Before his dramatic downfall, culminating in a guilty verdict, Cosby seemed to be at the peak of what had been an extraordinary public life
Bill Cosby came very close to cementing his legacy as Americas sweater-clad father figure and no-nonsense moral voice for the ages.
Instead he may die in a prison cell after being exposed as a criminal whom dozens of women say drugged and assaulted them while they were unconscious.
Its a dramatic downfall for the man once known as Americas dad and star of what the Boston Globe has calledone of the most cherished comedies in television history.
But the guilty verdicts he received on Thursday for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand also obscure the fact that he nearly got away with everything for which he was just convicted.
In the weeks and months before a joke by the comedian Hannibal Buress began to derail his public image in October of 2014, Cosby seemed to be at the peak of what had been an extraordinary public life. A biography published that year by veteran journalist Mark Whitaker, the longtime editor of Newsweek, focused entirely on his family life and achievements.
Historians will measure the seismic impact of The Cosby Show on the entertainment industry and on American society, Whitaker wrote. And they will point out how, by implanting such a positive image of black family life in the national consciousness, it helped Americans envision sending a black president and his wife and daughters to live in the White House less than two decades later.
The book was 500 pages long and delved into Cosbys affairs and rocky family relations, but offered no mention of the multiple counts of rape of which Cosby stood accused.
The New York Times, reviewing it in September of 2014, called it a wonderfully thorough biography of Americas most accomplished comedian. But by November of that year Whitaker acknowledged the failure of his omissions, and his publisher scrapped plansfor a paperback edition.
Something had changed. On 16 October 2014, in a low-lit club in Cosbys hometown of Philadelphia, another comedians rape joke about Cosby had gone viral. He gets on TV, 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! Buress said. Yeah, but you rape women, Bill Cosby, so turn the crazy down a couple notches.
A Philadelphia-magazine writer who happened to be in the crowd that night hit record on his phone, Vanity Fair has reported, and the video, uploaded to Phillymag.com the next day, began the rapid unraveling of Cosbys decades-long career.
His conviction on Thursday of sexually assaulting Constand the former basketball player who first filed a civil lawsuit against Cosby back in 2005, after a district attorney declined to bring criminal charges will not come as a shock to those who have followed the stories of the dozens of women whove stepped forward to accuse Cosby of drugging and raping them, some of the accusations dating back decades. But to those who have watched less closely, the verdict may still have been stunning partly because until not long ago Cosby was seen as a paragon of moral virtue.
Born in Philadelphia in 1937, Cosbys world looked nothing like the glamorous lifestyle he would later come to know. As he told Life magazine in a 1969 interview: Started out in the middle class when dad was young and working. Dropped to lower class and then the projects. Mother worked for $8 a day as a domestic. One brothers got epilepsy. Get the picture?
His strongest pull anywhere was to leave, so he joined the navy, where he got his GED high-school equivalent certificate and at 23, he was accepted to Temple University, where he honed a love of literature and talent for comedy.
He came up in the civil rights era, working in standup before landing his big breakthrough role as the first African American co-star on I Spy, and culminating with his starring role in The Cosby Show, where he played the wise father figure and won over white America with an emphasis on family values. Somewhere he found time to star in a good number of Jell-O commercials, and write around a dozen books.
All along the way according to the allegations of around 60 women who have come forward with claims dating back to the 1960s, publicly reported as early as 2000 he was drugging and assaulting women.
Those claims did not get widespread attention until a comedian made them famous, as Barbara Bowman, one of Cosbys accusers, observed angrily in a Washington Post op-ed that same year.
And it wasnt that they were a secret. The claims against Cosby were well established when Constand filed her civil suit in 2005. By 2006, Philadelphia magazine had published a carefully reported compendiumof victims stories, which was followed closely by Bowmans own piece in Peopledescribing her drugging and assault.
Meanwhile, Cosby had elevated his role to public moralist, holding forth on masculinity and self-discipline around the country. Writing in 2008 in the Atlanticon one of his tours, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, having seen him speak to a group of inmates who had just obtained their GEDs, remarked: I wished, then, that my seven-year-old son could have seen Cosby there, to take in the same basic message that I endeavor to serve him every day that manhood means more than virility and strut, that it calls for discipline and dutiful stewardship.
Coates has since expressed regretfor not looking into the allegations against Cosby. And Coates was far from alone. The late David Carr, shortly after Coates mea culpa, wrote a piece in the New York Times titled Calling out Bill Cosbys media enablers, including myself.
The accusations have now come to eclipse what seemed to be a lifetime of extraordinary accomplishment. But many thought justice would never be delivered at all.
Cosbys first criminal trial over Constands accusations last year resulted in a hung jury. But on a second attempt with the help of attorney Gloria Allred, who represents 33 of Cosbys accusers, her case succeeded.
Constand was almost unable to bring the case at all because of expiring statutes of limitations: only one accuser stood in the courtroom because others were barred by legal technicalities. Still, the judge allowed five other women to give supporting testimony, in contrast to the previous year, when only one other could speak.
For anyone wanting Cosby to be held accountable, the trial came not a moment too soon.
Kevin Steele, the district attorney who brought the charges having run for office against the previous prosecutorwho declined to bring charges against Cosby in 2005, and won was sworn into his new job just in time to sign off on an arrest warrant before the statutes of limitations expired.
The witnesses certainly appear to have helped the case this time around. But with the downfall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo movement, its also a very different cultural moment. And while many powerful men have lost their jobs or been suspended, Cosby is the first celebrity targeted by the movement to go to jail for his actions.
Walking out of the courthouse after the verdict Thursday, Lili Bernard, one Cosbys accusers, was overcome by emotion. I feel like Im dreaming. Can you pinch me? a misty-eyed Bernard said to reporters on the courthouse steps. After all these years, she said, my faith in humanity is restored.
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