Bill Cosby and the Reagan Era Reckoning
More than thirty years ago, as then President Ronald Reagan spoke to us about coming “to a turning point, a moment for hard decisions,” Bill Cosby was seemingly giving us something else all together; manageable life lessons through a lot of laughter and a sense of comfort.
President Reagan’s quote is from his second inaugural address, referring to a “time of reckoning” in terms of what he described as “fifty years of deficit spending.” Reagan wanted to make cuts and curb certain governmental spending habits, and through his well-rehearsed “aw-shucks” delivery, we, as a trusting nation, went along with him on a fiscal journey that has since proven to have been far more harmful than helpful, in terms of balancing the budget and helping those Americans in need.
In other words, we trusted dear, sweet Ronnie – and as a result, we took an economic beating for it.
But at least we could look back on Bill Cosby and his shining symbol of the near-perfect American father, that now iconic character’s name being Cliff Huxtable. Excuse me, I mean, Dr. Cliff Huxtable. Cosby’s portrayal of the good doctor was everything we as a nation were looking for; a father who loved his wife and children, and a man who never shied away from a teachable moment. In short, Dr. Cliff Huxtable was a devoted family man who appeared to tell it like it was (much like our loving grandfather-figure in the White House) through honesty, humor, and rarely seen TV candor.
And for eight seasons (coincidentally, the same length of time Reagan was in the Oval Office) we trusted dear, sweet Dr. Huxtable – and as a result, we were taken for a ride by someone who (Cosby, the man) was, at times, behaving in ways far different than his beloved television persona. (In hindsight, the fact that Dr. Huxtable was an obstetrician with an office in his home basement seems horribly creepy and a bit of a “tell” as to how the real Cosby thought). At the time of writing this piece, more than thirty-three women have stepped forward publicly and claimed they were either sexually harassed or raped by Bill Cosby, with some of these alleged incidents happening as far back as the late 1960s and early 70s.
It seems that two of our most beloved men from the 1980s were actually nothing like the men they played in front of the cameras. When Americans of a certain age ask one another, as well as themselves, why they’ve become a bit more jaded, they’ll need to look no further than these two icons of the 80s. Michael J. Fox? Those of us who grew up during this time are looking to you to keep our hope alive. Please don’t prove to be a closeted serial-killer or to have had inappropriate relations with barn-yard animals.
So what is there to do when two of your seemingly greatest father-figures prove to be not only flawed, but something far more inept or sinister? You can approach their memory like Fox News does with former President Reagan and only push the myth, making Reagan appear like the absolute pinnacle of leadership, despite the fact that history shows him to have been far less so. Or you can be like certain friends of mine who refuse to believe Bill Cosby is actually guilty of the sexual crimes he’s been repeatedly accused of. You can keep your head in the proverbial sand, clinging to your memories of Cliff Huxtable the fiction, or of the likeable stand-up that made you love chocolate cake even more than before.
The problem is, however, we know as a society that these men were the beneficiaries of celebrity, and with that a certain level of protection is afforded them. But if we’re to move past our own disappointment and see these flawed men for what (and who) they are, then we have to see them in terms of whole beings. We can still appreciate some of the positive qualities they shared with us, but it is equally important to hold them accountable for their negative (and possibly criminal) attitudes and behaviors. We can no longer pretend that President Reagan didn’t know about trading arms for hostages, or that Bill Cosby was a wonderful guy who was really just playing a variation of himself on The Cosby Show, as more than a couple of people I know still want to believe about both men.
It is time to make some “hard decisions” about these 80s icons and own up to the truth. The Reagan era came with a lot of smoke and mirrors, and now that smoke is finally – and rightfully – dissipating. And what are left are icons that are far less than what their supporters have pumped them up to be. We need to see these men for whom they are and use their own flaws as teachable moments for ourselves; in the sense that we strive to be better and to hold both each other and ourselves to higher standards. After all, it’s what the fictional versions of Bill Cosby and President Reagan would want.