Critic’s Notebook: Cliff Huxtable Was Bill Cosby’s Sickest Joke

“Just like us” was the dream of the show, right? “Best behavior” blackness. That’s one way to think about it, the cynical, uncharitable, myopic way, the way you’d think about it if you wanted to psychologize Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable.

I couldn’t have known how vertiginous the entire Huxtable project was. I was, like, 10, 13, 15 years old when the show was a thing. But eventually, I could see that Cliff became a play for respectability. This is how you comport yourself among white people, young black child. Take a little bit of Howard with you on your way to Harvard. But then, in 2004, at an NAACP ceremony commemorating 50 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he gave the notorious “Pound Cake” speech, where prodding for a particular kind of self-betterment turned tsk-y. He compared incarcerated black men to jailed civil rights activists, the apples and oranges of the black criminal-justice crisis. He ruminated on names that didn’t seem, to him, like Bill.


Mr. Cosby in 1966, the year he won an Emmy for “I Spy.”

Max B. Miller/Archive Photos, via Getty Images

“We are not Africans,” he said. “Those people are not Africans, they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed, and all that crap and all of them are in jail.” Maybe this was Cliff unplugged — and unhinged. Mohammed? But it was a dare to flirt with distance, to reconsider all those applications I filed, to see Bill Cosby as someone who, despite hours of comedy like “Bill Cosby Is Not Himself These Days” and “Bill Cosby: Himself,” might not be willing or able to see who “himself” actually is. I called this a speech, but he performed it like another standup special.

This is the heavy thing about this verdict. The sorting of the ironies has been left to us. Mr. Cosby made blackness palatable to a country historically conditioned to think the worst of black people. And to pull that off, he had to find a morally impeccable presentation of himself and his race. This is what Sidney Poitier, his friend and movie partner, was always up against: inhabiting the superhumanly unimpeachable. But Mr. Cosby might have managed to pull a fast one, using his power and wealth to become the predator that white America mythologized in a campaign to terrorize, torture and kill black people for centuries. Mr. Cosby told lots of jokes. This was his sickest one.

Mr. Cosby’s guilty verdict happens to fall during a week in which Kanye West brought a lot of people a lot more grief, not with new music but with a blizzard of tweets that included an expressed affinity for President Trump, right down to wearing a Make America Great Again cap of his own. Mr. West began his career as a kind of black-sheep Huxtable. (His first album was “The College Dropout.”) But he eventually gathered a sense of politics — racialized, pro-black politics. And then he married into the Kardashian family and things got as vivid and incoherent as one of Cliff’s Van Den Akker sweaters. This is how you get a blistering indictment of racial closed-mindedness like 2013’s “Black Skinhead” but also an embrace of people who’ve been reluctant to shame white supremacists.

This seems like a reasonable moment to wonder whether the Huxtable mold is one that needs breaking — or at least expansion. Mr. West presents a new vexation that’s the opposite of Mr. Cosby’s stringent black conservatism. He can be offensive and rude and self-aggrandizing. But that mind-set also feels like a way to move beyond America’s Dad. Disrespectability politics.

We’re in a moment of cleaving terrible people from their great work. It’s a luxury conundrum, one that feels like a mockery of tremendous human suffering. With Mr. Cosby, though, these are questions worth seriously considering. How do I, at least, cleave this man from the man he seduced me into becoming?

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Bill Cosby Found Guilty of Sexual Assault After Years of Accusations

Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin R. Steele asked that Mr. Cosby’s $1 million bail be revoked, suggesting he had been convicted of a serious crime, owned a plane and could flee, prompting an angry outburst from Mr. Cosby, who shouted, “He doesn’t have a plane, you asshole.”

“Enough of that,” said Judge O’Neill who said he did not view Mr. Cosby as a flight risk and said he could be released on bail, but would have to surrender his passport and remain in his nearby home.

In recent years, Mr. Cosby, 80, had admitted to decades of philandering, and to giving quaaludes to women as part of an effort to have sex, smashing the image he had built as a moralizing public figure and the upstanding paterfamilias in the wildly popular 1980s and ’90s sitcom “The Cosby Show.” He did not testify in his own defense, avoiding a grilling about those admissions, but he and his lawyers have insisted that his encounter with Ms. Constand was part of a consensual affair, not an assault.

