Cosby gets serious Entertainer talks about politics, race


Philadelphia -- In this year of political uncertainty, Bill Cosby imagines a sinister plot on the horizon: a Republican-Democratic conspiracy to assassinate Ross Perot.

"If I was Ross Perot, I would put more bodyguards around myself," Mr. Cosby says.

He drops this bombshell toward the end of a lengthy conversation that has ranged from race to entertainment to politics in his picture-lined, three-room office suite at WHYY-TV, where he tapes his new TV show, "You Bet Your Life."

In a few hours, as tape rolls, he will become huggable, muggable Quizmaster Cos. Just now, in an exclusive interview, he is Doctor of Education Cosby, answering questions with long, analytical statements that approach lecture length. He is wearing a white Morehouse College T-shirt, blue jeans and slippers and puffs from a fat cigar that -- aware he's a role model -- he puts down when a photographer comes in to shoot.

The independent Texas insurgent, Mr. Cosby maintains, presents such a threat to the prevailing political order that a cabal of Democrats and Republicans -- not Bill Clinton and George Bush themselves -- might conspire to have Mr. Perot murdered.

The assertion is so explosive, I stop him to ask if he's serious.

"Deadly serious," says Mr. Cosby.

"I'm not a Ross Perot man," he says, adding people have to ask themselves: "At what point will the Democrats and Republicans go off into a room and say, 'If Perot is elected the two-party system' " is finished. "You have to think about it."

Since Mr. Cosby has referred to himself several times as an "agent of change," I suggest that with his money, his fame, his ideas, his legendary likability, he would be a stronger candidate than Mr. Perot.

We already have Dr. Bill Cosby.

How about President Bill Cosby?

"That would be the worst job I could think of," he says, "other than playing basketball for the '76ers at this time.

"I really don't have those skills. I think I know myself. I love teaching, being an agent of change at this level. America does not need another warm, cuddly person to go around messing up the tax dollars, putting the children in wars so they can be killed in friendly fire. This is a whole new term for me: 'friendly fire.' Which should be called 'ooops!' No."

The "agent of change" dovetails with his game plan for "You Bet Your Life," his syndicated revival of the Groucho Marx show that goes on the air in the fall. (Mr. Cosby calls after the interview to add that he wanted to use Groucho's picture on the set as a tribute to the late funnyman, but the Marx estate asked a royalty of $1,000 a week for use of Groucho's image.)

More than entertainment, Mr. Cosby envisions using the show -- as he believes he used "The Cosby Show" -- as a subtle method of educating America, making the show an "agent of change."

While he was earning his doctorate at the University of Massachusetts in the '70s, one of Mr. Cosby's professors said that George Orwell's "1984" was on target, and that television would become "Big Brother, and these horrible things would happen to people," Mr. Cosby says.

The entertainer/educator decided the same TV set could be used as an aid to teachers, to further education and to express the feeling of "who America is and what America's about."

When Groucho did the show, nearly all the contestants were white.

When a black man or woman came on the show, says Mr. Cosby, "they talked, and then they sang a song. Usually it was 'Old Man River' or something acceptable in the minds of the people at that time."

By accident or design, all three contestant pairs I saw during a recent taping included one African-American.

In his gentle prodding and poking of the contestants, Cos makes no reference to ethnic heritage, but deeply believes what you are, and where you came from, are important and should be celebrated.

The quiz show "won't change the United States of America," Mr. Cosby says, "but we certainly will give pride to those" of different races and ethnic heritages who look at it.

Peter Liacouras, president of Cos' beloved Temple University (on the show, Groucho's secret-word duck has been replaced by a black goose in a Temple T-shirt), says Mr. Cosby "looks at life and people as a mosaic."

Mr. Liacouras adds that Mr. Cosby is a firm believer in education who feels "blacks and whites who are given the opportunity early in life have the potential to do anything."

But the playing field is not level because of racism, and, says Mr. Cosby, "I don't know if it will ever break even.

"If you can't get along with your sister and brother, coming from the same mother and father, and you can't get along with someone you married, then it has to be difficult to get along with someone you don't know. . . .

"As of now, the people in charge don't want to see a fairness legislated because people feel that capitalism means we can only survive if we have slaves. Not black. I mean, just slaves. Anybody working for a minimum wage or low standards that are set.

"So jealousy comes about. You have these poor young fellows, the skinheads; you have the poor young fellows who, some of them in rap music, are just so ugly-minded now that all they think about is 'death to,' but it isn't going to work that way."

Contrary to some mainstream thought, Mr. Cosby believes racism is innate.

"Black people are not free from being racist," he says, puffing on the cigar. "You don't have to be taught to be racist, sexist. It's something that's in all of us. As little kids you really don't need your parents or your peers to teach you how to love and hate. You can do it very well by yourself.

"So this is something I feel is in us. I think it's worse than it was, and I don't judge it by any other means other than if you know better. So in 1992, we all know better."

But even education and legislation aren't the entire answer.

He closes with a typically Cos story about a ghetto kid he calls Henry whom he met a few weeks back while in Baltimore on the set of a movie being shot by Robert Townsend.

The kid was a gang member, and some of the staff was trying to work with him, to turn him toward a straight life.

Mr. Cosby spent some time talking with Henry, who then turned around and got shot in the face in a drug deal that went bad.

Mr. Cosby says he sat the kid down again and told him the following:

"I am worth half a billion dollars.

"I am a major star in America.

L "I can walk on any movie set, and they'll be glad to see me.

"I can get a job teaching at any university in America.

"I am supposed to be a good role model, and I sat down and spent time with you and talked with you and you went out and did the wrong thing anyway."

So, Cos asks, "How big a star are you waiting for?"

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