Dr. Huxtable vs. Mr. Cosby: Who Is the Real Bill Cosby?

Feb. 25, 2005 — -- Whatever happened to the universally beloved Bill Cosby, the Jell-O Pudding Pop-toting TV icon who was once considered "America's Favorite Dad"?

Philadelphia-area prosecutors who investigated a Canadian woman's allegation that Cosby drugged and groped her decided last week not to file criminal charges.The 31-year-old woman accused Cosby, 67, of giving her a pill that rendered her semiconscious and fondling her at his mansion early last year.

Cosby, who has been married to wife, Camille, for 41 years, denied the allegations through a lawyer but otherwise made no public comment. His attorney called the woman's claims "preposterous" and "bizarre." Prosecutors ultimately determined there was not enough credible evidence to pursue charges.

Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor Jr. said in a statement that he also reviewed claims by other people that Cosby had "behaved inappropriately" toward them, but that detectives could find no instance "where anyone complained to law enforcement of conduct which would constitute a criminal offense."

The entertainer was "gratified" by the district attorney's decision, his attorney, Walter M. Phillips Jr., said in a statement. "Mr. Cosby looks forward to moving on with his life."

But Cosby may not immediately be able to put the scandal behind him. An attorney representing the woman said she will likely file a civil suit.

The accusation seems sharply at odds with Cosby's image as the beloved creator of "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" and "The Cosby Show." Cosby has written several books on family, including one that is the basis for Nickelodeon's animated series "Fatherhood."

Last year, Cosby raised eyebrows when he criticized black parents -- specifically lower-income black parents -- for the way they reared their children.

The groping allegations and Cosby's criticism of black parents sparked controversy for very different reasons. But both may make it difficult for Cosby to regain the wholesome father figure image he enjoyed for so long.

"This is very difficult for someone like him," said Carole Gorney, director of the Center for Crisis Public Relations & Litigation Studies at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. " I don't think you'll see him doing any Jell-O commercials again anytime soon."

Goodbye, Dr. Huxtable; Hello, Mr. Cosby

Cosby hasn't made Jell-O commercials in years, but he has hosted the show "Kids Say the Darndest Things" and a live-action version of "Fat Albert" hit the big screen late last year.

For his entire career, Cosby has championed the improvement of African-Americans through his comedy routines, his TV series and scholarships he has provided for black colleges.

However, last year Cosby lambasted poor black parents for their children's lagging performance in school, inability or unwillingness to speak standard English, and use of vulgar language. He blasted parents for using their cell phones as a primary communication for their children, letting TV raise their kids, and for "squandering the opportunities the civil rights movement gave them." He said too many blame white society for their ills when "we have to turn the mirror around." Cosby even made fun of the way some parents name their children.

This wasn't the affable, camera-mugging comedian who made a generation laugh as the firm but loving Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable on NBC's "The Cosby Show." This was Mr. Cosby -- an aging, exasperated, somewhat ornery, activist. Cosby showed a side that the public had never seen, and that may have been the primary reason his outbursts generated so much headlines.

"It wasn't so much what he said, but how he said it," said Mark Chapman, professor of African-American studies at Fordham University in New York. "There was a kind of inflection, a kind of elitism that turned people off. ... It was almost as if he looked down on the urban poor with a measure of disdain."

Uplifting Black America

On both "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World" on NBC and later on CBS with "Cosby," Bill Cosby showcased middle-class African-American life. The shows presented African-Americans who were pursing their education, had college degrees or advanced degrees, raised their children in traditional family settings and were doctors, lawyers and teachers.

His programs showed that not all African-Americans lived in the projects. They could be more than athletes and musicians on TV and film -- and in real life.

Critics of Cosby argued that he didn't portray a balanced picture of African-American life. His characters were all upper-middle class, which critics called an unrealistic portrait of blacks.

But that didn't stop "The Cosby Show" from being the most watched program in the United States for several years.

A Different Side -- and a Disdain -- Revealed?

In his speeches last year, Cosby again attempted to champion the betterment of African-Americans. But his tone, critics argue, may have overshadowed the validity of some of the points he tried to make.

"His tone represented the worst kind of elitism, one that lacks real compassion for the urban poor," Chapman said. "There is nothing wrong with self-criticism, the need for self accountability. That's fair. But when you put all the blame on the urban poor, without offering any solutions to lift them up, you're not really helping anyone. You're sort of piling on. You're continuing the perpetual blame of victims."

As a famous African-American with a doctorate in education, Cosby seemed to validate the long-held beliefs of some white conservatives who would have been labeled racist had they delivered similar tirades, Chapman said.

"People like William Bennett used to talk about the moral poverty of black people," Chapman said. "It's like he [Cosby] is falling into their hands and they can say, 'See, look what one of your own said.'"

Remember Autumn Jackson

The groping allegations were not the first time Cosby was confonted with a scandal. In 1997, Autumn Jackson, a young woman who claimed to be Cosby's daughter, was convicted of attempting to extort money from the entertainer. (Jackson's conviction was overturned in June 1999 but reinstated five months later.)

Cosby testified at trial that he had had an affair with Jackson's mother but did not believe he was the father. He also conceded he had paid Jackson's mother to keep their affair secret and gave her money to set up a trust fund for her daughter.

But news of Cosby's past infidelity did not generate outrage then, perhaps because of the tragic murder of his only son. Jackson tried to extort money from the entertainer on the same day Ennis Cosby was shot to death on the side of a California road.

"That was an entirely different situation. He had a lot sympathy then because of the murder of his son," Gorney said.

Turning the Mirror Around

Even if a civil suit is filed, it's debatable whether the groping allegation will have any affect on Cosby's credibility.

"It's a moot point," Chapman said. "It doesn't eradicate his ability to speak on issues he considers important."

Chapman pointed to the undiminished stature of the Rev. Jesse Jackson as a civil rights leader.

"Jesse Jackson can still speak on issues of public policy, even with his admission of fathering a child out of wedlock, though his speaking on moral issues and marriage may not ring true," he said.

The public may forget about the groping allegations. But the debate sparked by Cosby's criticism of black parenting and the level of self-accountability among African-Americans will go on -- and perhaps that's the best thing his tirade could have accomplished.

Still, Cosby may never really be Dr. Huxtable again. The ghost of what some have called his elitist criticism may linger. When Cosby urged African-Americans to "turn the mirror around" on themselves, he really may have turned the mirror on himself.