Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Rape allegations hurt Bill Cosby but sail past Bill Clinton

Recent rape allegations against actor-comedian Bill Cosby have affected his career.

Getty Images/file 2014

Recent rape allegations against actor-comedian Bill Cosby have affected his career.

Bill Cosby’s career as a beloved comedian is in shambles in the wake of decades-old accusations of rape and sexual assault. In the past week alone — as more and more women come forward with allegations — NBC has called off a proposed new Cosby comedy, Netflix has canceled a 77th Cosby birthday celebration, and the cable network TV Land has pulled reruns of “The Cosby Show.

Yet, amid this media uproar, Bill Clinton’s career as revered statesman soars.

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Clinton — who has himself faced down a number of accusations of sexual assault and harassment over the past quarter-century — has spent the week courting an admiring press at the 10th anniversary celebration of his presidential library.

During festivities in Little Rock, Ark. last weekend, Clinton confided his bucket list to Politico’s Mike Allen. Among his wishes: “I would like to ride a horse across the Gobi Desert to the place where people think Genghis Khan is buried in Mongolia.” The former president also urged the current one not to act like a lame-duck even if he is one: “I never bought this whole lame-duck deal. I just didn’t. I think it’s a mind-set.”

RELATED | Ty Burr: Why did we ignore Bill Cosby allegations for so long?

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The “taboo subject” in Little Rock, reported the Washington Post, was Hillary Clinton’s shadow campaign — not some musty, old sexual assault allegations against her husband.

Media hunts down Bill Cosby, celebrates Bill Clinton,”observed Breitbart.com, offering up thumbnail reminders of those now decades-old incidents involving the ex-president:

Juanita Broaddrick, a Clinton campaign volunteer from the early Arkansas days, accused Clinton in 1998 of raping her when he was attorney general. Clinton eventually settled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 1994 by Paula Jones, relating to incidents she said happened when he was governor of Arkansas and she was a low-level state employee. Kathleen Willey, a White House volunteer who worked on Clinton’s 1992 campaign, accused him of groping her in the White House in 1993.

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Then, of course, there was Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. While consensual, the details showcased the huge power differential between a president and a White House intern, and the deniability Clinton believed it gave him. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” he famously declared.

Power — who has it, who doesn’t, and how it can for years insulate the holder of it — is the common thread between Cosby, Clinton, and their accusers. Asked why she didn’t go to police, one of Cosby’s accusers said she didn’t think anyone would take the word of a 19-year-old woman over a celebrity father figure like Cosby. As she put it, “Mr. America; Mr. Jello, as I called him.”

If Cosby is paying the price today for long-ago alleged transgressions, you can argue that Clinton paid a price for his at the height of his power; his political enemies made sure of that. Yet, as my colleague Jeff Jacoby has — along with other conservative commentators — pointed out over the years, liberals and feminists ardently defend Clinton, arguing that his public policies were more important than his personal principles. Meanwhile, the Clinton spin machine did its best to portray his accusers as “nuts or sluts,” employing the classic defense lawyer strategy against women who dare to hold men accountable for their actions.

Lewinsky, who has been trying to rehabilitate herself, is still a punch line. But Clinton needs no redemption. His favorability ratings are high, and according to national polling, he and George H.W. Bush are the most popular living ex-presidents. Unlike Obama, Democrats want Clinton on the campaign trail.

In fact, the former president is so well-regarded, it feels petty to even bring up those tawdry accusations from the past.

The right will argue it’s all about ideology. Liberals like Clinton get a break that conservatives do not. According to Breitbart.com, race also factors in. There is more sympathy for a white southerner like Clinton than a black comic like Cosby.

Maybe we expect more from a sitcom fantasy figure like Cosby’s Dr. Huxtable than we do from real-life politicians.

Maybe we expect more from a sitcom fantasy figure than we do from real-life politicians.

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Or maybe, while Bill is off the hook, Hillary isn’t. The next two years will certainly tell us whether his long-ago activities are the shadow campaign issue for his wife.

Related coverage:

Renee Graham: Cosby losing in court of public opinion

Ty Burr: A Bill Cosby conundrum

Timeline: Sex assault allegations against Cosby

Bill Cosby to AP: ‘We don’t answer that’

TV Land will stop airing episodes of ‘Cosby Show’

Janice Dickinson accuses Bill Cosby of assault

Netflix postponing Bill Cosby’s upcoming standup special

Audio of Bill Cosby 1969 stand-up act about drugging women resurfaces

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.
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