Monday, December 15, 2014

Bill Cosby: Anatomy of a Scandal

Several years ago, a friend related, while we were dining, her experience at a recent conference. After the day’s activities, she had gone out to a bar with colleagues. She remembered nothing there until the next morning, when she found herself out on the street in just her underwear. She had not exceeded her usual quote of one or two drinks, she assured me. There was really only one explanation for she blanked out, she told me.

“I was slipped a date rape drug in my drink,” she said.

My friend’s anecdote has run through my mind incessantly as I’ve considered the rape accusations against Bill Cosby. Like the women who have come forward against the TV legend, my friend experienced absolute confusion about people and events surrounding how she came to her early-hours state. Like most of them, she did not report the incident to authorities.

Date rape drugging is particularly insidious. Added to the usual difficulties in pressing a rape charge (e.g., questions about what the victim was wearing or otherwise doing up to the encounter) is a more challenging one for prosecutors: figuring out a coherent narrative from a witness/victim whose memory and judgment were impaired by the drug. Moreover, by the time that the victim begins to piece together what has happened—and experience an internal fireball of revulsion and rage—she might have already showered or changed clothing, inadvertently eliminating physical evidence that could help in a police investigation. (For one woman's nightmarish--and, ultimately, legally frustrating--experience--see British civil servant Jane Noakes' account in The Daily Mail.)

Every day while researching and writing this post, I have feared that the freshness of the Cosby scandal would fade before I finished. But every day, something seems to happen: another accuser coming forward, another institution distancing itself from the entertainer, another event canceled or in danger of thing happening. (Most recently came the Vanity Fair article by Beverly Johnson, one of the first African-American supermodels, detailing what she claims was her own experience of drugging by American TV’s onetime favorite dad.)

“Make no mistake: These allegations do not ‘tarnish’ his [Cosby’s] legacy,” wrote the Miami Herald’s Leonard Pitts Jr. in a recent column. “If true, they become his legacy, reducing to a distant second all his achievements, all those aspirational lectures about values, all those doors he opened and laughter he earned.”

“If true.” In the weeks since Pitts’ column, it has become harder and harder for me to keep that conditional phrase in mind. That does not mean that Cosby will lose the legal battle now re-joined, as I’ll discuss shortly. Moreover, even now, the entertainer does not lack for a host of defenders—not merely anonymous Internet respondents deeply skeptical (some to the point of misogyny) of these rape claims, but also a most unlikely mixture of types ranging from the right to the left of the political spectrum: Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Whoopi Goldberg, Jill Scott.

But the accusations against Cosby not only differ in number, but also in kind, from other instances of sexual assault. It does not involve a single woman against a single man, as in the false rape accusation against Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin in the 1990s. It does not involve a single woman with an unstable personal history making charges against multiple men, as in the Duke University case. It does not involve numerous small children manipulated by prosecutors into providing damning and misleading testimony, as in a Massachusetts preschool chronicled by Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz.

No, to reject the accusations against Cosby, you have to believe that nearly two dozen adult women of different races, ethnicities and professions, over more than 30 years, had, for a constellation of reasons best known to themselves—the desire for fame, money, revenge for a disastrous date or love affair, or simple mental illness—joined unanimously to charge him with the same method of violating them. 

Let’s restate that: Every single one of 20 women is lying or mistaken. That proposition is practically unsustainable.

A number of observers have pointed to the child-molestations allegations against Roman Catholic Church priests in the Archdiocese of Boston a decade ago and Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky more recently as inclining people more to believe sensational allegations about long-suppressed serial sexual violations than may have been the case in the past.

But I think that, if you want to really understand the real dynamics of the Cosby case—about what it takes to bring a powerful man to heel, and the obstacles remaining in the way of greater accountability for such figures—three other histories are more applicable: the fall of Senator Bob Packwood in the mid-1990s; the sexual-harassment lawsuit against the late film producer Don Simpson; and Hollywood’s sexual exploitation of children, chronicled in Amy Berg’s new documentary, An Open Secret.

Cosby and Senator Packwood: The Enablers
The charges against Cosby are so shocking because they differ so wildly from his carefully cultivated TV image as a family man. Similarly, proponents of a woman’s right to choose were stunned that Bob Packwood was a sexual predator with the overwhelming urge to stick his tongue in the mouths of female staffers and lobbyists.

