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Knowing better

SoVaNow.com / February 06, 2019
I suppose it’s healthy in a way to hammer on some other politician and his outrageous antics for a change.

Hoo boy, what a mess up in Richmond this week. If you’re just returning from an expedition to Mars, a quick recap: On Friday, a photo was splashed all over the news of two grinning, beer-swilling medical school students, one dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the other in blackface. Whatta a couple of meatheads. Even in one’s twenties, folks should know better than to dress up in such racist garb.

Who are these idiots? Why, one of them is (more likely than not) a man who has gone on to attain a well-deserved reputation for gentility and compassion, who before entering public life was best known for treating sick and injured children as a pediatric neurologist. He served his country, too, as an Army doctor. How could it come to be that this otherwise honorable man, now 59, would display such incredibly poor judgment some three decades earlier as a 25-year-old medical student in an utterly horrible yearbook photo?

How did it happen, Gov. Northam, how?

He isn’t our ex-governor yet and the word from the Capital is that Ralph Northam may try to ride out the storm, but the legitimacy of His Excellency is gone and kaput unless Northam comes up with a much better explanation than anything he’s offered up so far for the image that appeared in his Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook in 1984. After initially stating he was one of the people shown in the offending photo — the Klansman or the minstrel character, no one seems to know which — Northam changed his story at a Saturday press conference summoned to quell the storm. Let’s just say the second day of the crisis may have been a bigger disaster than the first day, if such a thing is even possible.

Northam told reporters at the Executive Mansion that after a night of thinking about the matter, searching his memories and talking to medical school contemporaries, he decided that it couldn’t have been him in the picture on his yearbook page. Although Northam did admit to once donning blackface for a dance contest in which the future governor of Virginia trotted out his best Michael Jackson impersonation. He even offered to show off his moonwalk to the assembled press corps before his wife intervened. Oof.

Let’s try to be fair here: People say and do all kinds of regrettable and ill-advised things under duress. I look upon this whole affair with a sense of dismay leavened with disgust and it doesn’t change my fundamental assessment of Ralph Northam: In all likelihood, he really is the decent man we’ve always heard him to be, who suddenly finds himself frozen in the headlights by the emergence of something grossly stupid and insensitive that he did as a much younger man. By most any standard, a person in such a predicament would deserve a modicum of understanding and a second chance. But “any standard” isn’t the benchmark we should be setting for our governor or anyone else in a preeminent position in public life. Does Ralph Northam deserve a chance at redemption? Absolutely. Can he square that with his ongoing duty and obligation to serve as leader of all Virginians? No.

This isn’t about moral purity, by the way — it’s about reclaiming the governmental sphere as a place where honesty, decency, judgment and fairness toward all people should count for something. Oh, I know. All politicians trim around the edges and say things that are contestable at a minimum and outrageous nonsense a good part of the time. But in the Age of Trump, the nastiness of our public discourse has gone through the roof, and pushback against bad behavior is effectively non-existent within the president’s own party. Which is why it’s up to Democrats, now more than ever, to reject actions and statements that cross clear lines of the unacceptable.

It’s not about whether Ralph Northam is an honorable person — I voted for him in 2017, so I sure believed it then and haven’t totally abandoned the thought now. Rather, this is about who and what the governor represents: the leader of commonwealth that sits squarely within a region (and nation) where racial violence and white supremacist rule are historical facts that cannot be ignored. Refusing to own up to the implications of this history is obnoxious; making a mockery of it is toxic. That was as true in 1984 is it is in 2019. Sometimes you have to go with the belief that people really do have no excuse.

As someone who grew up on the rural Eastern Shore, with all kinds of cross-cutting influences, social and political, Northam might have an interesting story to tell about how he overcame a sense of obliviousness toward the most odious racial stereotypes of our times, to carrying the black vote overwhelmingly in his latest election and repaying the honor in kind with right-minded action once in office. But doing all this and remaining an effective governor at the same time is too heavy a lift to handle. Not even a figure as adept as LBJ could have pulled off such an assignment. Our governor needs to go.

So what about the next-up scandal in Richmond, involving unproven and unrefuted accusations of sexual assault against Justin Fairfax, Virginia’s African-American lieutenant governor, who stands to ascend to the top job if Northam quits? In the wake of the Brent Kavanaugh episode, it behooves Virginia Democrats to treat the accusations against Fairfax seriously — with his accuser stepping forward publicly on Wednesday. (A California college professor who had a sexual encounter with Fairfax in 2004, she doesn’t seem to be an immediately discreditable figure; let’s just leave it there for now.) I try to stick to a rule whenever sizing up explosive allegations against public figures, and I think it’s a good rule: Isolated claims, without corroboration or physical evidence, don’t count for much. Multiple accusations, coming from people who step forward independently and without obvious axes to grind, deserve honest scrutiny. Even if he doesn’t become governor tomorrow or the day after that, Fairfax has some questions to answer. But the lieutenant governor’s predicament is leagues apart from the governor’s. So we shall see.

(Late update: now there’s an admission by Attorney General Mark Herring that as a 19-year-old college student, he donned blackface at a party while imitating rapper Kurtis Blow. Snap reaction: there’s a huge difference between the sort of stupid hijinks that Herring has copped to — you can include Northam’s silly little King of Pop routine in the same category — and engaging in KKK cosplay. It’s not moral relativism to draw reasonable distinctions between different acts of less-than-optimal behavior.)

In the meantime, if there’s a group of folks that has less-than-zero standing to expound on the controversies surrounding the governor and lieutenant governor, it’s the electeds and party pros on the other side of the political aisle, that same group of hypocrites and yes-men (and yes, they are almost all men) who sit around and say and do nothing about the presidential trash fire that consumes the country and world on a daily basis. It’s easy to argue that Democrats, in their near-unanimous belief that Gov. Northam should resign, are overreacting to sins that are 35 years old, sins that show only that no one is immune to stupid and insensitive behavior. Yet the question keeps returning to what we’re willing to excuse. Malignant racism? Swaggering self-regard and tolerance for abuse? If that’s the standard we want to live by, there’s a party that has the bases covered. You could even say it is the “base.” Democrats are right to keep their thoughts attuned to the rest of society — among whom a higher standard for public conduct might still matter for something.








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