The verdict now marks the bottom of a fall as precipitous as any in show business history and leaves in limbo a large slice of American popular culture from Mr. Cosby’s six-decade career as a comedian and actor. For the last few years, his TV shows, films, and recorded stand-up performances, one-time broadcast staples, have largely been shunned and with the conviction, they are likely to remain so.

At his retrial in the same courthouse and before the same judge as last summer, a new defense team argued unsuccessfully that Ms. Constand, now 45, was a desperate “con artist” with financial problems who steadily worked her famous but lonely mark for a lucrative payday.


Andrea Constand exits the courtroom during a break in the Cosby retrial on Tuesday. She is the only woman whose complaint of sexual assault against Mr. Cosby resulted in a criminal trial.

Pool photo by Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The prosecution countered that it was Mr. Cosby who had been a deceiver, hiding behind his amiable image as America’s Dad to prey on women that he first incapacitated with intoxicants. During closing arguments Tuesday, a special prosecutor, Kristen Gibbons Feden, had told the jury: “She is not the con. He is.”

The defense’s star witness was a veteran academic adviser at Temple, Mr. Cosby’s alma mater, who said Ms. Constand had confided in her in 2004 that she could make money by falsely claiming that she had been molested by a prominent person. Mr. Cosby paid Ms. Constand $3.38 million in 2006 as part of the confidential financial settlement of a lawsuit she had brought against him after prosecutors had originally declined to bring charges.

But Ms. Constand said she had never spoken with the adviser and prosecutors rebutted the characterization of Ms. Constand as a schemer. Perhaps most damaging to Mr. Cosby, they were able to introduce testimony from five other women who told jurors they believed they too had been drugged and sexually assaulted by Mr. Cosby in separate incidents in the 1980s. The powerful drumbeat of accounts allowed prosecutors to argue that Ms. Constand’s assault was part of a signature pattern of predatory behavior.

The case was the first high-profile trial of the #MeToo era. Candidates were required during jury selection to provide assurances that the accusations against scores of other famous men would not affect their judgment of Mr. Cosby. Mr. Cosby’s lawyers referred to the changed atmosphere in American society, warning it and the introduction of accounts from multiple other accusers risked denying Mr. Cosby a fair trial by distracting jurors’ attention. “Mob rule is not due process,” Kathleen Bliss, one of Mr. Cosby’s lawyers told the jury.

Then she spent much of her closing argument urging the jury to discount the accounts of the five supporting witnesses. One was a failed starlet who slept around, she suggested, another a publicity seeker. “Questioning an accuser is not shaming a victim,” she told the jury.

The remarks inflamed Ms. Feden, the prosecutor, who called the attacks on the women the same sort of filthy and shameful criticism that kept some victims of sexual assault from ever coming forward.

When Ms. Constand came forward to testify, she took the stand as something of a proxy for the other women, more than 50, who have accused Mr. Cosby of abuses, often with details remarkably similar to Ms. Constand’s account. A few of those women attended the trial.


Kathleen Bliss, left, and Thomas A. Mesereau, two lawyers for Mr. Cosby, at the courthouse on Wednesday.

Tracie Van Auken/EPA, via Shutterstock

None of the other accusations had resulted in prosecution. In many of the cases, too much time had passed for criminal charges to be considered, so Ms. Constand’s case emerged as the only criminal test of Mr. Cosby’s guilt.

But Mr. Cosby is facing civil actions from several accusers, many of whom are suing him for defamation because, they say, he or his staff branded them as liars by dismissing their allegations as fabrications.

The suits have mostly been delayed, pending the outcome of the criminal trial and are likely to draw momentum from the guilty verdict.

The case largely turned on the credibility of Ms. Constand, who testified that in a visit in early 2004 to Mr. Cosby’s home near Philadelphia, when she was 30 and he was 66, Mr. Cosby gave her pills that left her immobile and drifting in and out of consciousness. He said he had only given her Benadryl.