The veteran Republican Senator from Oregon may have become one of the few Washington figures ever forced out of office for making unwanted sexual advances, but it took an extraordinary conjunction of circumstances to make him pay for not keeping a civil tongue in his mouth. Rumors had flown about D.C. for years about Packwood’s sex life, but the Washington Post waited until after his successful reelection campaign in November 1992 before publishing its damning report about his sexual harassment.

Extraordinary informal agreement among major DC players of both parties slowed his investigation to a standstill. It was widely reported before Packwood’s resignation in September 1995 that Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, as leader of the Senate ethics probe, had threatened retaliatory investigations of Democrats if they insisted on moving against his fellow Republican. Even a comparative dissident such as Packwood was a small price to pay for GOP control of Congress.

But what was not understood until this year was that Hillary Clinton was also not eager to see Packwood out. As one of a then-dwindling band of moderately liberal Republicans, he was a key potential ally in the fight for passage of health-care legislation under Bill Clinton. The First Lady, then, according to contemporaneous notes taken by longtime Arkansas friend Diane Blair, had grown “tired of all those whiney women, and she needs him on health care,” as related in this David Weigel article for Slate.

It took 10 women coming forward in the Washington Post piece in order for the case to assume a weight that couldn’t be ignored, much like the avalanche (somewhere between 15 and 20 women when I last checked) occurring now with Cosby. Early skeptics about the Packwood case wondered why it had taken so long for his accusers to come forward, ignoring the fact that sexual-harassment litigation had been in its infancy well into the 1980s. And it wasn’t until nearly a decade ago that rape kits became standard police procedure following passage of the Violence Against Women Act (a fact not considered by Whoopi Goldberg when she said she was wondering about why these hadn't been resorted to in the Cosby case).

The women were also undoubtedly concerned by how both Packwood and Cosby could use positive and negative power. Positive power represented the two men’s ability to move a cause or legislation (more applicable to Packwood) or a career (Cosby). Conversely, negative power was about retaliation: allowing a bill to languish, withholding a recommendation or contact, even quietly badmouthing the victim.

This last ability could hardly be ignored in Cosby’s case. Even in the early-to-mid ‘70s, when his first sitcom failed, he retained his luster as an Emmy-winning actor (I Spy) and influential stand-up comic. He was connected. For actresses with no other entry into the business, even a star such as his with slightly diminished clout possessed far more than they did.

To see what a network was prepared to do to accommodate an established figure not of the second rank, you only have to look to what NBC did in the Seventies with Garrett Morris of Saturday Night Live. The surprising thing about Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live (1986) is not that network brass were prepared to ask no questions about the drug habit of a breakout star such as John Belushi, but also that one exec would even provide $1,000 advances for “projects” by Morris that were tissue-thin fronts for cocaine purchases.

Given all this, what would happen with the creator and star of a series that many believe singlehandedly revived the sitcom genre in the mid-‘80s, one that finished first in the ratings five of its eight years on the air? It doesn’t sound entirely outlandish that a onetime facilities manager for the Brooklyn NBC Studio where The Cosby Show was filmed claims that he arranged for monthly payments for eight different women by the entertainer, sometimes totaling $2,000 at a time. The manager’s reaction to all this—including Cosby’s wish that the checks be made out in the manager’s name rather than his own—seems strikingly similar to the exec who, a decade before, fielded Morris’ request: Don’t ask any questions!

Attorney Intimidation: Cosby and Don Simpson
No article about this case—indeed, no article about Hollywood—can properly examine why these allegations took so long to enter the mainstream without considering attorney intimidation.

Cosby, like other Hollywood stars, is lawyered-up. These legal eagles are trained to attack, and Cosby’s counsel, Marty Singer, is no different, even as his client is seemingly besieged on all sides these days. Los Angeles civil litigator Howard Alperin recently told The Wrap that Cosby’s attorney “is letting people know that if they f--k with his client, they're going to have a battle on their hands.” (This is something Singer is accustomed to, as bulldog to such stars as Charlie Sheen, John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson.)

Such is the norm in Hollywood. Tom Cruise’s attorney sent a letter two years ago to Hollywood Reporter in an attempt to squelch damaging stories about his client. More recently, Lena Dunham’s attorneys have jumped into the fray over the National Review’s characterization of her actions as a seven-year-old with her younger sister as sexual abuse. In some hard cases, a lawyer might turn to a private investigator—a “fixer”—to deal with the most sensational scandals.

