Re­voke Bill Cosby’s medal

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - RUTH MAR­CUS ruth­mar­cus@wash­post.com

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 away 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.

KEN­NETH LAM­BERT/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Ge­orgeW. Bush laughs af­ter fail­ing to clasp Bill Cosby’s Pres­i­den­tialMedal of Free­dom in 2002.

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