WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - I like hypocrites. You would, too, if you had this job. A hypocrite is the next best thing to a day off. Some pious moralizer contradicts his words with his deeds and the column all but writes itself.
It's different with Bill Cosby.
I don't know if he did what a Canadian woman has alleged: drugged her and fondled her. Mr. Cosby denies the accusation, and the fact that prosecutors have declined to prosecute obviously supports him. Still, his ambiguous remarks in last week's National Enquirer interview ("Looking back on it, I realize that words and actions can be misinterpreted") leave open the interpretation that something illicit might have occurred.
All that aside, there is one thing I do know. Bill Cosby has built a career as an avuncular teller of family-friendly tales. It is not mere hyperbole when he is described as America's Dad. And these allegations, whether true, false or somewhere in between, are starkly at odds with that image.
What is infinitely worse, though, is that they undermine his moral authority precisely at the moment he was using that authority to prod black America into a long-overdue public discussion. His language was over broad and sometimes harsh, I will grant. But who can deny that last year's now-famous remarks about lackadaisical parenting, refusal to invest in education and willingness to embrace street values among the black underclass struck a chord precisely because there was more than a little truth in them?
Mr. Cosby talked about black folks like black folks do when white folks are not around. In so doing, he sparked a national debate about the need for the black community to bear at least some of the onus for its own dysfunction. It is worth noting that he is one of maybe two black people on Earth (Oprah Winfrey is the other) beloved enough, black enough, respected enough and with moral authority enough to have pulled that off.
So it's painful to see that authority compromised. I take solace in remembering that moral authority is not the same as moral infallibility.
Out on the Web, meantime, some folks are looking not for solace but for blood. Like the person who suggested on one message board that the Cosby contretemps was manufactured by liberal conspirators out to silence him before he could derail their gravy train. I am not nearly as paranoid as I'd have to be to buy that notion.
At the other extreme is a small cadre of black commentators gleeful at what they see as Mr. Cosby's comeuppance. It's that silly, shortsighted response that vexes me most.
I will put the obligatory disclaimer here. Racism exists. Racism oppresses. But after you acknowledge that, after you commit yourself to sounding the alarm and resisting it wherever it is found, what do you do next? Must black progress await the day racism no longer exists? If so, it will wait a very long time.
Mr. Cosby's achievement was to get black folks talking publicly about our role in our own uplift, to encourage us to see ourselves not as passive victims of what white people do to us, but rather as men and women capable of taking our fate in our own hands. The debate he sparked was difficult, healthy and needed.
As somebody who has followed Bill Cosby since the days of I Spy, I will admit to a certain affection for the man. But here, I speak from affection for my community.
Its once-upon-a-time values, its once-upon-a-time solidarity and strength, have been largely lost in this era of nihilistic violence, shiny materialism and anti-intellectual posturing. We should be fearless in exploring any avenue that promises to return us to the best of what we were. Yet some of us rejoice at the stumbling of a man who tried to point the way?
That's about as hypocritical as it gets.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.