For all the legal language the Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, district attorney-elect used in detailing “aggravated indecent assault” charges Wednesday against Bill Cosby, one ordinary, yet starkly powerful word in Kevin Steele's account stood out: “friend.”
That’s what, the prosecutor said, Cosby’s accuser had considered the comedian until he allegedly drugged and abused her in his home outside Philadelphia nearly 12 years ago. It’s also the one word that best sums up the strong attachment of kinship felt from afar by countless millions for a bedrock figure of the popular culture.
The comic, who went from becoming America’s son and brother with classic 1960s standup routines about his tough-love, hardscrabble upbringing to America’s teacher dispensing lessons from a 1970s cartoon junkyard in “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” to America’s dad on the groundbreaking “The Cosby Show” in the 1980s, forged a seemingly unbreakable bond with multiple generation of fans.
But Wednesday’s announcement added legal heft and consequences to the formidable weight of accusations publicly mounted over the last year-plus against Cosby by dozens of women, threatening to smash whatever’s left of his hold on the public imagination.
He stands, at best, as a betrayer of trust of who admitted under oath to buying Quaaludes to give to women he wanted to bed, and at worst, as a serial sexual predator who, if convicted, could die in behind bars.
Perhaps the most sickening aspect of the Cosby mess is that he allegedly victimized women by employing the very abilities that made him a beloved entertainer: an uncanny knack to connect with people through relatable humor, and ultimately through the warmth and charm he projected as a smart and kind father figure, no more so than in his iconic TV role as wise and wisecracking Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable.
The long-married star developed such a stellar reputation that some of his accusers, whose accounts date back to the 1960s, say they didn’t come forward out of fear of not being believed. Their concerns appear to have been warranted: Recent months of reports – including new details surrounding the 2005 lawsuit brought by the woman at the heart of the revival of the long-ago dropped criminal case (the suit was later settled) – suggest allegations against Cosby were essentially hushed or largely ignored.
On Wednesday, a half-century after Cosby became the first African-American actor star in a TV drama, portraying a vibrant tennis-playing secret agent on "I Spy," he slowly entered a Pennsylvania courthouse, looking ever bit of his 78 years. The five-time Emmy winner, who gained a reputation in recent years as a scold to some and guardian of morals to others for urging young men to hike up their sagging jeans, was released on $1 million bond.
Cosby has denied all allegations of sexual abuse. He is suing or countersuing several of his accusers. More sordid allegations appear destined to emerge from those proceedings as well as from his criminal case.
Whatever transpires from here, it appears likely that Cosby, who regularly wears a sweatshirt that says, “Hello, Friend,” a favorite greeting of his late son, Ennis, will remain forever clouded in suspicion. One thing, though, is now clear: Bill Cosby is not just no longer a friend – but a friend who never was.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.