Mr. Cosby and his wife, Camille, arriving Tuesday at the courthouse for closing arguments. It was the only day Mrs. Cosby appeared at the trial.

Tracie Van Auken/EPA, via Shutterstock

“I was kind of jolted awake and felt Mr. Cosby on the couch beside me, behind me, and my vagina was being penetrated quite forcefully, and I felt my breast being touched,” Ms. Constand said. “I was limp, and I could not fight him off.”

Adding weight to her accusations was the revelation that a decade earlier, in a deposition in Ms. Constand’s lawsuit against him, Mr. Cosby had admitted to having given women quaaludes in an effort to have sex with them.

But perhaps most damaging was the testimony by the five additional accusers, which took up several days of testimony. In Mr. Cosby’s first trial, last summer, only one other accuser had been allowed to add her voice to that of Ms. Constand’s. At the retrial, the accusers included the former model Janice Dickinson, who told jurors Mr. Cosby assaulted her in a Lake Tahoe hotel room in 1982, after giving her a pill to help with menstrual cramps. “Here was America’s Dad on top of me,” she told the courtroom, “a happily married man with five children, on top of me.”

The defense suggested in its cross-examination that Ms. Dickinson had made up the account and pointed to the fact that in her memoir she had recounted the meeting without making any mention of an assault. But Ms. Dickinson’s publisher testified that she had told her the rape account and it was only kept out of the book for legal reasons.

Another accuser, Chelan Lasha, told how Mr. Cosby invited her to his suite at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1986 when she was 17 to give her help with her modeling career. Mr. Cosby, she said, gave her a pill and liquor, and then assaulted her.

In court, Ms. Lasha, who was often in tears, called across the courtroom to the entertainer, who was sitting at the defense table.

“You remember,” she asked, “don’t you, Mr. Cosby?”


The jury deliberating the Cosby case inside the Montgomery County Courthouse was asked to decide on three counts of sexual assault.

Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters

As in the first trial, Mr. Cosby’s legal team insisted Ms. Constand was lying about a consensual, sexual relationship. But while his lawyers last summer had depicted Mr. Cosby as a flawed man, an unfaithful husband who shattered his fans’ illusions, but committed no crime, his lawyers this time focused on the financial struggles they said Ms. Constand was experiencing that led her to to extort money from a man who had been trying to help her with a career in broadcasting.

“You are going to be asking yourself during this trial, ‘What does she want from Bill Cosby?’ And you already know the answer: ‘Money, money and lots more money,’” his lead lawyer, Thomas A. Mesereau Jr., told the jurors as he opened his defense of Mr. Cosby. “She has a history of financial problems until she hits the jackpot with Bill Cosby.”

The defense emphasized inconsistencies in the version of events Ms. Constand had given the police, saying, for example, at one point that the assault had taken place in March, 2004, then later changing that January 2004.

Mr. Cosby’s lawyers cited her phone records to show she had stayed in touch with him after the encounter and they produced detailed travel itineraries and flight schedules in an effort to show that Mr. Cosby did not stay at his Philadelphia home during the period she said the assault occurred.

“He was lonely and troubled and he made a terrible mistake confiding in her what was going on in his life,” Mr. Mesereau said.

Under cross-examination, Ms. Constand explained the lapses in her accounts as innocent mistakes, and said her contacts with Mr. Cosby after the incident were mostly cursory, the unavoidable result of her job duties.

Mr. Steele told the jury that with the pills he gave her, Mr. Cosby took away Ms. Constand’s ability to consent, and that their later contacts were irrelevant.

When Ms. Constand’s mother called to confront Mr. Cosby about a year after the incident, the prosecution argued, the defendant’s apology, and his offer to pay for her schooling, therapy and a trip to Florida, were evidence he knew he had done something wrong.

Mr. Steels, the district attorney, also worked to rebut the defense claims. He said that Mr. Cosby, a member of Temple University’s board of directors and the university’s most famous alumnus, set his sights on Ms. Constand, an employee in the university’s athletic department who considered Mr. Cosby a mentor.

“This case is about trust,” Mr. Steele had told the jurors. “This case is about betrayal, and that betrayal leading to a sexual assault of a woman named Andrea Constand.”

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