I stood by and said nothing when the media went after Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport, because he allegedly knew about and turned a blind eye to sexually predatory activities by an assistant coach.
But now they’ve gone too far. Our savage media have sunk their fangs into one of the great American icons of the past century, and a hero of my youth.
I am speaking about Bill Cosby, and the allegations that he raped (or at least had extramarital sex with) several women over the years.
When I was boy growing up in Yonkers, New York, I devoured Mr. Cosby’s early Warner Bros. albums, the comedy recordings that made his career. I committed to memory virtually every one of his routines, and would regale my friends in the schoolyard at P.S. # 8 by reciting them verbatim, including his unique voice inflections.
It does not do justice to Mr. Cosby’s genius to call him a comedian. He never told jokes, he told stories – carefully crafted stories that often stretched to 20 minutes or longer. Just when you started thinking “where is this guy going with this ramble?” he would tie everything together in a perfect cascade of hysterical consequences and leave you rolling helpless with laughter on the floor. Even after the fourth or fifth listening.
Then came the television series: “I Spy” (one of the first TV dramas to feature an African-American actor in a prominent role), the immortal “Cosby Show” that defined the American sitcom in the 1980s, the “Cosby Kids” cartoons (I wish I had a nickel for every time someone called me “Fat Albert” as a kid), and many others.
Full disclosure: I have never met Mr. Cosby, although I have seen him perform live, and I cannot comment on the accuracy of the charges against him. If he is indeed guilty of rape or any other crime, he should be punished.
But it is far from a secret that Hollywood celebrities lead – shall we say interesting? – lives, especially in the sexual arena. Why single out Mr. Cosby for attention? There are two answers:
O because throughout his career he has always projected a wholesome, positive, intelligent, squeaky-clean image (Jello Pudding, anyone?); and
O his messages to young people (especially within the African-American community) emphasize the need for personal responsibility, respect for others, education, moral character, hard work and sacrifice – messages they sometimes don’t want to hear.
The media loves it when someone with a reputation for high moral values reveals his feet of clay.
So who is the “real” Bill Cosby – the comic genius or the leering lecher? I humbly submit the question makes no sense.
Winston Churchill once said “a great person is seldom if ever a good person”, and truer words were never spoken. When you strive to achieve greatness you sometimes have to do some nasty – even ruthless — things to get where you want to go. And often the people who achieve greatness are so “alpha” by nature they simply are oblivious to the impact their actions have on others, and themselves.
Scratch the surface of any great person and you will find unpleasantness at some point. Winston Churchill himself had issues with alcohol. And don’t get me started on Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson, John Lennon and other contemporary “heroes.” Read their biographies. These were great people, but they were not perfect. Often they weren’t even nice or decent human beings. But the world is a better place because they lived.
Similarly, you can find decent qualities in even the ugliest specimens of humanity. Adolf Hitler loved dogs.
Except in the movies, human beings are never “all good” or “all bad.” We are a bewildering combination of positive and negative, strength and weakness, saint and sinner, hero and villain. We all have something in our past we would not want to see revealed in our biographies.
Bill Cosby stands as one of the greatest American humorists since Mark Twain, and has done more in his 50-year career to advance the cause of African-Americans than just about anyone else except for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He has preached the gospel of personal responsibility, education, civility, hard work and respectable behavior to three generations of Americans. His “rags to riches” life story is the American dream personified. Countless professional speakers owe their careers to him: he taught us how to tell a story, and how to make people laugh.
He is also a womanizer, and perhaps – perhaps – a sexual predator.
Leave it there. Bill Cosby is no saint, but his legacy does not deserve to be erased because of his weaknesses. He is a human being. A truly great one.
Cliff Ennico (www.succeedinginyourbusiness.com), a leading expert on small business law and taxes, is the author of “Small Business Survival Guide,” “The eBay Seller’s Tax and Legal Answer Book” and 15 other books.