The most glaring example of what could happen to an accuser might have been a sexual-harassment lawsuit filed 25 years ago against powerful producer Don Simpson (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop). Shortly thereafter, Simpson’s lawyer, as part of a countersuit for libel, hired notorious Anthony Pellicano—“private investigator to the stars”—to come up with "information." Before long, the accuser’s suit was tossed out of court and her reputation lay in ruins. 

But after Simpson’s death in 1996, others who had worked for him acknowledged that the secretary’s charges were largely true: that this crass cocaine cowboy wanted assistants to schedule trysts with hookers, witness illegal drug use in his Paramount office, watch adult films, and blithely accept repeated abuse (a favorite epithet: “garbage brain”) for trivial causes.

The outcome of the Simpson case served notice, if any were needed, how uphill a battle a lone woman had against a Hollywood male responsible for generating millions of dollars. Cosby’s accusers—at the time of their disputed encounters with him, often young and looking to break into show business—were, consequently, the most desperate and vulnerable, not just to any initial ploys by Cosby but by any subsequent attempts by him and his minions at intimidation.

Many of the comedian’s defenders ask why it took so long for these women to come forward. The extreme difficulty of an isolated person with few financial resources matching up against an entertainer with a lifetime of the public’s good will, deep pockets and a legal-investigatory complex at his disposal should be obvious by now.

But the ultimate question, implicitly posed by New York Times media reporter David Carr, is harder to answer and, hence, more fascinating: Could the media have broken this story sooner, at a point when the statute of limitations on so many of these alleged offenses might not have expired?

The most recent—and obvious—point when this could have occurred would have been nearly a decade ago, when Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee, filed a civil lawsuit, with 12—count ‘em, 12—depositions from anonymous “Jane Does” providing corroborating evidence of their own encounters with Cosby.

Pick any reason you want for the lack of curiosity that followed: the Associated Press’ two unsuccessful attempts to open the court records; reluctance to ask hard questions of not only an undoubted African-American trailblazer, but even a philanthropic heavyweight; the eventual settlement in the case, which enjoined both parties from speaking further; Cosby’s frequent attempts at news management (seen a couple of weeks ago in a video when he asks a surprised reporter not to run an exchange on the recent allegations); and his relative disappearance from the airwaves in the last decade.

But, even as far back as 1997, there was a strong sign that the family-man image created by the comedian—not just in his long-running TV show, but also a major bestselling book, Parenting—was more artifice than fact. In that year, New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser noted recently, he had treated as “roadkill” a young woman, Autumn Jackson, who had threatened to go to a supermarket tabloid with her charge that he had fathered her out of wedlock in an extramarital affair. The tables were turned when Cosby won an extortion case against her.

Jackson’s demand for $40 million was surely instrumental in her loss in federal court. But the prospect of court testimony must have led Cosby and his legal team to wonder how they could explain away $100,000 sent by him to Jackson’s mother, Shawn Thompson, for support of her daughter over the years. (In fact, Thompson now says that, even though they were already in the midst of a consensual affair, Cosby still slipped her a date-rape drug on one occasion.)

The solution: Cosby admitted to a single “rendezvous” with Thompson, rather than a more protracted affair. The admission was similar to a strategy pursued around the same time by President Bill Clinton, who, contrary to five prior years of denials, was forced to concede, testifying in Paula Jones’ lawsuit against him, that he had intercourse with Gennifer Flowers once, rather than the 12 years she claimed.

Timing may have been another element in media coverage of the Jackson case. Her arrest came just two days after the murder of Cosby's son, Ennis. It is doubtful whether major media outlets had the stomach to pursue painful questions raised by Jackson’s case given the overwhelming tragedy then enveloping the Cosby family.

After all this, media discussion about Cosby’s women, save for an occasional article such as a Philadelphia Inquirer article in 2006, largely disappeared. Even a new comprehensive (nearly 500 pages) biography by Mark Whitaker, Cosby: His Life and Times, while discussing a period of philandering that supposedly concluded in the Seventies, did not even mention Constand’s civil lawsuit, let alone assess what might have happened. Similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates, while assailing Cosby for “black conservatism” in a lengthy 2008 piece for The Atlantic Monthly, could only refer to the date-rape allegations in two largely parenthetical sentences buried deep within the article, despite Coates’ recent admission that, even at the time, he felt that Cosby was a rapist.

