Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam should not resign because he was an idiot in the past. He should resign because he is an idiot in the present.
On Feb. 1, a 35-year-old photo reportedly showing Northam dressed either in blackface or Ku Klux Klan regalia first surfaced on the right-wing news site Big League Politics.
Competing newsrooms, including the Virginian-Pilot, soon confirmed that the photo came from Northam’s page in a 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. He was 25 years old at the time of the book’s publication. A separate yearbook unearthed this weekend also shows Northam went by a few nicknames when he attended Virginia Military Institute, including “ coonman.”
Taken together, the blackface photo and the racial slur are not enough to disqualify Northam from office. It’s true there’s no “youthful indiscretion” defense for racist behavior the governor likely thought was funny when he was well into his 20s. But everyone deserves a mulligan for the dumb and awful things they did decades ago. Everyone deserves a chance to show they’ve changed.
The problem with Northam, however, is that he is too stupid to manage any of that.
After the blackface yearbook photo was published on Feb. 1, the governor immediately apologized for it.
“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” he said.
However, by Saturday morning, after it became clear that his allies were not going to call it square after his apology, he adopted a new strategy: denial.
“When I was confronted with the images yesterday,” he said at a press conference, “I was appalled that they appeared on my page, but I believed then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo.”
The press conference got much worse. Much, much worse.
One reporter asked Northam why he apologized Friday if it wasn’t him in the yearbook photo. The governor responded, “I didn’t study it as well as I should. The first comment I made to the individual that showed it to me, I said this can’t be me.”
As to why he didn’t just say so from the beginning, Northam told reporters, “My word is important to me and my first intention … was to reach out and apologize. As you might imagine and understand, there are a lot of people that are hurt by this and I wanted to reach out to them. After I did that last night, I sat and looked at the picture. Today, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to classmates. My roommate and I am convinced that is not my picture.”
The governor also claims he “vividly” remembers donning blackface to look like Michael Jackson for a talent show in 1984, explaining that this memory makes him confident that he’s not the person featured in the medical school yearbook.
“I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks and the reason I used a very little bit because — I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried that — you cannot get shoe polish off,” he said.
As the governor recounted the talent show anecdote for reporters, Northam blanked on the name “Michael Jackson.” He had to be reminded by his wife, Pam, who whispered it in his ear.
The governor also told members of the press that he won the talent show because he learned to “moonwalk” like Jackson. One reporter asked Northam if he could still do the dance move. The governor was fully prepared to answer that question with a dance demonstration, but he was again saved by his wife. It was only after she told him the circumstances were “inappropriate” that he declined to answer whether he can still “moonwalk.”
Remember: This press conference, which was meant to salvage Northam’s gubernatorial career, came just days after he caused a major headache for his office and his party when he seemingly endorsed post-birth abortions.
No one should be automatically disqualified from holding office because of something hateful he said or did decades ago. Everyone deserves the chance to show they’ve matured in wisdom and judgment and that they’ve learned from their past mistakes.
On Saturday, the Virginia governor showed he is nearly every bit as stupid and tone-deaf as he was in college. Northam had a chance to show he is not the man that he was 35 years ago, and he blew it with an idiotic, hair-brained attempt at crisis management that would make even Anthony Weiner blush.
The governor should not be chased from office for things he did 20 or 30 years ago. He should be chased from office because can’t be trusted with a book of matches.