The president of the United States held forth for more than an hour on the intricacies of the Iran deal, and yet the media world is buzzing about the minute or so he devoted to Bill Cosby.
That speaks volumes.
From a global perspective, the travails of a discredited 78-year-old comedian are infinitesimal compared to whether the most dangerous country in the Middle East is able to acquire nuclear weapons, and whether the United States is acting recklessly or responsibly in striking an agreement with a terrorist-supporting regime.
But that’s exactly the problem. Iran is complicated. Cos is not.
People are conflicted about how to deter Tehran, not trusting the country at all but also favoring the negotiations if they could keep a bomb out of the ayatollah’s hands.
Cosby is a simple up or down: He’s either a sexual predator (as more than 30 women have alleged) or not. He either admitted to using drugs to have his way with young women or not. He should either be punished or not. His reruns should be yanked or they shouldn’t.
The president said he wasn’t going to comment. And then he did.
At which point he could kiss the Iran headlines goodbye. Yes, his Iran remarks were front-page news for the likes of the Washington Post and New York Times, though he didn’t say much that was new. But for endless cable news segments and online pieces and social media, Cosby was king.
I don’t blame April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks one bit for asking the question. Obama had already held forth on Iran for an hour. He knows, as Ryan pointed out yesterday on MSNBC, that she often asks race-related questions. And there’s no rule that White House news conferences have to stick to the day’s major topic.
In fact, April asked a three-part question: Obama’s efforts on criminal justice reform; his upcoming trip to Kenya; and whether he would revoke Cosby’s presidential medal of freedom.
It was the medal, awarded by George W. Bush in 2002, that made the question fair game. The group PAVE (Promoting Awareness/Victim Empowerment) that was spearheading a petition drive—with Cosby accuser Barbara Bowman, who I interviewed last week, as the face of the campaign.
First, Obama gave a rather wimpy answer on the medal issue: “There’s no precedent for revoking a medal. We don’t have that mechanism.”
Excuse me, he’s the leader of the free world. He has military at his disposal. He could write Cosby a letter demanding that the medal be returned, or just issue a statement saying the administration now considers it rescinded.
But just when you thought Obama was going to get by with a narrow, legalistic response, he paused for what seemed like an eternity—and said this:
“If you give a woman -- or a man, for that matter -- without his or her knowledge, a drug, and then have sex with that person without consent, that’s rape. And I think this country -- any civilized country -- should have no tolerance for rape.”
He said it with great force and conviction. He was not going to leave the impression that he was giving Cosby a pass.
No one could miss that the first African-American president was calling out the African-American entertainer who broke all kinds of barriers in television.
After decades when the media looked the other way—and months of coverage in which one woman after another told harrowing tales of being drugged, abused, assaulted or raped by Cosby—the story had produced a presidential denunciation.
And that was news.
As for Cosby’s camp: no comment.
We will all turn our collective attention back to Iran soon enough. But even though there will likely never be a criminal prosecution of Bill Cosby, that moment had the feel of a final reckoning.