.”
DeRogatis struggles to explain the particular timing of the Cosby blowup. “The thing with the Cosby story is that it’s so at odds with the public image he has projected,” he says. “And the charges against Woody Allen are also at odds with the image Woody Allen projects, unless you watch Manhattan. If you watch Manhattan [in which Allen’s character falls in love with a very young Mariel Hemingway] you say ‘Oh, yeah!’ But the charges against R. Kelly are not at all at odds with the image he projected. And then again, look at Michael Jackson: To this day, there are people who just don’t want to believe.”
Some Cosby defenders have suggested the timing of the new dustup is, in some undefined way, suspect. But the only evidence for this claim seems to be that Cosby was poised for a career comeback of sorts, with new TV efforts, a glowing biography and a full schedule of high-profile media bookings. Cosby, however, has rarely been out of the spotlight since the 1970s, and he has had other surges since Temple’s Andrea Constand accused him of drugging and sexually assualting her in 2004. In 2008, highly praised writer Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a long Cosby profile in The Atlantic, while the editors of the Washington Monthly waggishly suggested Cosby for president. The New York Times in those heady days described Cosby as a precursor to presidential candidate Barack Obama, a thread that Whitaker pulls to absurd lengths in his new book. The 2008 wave of Cosmania would have been particularly ripe for the counternarrative, because Cosby was making headlines mostly for his “call-outs” to the black community: socially conservative lectures in support of personal responsibility and family values.
To the claim that Cosby is getting slammed because he was resurgent, DeRogatis counters that Kelly continues to thrive nearly 15 years after his accusers began to come forward. His marriage to the underage Aaliyah was “treated as a Romeo & Juliet love story” in a recent Lifetime biopic, DeRogatis notes, and Kelly got rave reviews for headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival, the Bonnaroo festival and Coachella in 2013.
“Pitchfork stands for green; for voter registration; for liberal, wealthy, politically correct kids,” DeRogatis tells NRO. “And R. Kelly is now perceived as having camp or shtick or ‘mandingo’ appeal. So you have these 25- or 30-year-old ‘filmmakers’ or ‘comic-book artists’ but actually baristas — bearded hipsters celebrating R. Kelly as hipster camp. He’s faded somewhat in the black community. But he’s the big shot of the Whole Foods-shopping hipoisie.”
Bill Clinton’s sole sexual indiscretion that has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt was an extramarital affair with a college-age White House staffer. In 1999, the president was acquitted in the Senate of related perjury and obstruction charges, with nine Republicans joining the president’s Democrats to vote not guilty on one or both counts. But the fact of his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky is not disputable, nor is a degree in women’s studies required to spot the unequal power dynamic between the president of the United States and his 22-year-old gofer. Yet at the time, Women’s Media Center co-founder Gloria Steinem scoffed at the story, scolding the news media for an “obsession with sex qua sex” that is “offensive to some, titillating to many and beside the point to almost everybody,” and even coquettishly suggesting, “Perhaps we have a responsibility to make it okay for politicians to tell the truth.”
Democrats were even harder on another Clinton accuser — one who, of all the alleged victims of all the men mentioned above, had the most compelling reason to wait years before coming forward: The man she claims raped her and gave her a black eye in a Little Rock hotel room in 1978 was then the top law-enforcement officer in a state that has never been a national model of ethical government (though it has improved since the Clintons left it). When NRO caught up with Juanita Broaddrick, she was reluctant to speak any further about her history with Bill Clinton — which included direct exposure to the Clinton White House’s crisis management apparatus. But she holds to two points: that Bill Clinton raped her and that she is still stung by the public opprobrium she endured after coming forward.
Candice E. Jackson interviewed Broaddrick and other Clinton accusers for her 2005 book Their Lives: The Women Targeted by the Clinton Machine. She takes aim at one consistent feature of the recent Cosby coverage, which involves claims stretching back to the mid Sixties: an assumption that American culture until about ten years ago had a practically stone-age mentality about gender relations.
“I think an easy answer that only has a grain of truth to it is that in the last 15-plus years our culture has made some improvements in recognizing and validating women who report unwanted sexual advances by powerful men,” Jackson tells National Review Online. “It’s partly true: Our culture has made some progress. But the women who were voluntarily and involuntarily involved with Bill Clinton over the years were ridiculed and attacked by the Left. The reason he was given a pass was because of his perceived political support for women. Contrast that with Bill Cosby, who has taken a lot of flack in recent years for daring to be a voice if not for political conservatism then moral conservatism. That’s very different from Bill Clinton’s outward appearance — regardless of how he treated women individually — as a promoter and policy advocate for women’s rights, which is usually code for a woman’s right to have an abortion. That’s why the Clintons have gotten a pass year after year, story after story, woman after woman.”
But Jackson acknowledges that there may be more at work in Bill Clinton’s lifetime pass than simple left/right media bias.
“It’s a fair theory that there has to be some element of the luck of the draw for a series of women to complain and be taken seriously,” she says. “There’s no way to take out the individual facts and circumstances of each situation. In the case of Bill Cosby, there’s something about the way this story has been coming out, and the consistency of the accusations, that isn’t sitting right with people. I say this as someone who over time has been very persuaded that these women are telling the truth about Bill Clinton. But there are very specific circumstances that have to work for the women to be believed. And keep in mind that there wasn’t a consistent pattern with Bill Clinton. You had everything ranging from shoving somebody under the bus after she had a voluntary affair to groping to requests for oral sex to one reported story of an actual rape. So the range of misbehavior was very wide and didn’t all add up to the discomfort or gut factor that you have when the allegations follow a very specific pattern.”
This makes great intuitive sense, but it has little logical or legal weight. If one charge against Cosby is unproven, 20 charges against Cosby are equally unproven. (Constand’s claims were investigated by the district attorney of Montgomery County, Pa., who declined to prosecute; she subsequently sued Cosby and settled for an undisclosed sum.) And even if Juanita Broaddrick is the only woman Bill Clinton has ever raped, Bill Clinton is still a rapist. And it’s worth noting that, unlike several accusers of both Cosby and Clinton, Broaddrick emerged from her public dispute with Clinton — during which time her business was audited by the IRS and she claims her home was broken into — with her character and general reliability never having been seriously impugned. “Nobody ever discredited Juanita,” Jackson says. “They never jumped on her as not credible. Her claim was just swept under the rug, as not worth revisiting, a long time ago.”
There is not much reason to expect Clinton will get a serious new raking over these old coals. His long-suffering wife, having improbably emerged from his presidency as a feminist heroine, sat in the U.S. Senate for eight years, ran for president in 2008, and served as President Obama’s first secretary of state. During that time Clinton’s past behavior never ignited a new mania and no new accusers seem to have emerged — though his eye for a good-looking woman appears to be as undimmed as his flesh is mummified. Hillary Clinton is widely believed to be the Democrats’ only presidential hope for 2016, and it is unlikely that that campaign will inspire a fresh look at Bill Clinton’s past.
But if Bill Cosby has taught us anything, it’s that you never know.