Bill Cosby once told an interviewer, “I never said to anybody that I was ‘America’s father,’ ” and there’s no reason to doubt that statement. He never needed to, not with dozens of hagiographic profiles and millions of devoted viewers of “The Cosby Show” happy to bestow that term of endearment — “America’s dad” — on him.
Even if he didn’t create it, Cosby slipped into that title as he would a custom-tailored suit. More nefariously, he used it like an impenetrable suit of armor that protected him from every accusation. His TV identity as Cliff Huxtable, the affable patriarch, shone so brightly it blinded us to any possibility that one of the world’s most beloved entertainers could be committing heinous crimes against women.
Now Cosby must answer, through his attorneys, for one of those accusations. Before a jury of seven men and five women, the 79-year-old comedian faces three counts of aggravated indecent assault. Prosecutors accuse him of drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand in 2004 when she worked at Temple University, Cosby’s alma mater. He admits giving drugs to Constand and having sex with her, but claims it was consensual. His trial, scheduled to begin June 5, will be held in Norristown, Pa., a suburb less than 10 miles from the North Philadelphia housing projects where Cosby was raised.
WHYY, a public radio station in Cosby’s hometown, has released the first episode of its new podcast, “Cosby Unraveled,” which goes back to the performer’s neighborhood and talks to those who knew him long before he became an icon. In a community where heroes were in short supply, Cosby was, and still is for some, a giant without equal. “I grew up in the segregated South, where African-Americans were denied basic and fundamental rights, and to see Bill Cosby rise to fame in the 1960s and 1970s made me absolutely proud,” says Wilson Goode, a former Philadelphia mayor and longtime Cosby friend. Asked about the accusations, a woman who lives in the housing complex where Cosby spent his childhood says, “There’s two sides to every story – but if it was my daughter and she came to me, I’d have to believe her.”
The revelation that there were two sides to Cosby is something many are still trying to comprehend, but the irony is this: The values that Cliff Huxtable embodied were real, but the man who played him was a lie. We molded a fictional TV character into the durable fiction of Bill Cosby, and that fault lies more with us than with him.
Yes, he used the public’s trust as his most potent weapon, but his devoted fans surrendered that to him willingly. We fell into the trap of believing we honestly know the celebrities we admire. It doesn’t matter much music we download, concerts we attend, movies we watch, or TV shows we binge; we don’t really know these people at all. Yet what we saw of Cosby on TV, we believed to be true about Cosby off-camera — that he was kind and devoted to family. Even his shrill moralizing, however off-putting, came from someone who practiced what he preached. At least that’s what we believed.
On the podcast, Grammy-winning jazz musician Christian McBride, who grew up in Philly as a Cosby fan and later got to know him personally, calls the accusations “deeply disappointing,” but adds, “You just can’t wash away the inspiration and the happiness and the laughs. You can’t erase all that.”
Yes, you can.
Like McBride, I grew up watching “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids,” listening to Cosby’s comedy albums, and enjoying his movies, such as “Uptown Saturday Night.” His filmed concert, “Bill Cosby: Himself,” is still one of the funniest stand-up routines I’ve ever seen. It was extraordinary to watch Cosby’s stratospheric success, one that seemed to cross every demographic line in a nation where such markings are always wide and sharply drawn.
None of that matters anymore. All I care about is justice for Constand — and the more than 60 women who finally came forward after decades of believing no one would take their word against a man once upheld as a secular saint. Anyone in need of inspiration can find it in these courageous women.
In a preview clip of “Cosby Unraveled,” host Annette John-Hall, a WHYY reporter, asks “Who is Bill Cosby? A funny man, a philanthropist, a beloved TV dad. . . or a sexual predator?”
Now, the only answer is: Yes.
Bill Cosby fooled us, but we also fooled ourselves.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.