On the scale of Spitzer to Paterno, where will history seat him? Does he deserve forgiveness, or will he go ungently into that good night?
There are plenty of second acts in American life. Elliot Spitzer came back as the Wall Street-busting hero of the polemical documentary Inside Job. Anthony Weiner was resurrected from sexting purgatory, ran for mayor, and then left again in disgrace. Mark Sanford clawed his way off the canvas after what seemed like a surefire political knockout, and now he’s not going anywhere—at least not in that safe Republican district he’s representing. Bill Clinton, the legendary “comeback kid,” is enjoying better approval ratings than any of the three branches of government.
And there are always the last acts, but those are rarely pleasant. For every saintly Jimmy Stewart who passes peacefully after a life well lived, there are at least a dozen Joe Paternos and Michael Jacksons going ungently into that good night. The latter two combined with Bill Cosby to carve up the 1980s: Their faces (Jackson himself contributed several) were ubiquitous, and their hubris was almost unimaginable.
When does someone so full of promise and beauty cease being either and metamorphose into whatever gross thing they’re destiny-bound to become?
Jackson was the self-proclaimed “King of Pop,” the greatest entertainer in recorded (and recording!) history. Paterno appeared on every sports talk show of record, boasting about the miraculous turnaround he had wrought at Penn State, the cleanest program in college sports. And Cosby, now the subject of a seemingly endless string of allegations about inappropriate sexual conduct, helmed one of the most successful sitcoms in television history.
Down they’ve gone, one after the other. Google photos of Jackson during his last days; he looked about as haggard and threadbare as a man could be. JoePa, who coached for most of the 2000s in a state of suspended animation, almost assuredly died of a broken heart after an assistant coach’s misdeeds put a lie to his Happy Valley empire. The 77-year-old Cosby, plagued by glaucoma that has robbed him of much of his vision, has begun to resemble the amoral monster his alleged victims claim he is.
Do I think Cosby did it? Sure, of course. He did something, just as Paterno did something and Jackson did something. They brought their sad endings on themselves. But when I close my eyes and visualize Cosby returning punts and kicks for Temple University or Paterno snaring interceptions for Brown, I start to get a little misty-eyed. A recording of a pre-pubescent Michael Jackson performing “I Want You Back” (how could a child so effectively convey the depth and complexity of such mature emotions?) on The Ed Sullivan Show only deepens and reinforces that sentiment.
In other words, when does someone so full of promise and beauty cease being either and instead metamorphose into whatever gross thing they’re destiny-bound to become? Or maybe there is no specific point at which they stop being promising, but rather a long chain of bad decisions leading inevitably into the void.
Such issues weigh heavily on my mind as I watch my father near the bitter end of a tormented existence. Once upon a time, he too was a gorgeous, graceful athlete with a silver tongue and a heart of gold. To the backers who supported him during his meteoric run as a successful businessman, he seemed a hot prospect with limitless potential and no downside risk. Yet he was nothing more than a perpetual disappointment, a man who forever seemed as though he just might but never did. The laundry list of his failings could fill a multi-volume memoir, with rampant infidelity and inveterate criminality perhaps the least among them.
Cosby’s indiscretions now overshadow five decades of competent work. His early stand-up is reasonably good, Bob Newhart-ian good-natured humor with a soupçon of urban flavor. He was at least superficially committed to television as a vehicle for learning and social change, earning an actual doctorate in the subject (albeit one with the ludicrous title “An Integration of the Visual Media Via ‘Fat Albert And The Cosby Kids’ Into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning”) and producing some quality educational programming during the 1970s. The Cosby Show, which launched in 1984, has aged poorly, but Cosby’s oft-parodied delivery resonated with millions of viewers, at least some of whom are now defending him.
None of that matters, not really. Nor do Paterno’s 300-plus wins, most of which have been erased by NCAA fiat. And what’s left of Jackson survives only in recordings that grew increasingly weaker with each subsequent album release and in a television special that is among the strangest material ever to grace that medium.
On his deathbed, Hubert Humphrey remarked, “When all is said and done, we must forgive each other, and redeem each other, and move on.”
Revelations of Cosby’s wretchedness will continue to surface, as they usually do in circumstances such as these. “Cosby has the smuggest old Black man persona I hate,” joked comedian Hannibal Burress in the viral stand-up clip that somehow succeeded at reminding the mainstream media that a) Cosby was still alive and b) there were all kinds of nasty stories about him floating around out there, stories that had been overlooked for years. But these revelations are so much icing on a cake that’s been mostly consumed. Before this, Cosby was barely a blip on the radar screen, an irrelevant éminence grise getting ready to be put out to pasture, but now he’s totally done, finished, finito, kaput.
In one of the finest passages in American literature, mystery novelist Raymond Chandler gave poignant expression to the finality of death. “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead?” he asked. “You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.”
Cosby is not yet dead, as Paterno and Jackson are, nor is he as close to the bitter end as my father. But he is thoroughly disgraced, which is the reward that awaits many of those who believe themselves beyond good and evil and conduct their affairs accordingly. Time is neutral, but its passing is marked by the accumulation of all the ugliness inside us, ugliness that becomes more manifest with each year. Listen to the young Cosby joking about his football and track careers and then observe him today, backed in a corner and struggling to defend the indefensible.
Before I began watching my father die, I watched his manifold flaws laid bare: His petty and grand deceptions, his emotional and verbal abuse, his crimes against women. He even began chronicling them himself, in a series of rambling and ungrammatical emails that nonetheless contained the sort of wisdom that could only be born of failure and defeat.
On his deathbed, Hubert Humphrey is alleged to have remarked, “When all is said and done, we must forgive each other, and redeem each other, and move on.” Eventually it won’t matter where Cosby or anyone else lay; they will be gone and their misdeeds will pass into the mists of history with them. How, then, should they be dealt with? “God will forgive you! Maybe I am a thousand times worse than you,” the unjustly imprisoned Aksionov, protagonist of Tolstoy’s short story “God Sees the Truth, But Waits,” tells the fellow inmate who had just confessed to framing him for murder. That’s no answer, mind you, but it warrants serious consideration nonetheless.