The Crosby Trial

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – July 28, 1997

All Trials Are Theatre

The limits of entertainment
on view at the Cosby trial.

DOWN AT THE FEDERAL COURTHOUSE on Centre
Street last week, you had to show up early and stand in line to get a ticket
to see “The
United States v. Autumn Jackson et al.” And when, from backstage, Bill
Cosby popped out of a door in the wall behind the judge and took the witness
stand, the room came alive. Immediately, he grabbed the microphone, tapping it
and adjusting it like a pro, later actually removing it from its stand and holding
it, as if he were preparing to do thirty minutes at the Westbury Music Fair.

“William
Henry Cosby, Junior,” he said when asked who he was, and spelled his last name. Then,
continuing the monumental ritual coyness, a prosecutor asked “What do you do for a
living?” and Cosby replied, “I’m an entertainer.”

Then he entertained. He can’t help it. Asked by a prosecutor to elaborate
on his career history, Cosby said, “There was a time when I sang.” A
beat, then the punch line: “But that stopped.”

He was even jaunty
while he was being cross-examined. At one point, when a defense lawyer was
recapitulating Cosby’s answer to his question, the comedian smiled and rhythmically punched
the air, like a teacher coaching a confused student. Another time, when he spoke
before the judge had ruled on a lawyer’s objection to a question, he put
his hand to his mouth in a kind of broad, stage uh-oh—classic Cosby shtick.
When a lawyer asked if he could recall a phone number, he answered, “Let’s
try.” Beat, punch line: “I’m under oath.” The lawyer
read the number, and Cosby said, “Bingo!”

The comic moments were odd, intriguingly so. Truth
is supposed to be stranger than fiction, but it’s interesting how often truth is exactly like fiction—contrived,
implausible, stupid fiction, fiction produced by Aaron Spelling or a Collins
sister. That’s what this case sounded like in summary: America’s
ultimate sitcom dad, author of best-selling guides to parenting and marriage,
spends a fortune over two decades to cover up a single night of infidelity in
Vegas; plus, the woman from the fling has insisted to him for twenty years that
a baby resulted from their liaison, which he refuses to believe; and then the
alleged daughter tries to blackmail him; and, what’s more, the very
same day that she asks for forty million dollars his son is murdered on
a Los Angeles freeway. But at the trial it became clear that this is a
complicated and thought-provoking tale, full of surprising details. In
other words, it turned out to be like good fiction.

The one person in the courtroom who looked away indifferently as Cosby
began testifying was a juror, a black man around Cosby’s age. (In bad fiction,
he would have smiled reverentially, or given a Black Power salute.) Judith Krantz
would not write the fascinating, weirdly elided language Cosby used to emphasize
how his pro-social convictions dictate even his choices of commercial endorsements. “Kodak
is family, family pictures, family children. The pudding is family,” he
said, referring to Jell-O. “Ford, car; family.”

As in a good play or novel, in the end there is
no tidy moral, no easy justice, no unmixed motives. For two decades,
Cosby had willingly paid Jackson and her mother hush money. The difference
between tens of thousands of dollars and tens of millions of dollars
seems one of magnitude, not kind. To threaten to snitch and demand forty
million dollars is ugly, but legal deals are struck every day (think
of prenuptial contracts, think of severance agreements) that involve
payments for silence. When Cosby learned that Autumn had sent letters
to Kodak and CBS saying she was his illegitimate daughter, he said he
figured “it is basically
the end of what I’ve been paying for.” She had squandered her leverage
and asked for too much. Her error in judgment seems as much tactical as moral.

And what about his error? When he called in the F.B.I.,
he had already decided that he was willing to have the story of his one-night
stand become public. He had nothing more to lose. What did he gain from having
Autumn Jackson arrested and prosecuted for extortion? Why did he make a federal
case out of it? An entirely plausible, forgivable answer would be the awful
coincidence of his son’s murder.
A father’s judgment, in the middle of that nightmare, was flawed. Hacks
call
every unhappy story a tragedy, but for once the cliché fits.©