CLARENCE PAGE

Page: Bill Cosby memories take beating

Clarence Page

In Washington, a city with many memorials, the locals argue heatedly these days over whether one should be painted over.

That’s because it is a mural on the side of a popular local landmark called Ben’s Chili Bowl that includes the 10-foot high face of Bill Cosby.

The mural, which was painted by a local artist in 2010, includes such other famous past customers of Ben’s as President Barack Obama. But the neighborhood’s dispute over Cosby’s face illustrates how far the star of one of the world’s most popular comedians has fallen — from superstar to criminal suspect.

Cosby’s fortunes abruptly turned in October 2014 when a YouTube video clip of rising comedian Hannibal Buress put a new national spotlight on old accusations of sexual assault that include at least one out-of-court settlement.

Soon dozens of women began to come forth to make very similar charges. Now that settlement, made with Andrea Constand, who worked with the basketball team at Cosby’s alma mater, Temple University, became the focus two days before the new year of a criminal case against Cosby in Philadelphia.

Kevin Steele, the Montgomery County first assistant district attorney and district attorney-elect, announced a felony charge of indecent assault in what he described as a “relationship” between Cosby and Constand, resulting from her work at Temple.

Steele described Cosby as a “mentor” and “friend” to Constand, who went to Cosby’s suburban Philadelphia home in early 2004. There, according to the charges, Cosby urged her to take pills and drink wine until she was unable to move, then he allegedly assaulted her.

Widely revered until now as a father figure, popular moralist and “clean” (meaning raunchiness-free) comedian, Cosby has seen one after another of his many honors withdrawn by institutions as varied as universities and Disney World. Possible TV projects and an interrupted comedy tour have reportedly been shelved or abandoned.

Now even some neighbors of his beloved chili restaurant have called for Cosby’s countenance to be removed. Cosby has special meaning to Ben’s Chili Bowl and vice versa. He and his wife Camille used to go to the restaurant when they were dating, years before Cosby’s national fame blossomed in the 1960s.

The family of the late Ben Ali, who founded Ben’s in the 1950s, has stayed loyal to their longtime customer. But, one wonders, for how long?

Now whenever I drive past Ben’s on my way to Washington’s more nationally famous landmark buildings, I see a different Cosby than I used to see up on that wall.

I still see his big smiling face, captured from his earlier decades as a star of stage, screen, TV and comedy albums. But these days I wonder if we, the public, will ever see him smile that broadly again. Will we ever be able to laugh with him again, not just at him?

I raised that question months ago as one woman after another came forth to tell one damning story after another of an allegedly predatory Cosby. Actual criminal prosecution makes bad matters worse for Cosby image. If his reputation was on a slide before, felony charges send it over a cliff.

Of course, Cosby is legally innocent until proved guilty in a court of law, but the court of public opinion is nowhere near that patient or even-handed. The paradox of Cosby’s self-reinvention since 2004 as a morality and self-help spokesman makes him all the more vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.

That’s a hard fall from which to recover, even if he somehow beats the current charges against him. Like one of Ben’s chili dogs, you probably can stick a fork in his career. It’s done.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.