The more I read about comedian/sexual predator Bill Cosby’s behavior, the more I question President Obama’s my-hands-are-tied response to the matter of taking back Cosby’s Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“There’s no precedent for revoking a medal,” Obama said. “We don’t have that mechanism.”
Time to get creative. If the president can be innovative, aggressive even, in his use of executive authority on immigration, surely he can find a way to undo the honor, the nation’s highest civilian award.
President George W. Bush bestowed it in 2002, describing Cosby as “a gifted comedian who has used the power of laughter to heal wounds and to build bridges.”
Also, it turns out, Cosby used the power of his celebrity — and his access to drugs — to prey on young women.
“By focusing on our common humanity,” Bush added, “Bill Cosby is helping to create a truly united America.”
Those words sicken in the retrospective knowledge of Cosby’s behavior. Common humanity? By his own deposition testimony, Cosby failed to treat these women with common decency.
I’m not arguing that the president should act immediately. “I tend to make it a policy not to comment on the specifics of cases where there might still be, if not criminal, then civil issues involved,” Obama said.
That is the correct approach as the hushed-up allegations finally receive a full hearing, and the truth can be tested: Did Cosby, as he insists, simply — simply! — sweet-talk young women and ply them with Quaaludes to soften them up for consensual sex? “The same as a person would say ‘have a drink,’ ” Cosby offered in a recently unearthed, decade-old deposition.
This practice, Cosby’s lawyers elaborated in a court filing the other day, was a sign of the drug-addled times. “There are countless tales of celebrities, music stars, and wealthy socialites in the 1970s willingly using Quaaludes for recreational purposes and during consensual sex,” they argued.
No doubt, but in Cosby’s case there is a disturbing parade of women — more than two dozen — who claim that the once-beloved comedian crossed the line from consensual intoxication and hanky-panky to involuntary sexual activity.
About which the president correctly stated the law: “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.” In addition: If you give a woman a drug that renders her incapable of consenting to sex, that’s rape, too.
The next few weeks or months could help determine, finally and conclusively, just how far over the line from repugnant to criminal Cosby may have traveled.
In one case, a civil lawsuit, Judy Huth claims that Cosby forced her to perform a sexual act on him at the Playboy Mansion in 1974, when she was 15. The California Supreme Court rebuffed Cosby’s bid to dismiss the lawsuit, clearing the way for his deposition to proceed. (Cosby’s lawyers have described the suit as “meritless” and a “shakedown.”)
Another woman, Chloe Goins, who claims she was sexually assaulted by Cosby in 2008 at, again, the Playboy Mansion, says her allegations are the subject of a criminal investigation by Los Angeles authorities.
The prudent course is to let those cases proceed without the taint of presidential alignment with the complainants.
But reading the accounts of Cosby’s behavior, it is hard to stomach the thought that this man has been given the nation’s highest honor and that the president is powerless to do anything about it.
He’s not. The award was created by an executive order (John F. Kennedy in 1963) that can be amended to account for the unforeseen circumstances of a recipient who has proved himself unworthy. Nor should it require a criminal conviction — unlikely, after so much time has passed — for Obama to feel empowered to proceed.
One precedent: The Navy last year revoked Cosby’s honorary rank of chief petty officer, awarded in 2011. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the service acted because the allegations against Cosby “are very serious and are in conflict with the Navy’s core values of honor, courage and commitment.”
Certainly, we don’t want presidents willy-nilly yanking medals bestowed by their predecessors, yet that hardly seems a real risk. In this case, I suspect Bush would be happy to back Obama’s revocation.
Certainly, too, there are many more important issues on the presidential plate. But as the repulsive evidence against Cosby mounts, it’s one on which the president has more maneuvering room than he seems to believe.