The dude is everything the ’80s carried a torch for. He’s as smart as six lawyers, rich enough to buy Arabia and practically as famous as God. Somebody said that if his ego had boundaries, it could be declared the 51st state. But what has made Bill Cosby the most trusted man in America since Walter Cronkite weighed anchor—and for the last four years has made The Cosby Show the hottest half hour on the tube—are the things he believes in and celebrates with sly, warm, gentle good humor. Solid, old-fashioned things like Home, Family, Hard Work, Education, Self-respect. To the millions who watch his show and read his books, Cosby has become the decade’s antidote to sleaze and cynicism, the self-appointed ombudsman of American morality, the Great Black Father of his country.
When Cosby premiered in 1984, liberal critics were outraged. They scorned Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable and his squeaky-clean wife and kids as “Oreos”—black on the outside, white on the inside. Cosby rebuffs the charge. In private he donates massively to black causes; last spring he gave $20 million to Spelman College, a Georgia school for black women. But on his show he stresses human similarities instead of ethnic differences, presenting the Huxtables as virtuous role models who offer all his countrymen a middle-class message of hope: “The Huxtables have made the American Dream come true—and so can you.”
Cosby himself has made a Napoleonic dream come true. Born in a Philadelphia ghetto, he has conquered America with comedy and may have earned more money than any black man in world history. In 1987-88, according to Forbes, TV shows, club dates, videos, books and commercials (including Kodak and Jell-O) spewed $92 million into his coffers. So why does “Billion Dollar Bill,” who could live like a sheikh in his three palatial homes and gad about in his two executive jets and 22 luxury cars, spend 11 months a year working like a dog? Because he’s the prisoner of his precepts, a creature of the ’80s he helped create. He’s the ultimate buppie.