As with so much concerning America (surfacing once again in the last week because of police shooting deaths), the Cosby case probably has been thrust back to the forefront after so many years because of race. Resentment, long barely muffled among many African-Americans because of his status as an entertainment pioneer, continued to linger over statements Cosby made in the last decade concerning the community’s need to impose moral standards on the young. Some, such as Coates, worried about the license that Cosby seemed to give to whites to ignore their own responsibility for lack of black progress.

Cosby’s moralizing finally became too much to endure for one African-American, comedian Hannibal Buress, to endure. In a Philadelphia appearance in mid-October, Buress mercilessly parodied the “smuggest old black man public persona that I hate”:  “Pull your pants up, black people. I was on TV in the ’80s. I can talk down to you because I had a successful sitcom.”

What made it go viral on YouTube was Buress’ rejoinder to the invisible father figure: “Yeah, but you raped women, Bill Cosby. So, brings you down a couple notches.”

The issue was now, unavoidably, joined.

The ‘Open Secret’ of Exploitative Hollywood
The obstacles to learning the truth about the Cosby case remain formidable. Not only are Hollywood figures armed to the teeth with legal counsel, but they retain a membrane of friends prepared to look the other way when a moneymaker faces legal jeopardy. Case in point: the documentary Open Secret. 

Haven’t heard of this, have you? Don’t feel bad—neither have most Americans. Hollywood had little compunction about distributing another film from director Amy Berg, Deliver Us From Evil, about the pedophilia scandal that has battered the Catholic Church in recent years. But Open Secret has targeted Hollywood itself—the casting agents, directors, and produces who prey on children breaking into the business—and was particularly bold in discussing accusations made against Bryan Singer, who has made a fortune for several industry players with the X-Men films.

After the charges were made, accuser Michael Egan III, hit with a countersuit and charges of anomalies in his account of the abuse—and unwilling to settle for $100,000—withdrew his suit, ostensibly with the hope of finding another attorney who would take up his case. Partly as a result, Berg’s film went begging for a distributor. Too bad: one gets the feeling that Hollywood would have done anything except face the truth about itself.

Hardly had Egan had a serious airing of his charges than pushback began. Leading the way was Bryan Singer's attorney, Marty Singer (no relation). Yes, the same Marty Singer now functioning as Cosby’s attack dog, famed—even sued—for sending threatening legal threats. Cosby’s accusers and their attorneys had better review Singer’s playbook—and plan accordingly.

An Altered Landscape?
No matter how the Cosby case is resolved, it has the potential to alter the public-relations and legal landscape of Hollywood. Social media now can air gossip items that once rarely saw the light of day—or, at least, were rarely disseminated. Ego-driven entertainment figures, with access to power, money and mind-altering substances, represent a motherlode of both true real-life secrets and dangerous exaggerations or outright falsehoods about their lives.

On the one hand, it may become harder to hide crimes; on the other hand, it may push into the public sphere hard questions with little hope of being answered. I’m not just talking about charges of child molestation that have surfaced or resurfaced in the course of disputes with ex-wives or former lovers, as in the much-publicized recent cases involving Stephen Collins and Woody Allen. Even older cases will come up for renewed speculation.

For instance, several years ago, Gavin Lambert’s biography of Natalie Wood discussed a longstanding rumor that the actress was raped by an older screen legend whose advice she sought as she transitioned from a child star to a teenaged actress seeking more challenging roles. Lambert was non-committal about the truth concerning an alleged event occurring nearly 60 years ago—an appropriate stance, given that memories fade and potential evidence almost surely has disappeared.

Such scruples, though, appear to be increasingly jettisoned in the current environment. California’s state legislature opened a temporary window allowing lawsuits to be filed involving decades-old clerical sex-abuse crimes. Ostensibly, the justification was that repressed memory prevented many victims from coming forward. But it’s hard to see why a movement won’t develop to increase the exemptions to the statute of limitations—particularly as date-rape drugs not only further erode the concept of consent in intercourse, but leaves the victim with the fuzziest of memories about the incident.

In the meantime, we are left with uncomfortable questions about a legend many of us thought we knew. The most fundamental issue is one going back at least to the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: divided identity.

One of the funniest—but, in light of current events, unnerving—moments in the 1983 concert documentary, Bill Cosby: Himself, came when the comedian recalled asking an acquaintance, “What is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful?"

"Because it intensifies your personality," the man responded.

"Yes,” Cosby recalled asking, “but what if you're an asshole?"

Right now, Cosby stands accused of dealing drugs with more insidious intent than cocaine to unwitting victims. If he is guilty of these multiplying accusations, he is far worse than “an asshole.”

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