Within a few hours of a picture being posted on the Internet from Ralph Northam’s (D) medical school yearbook – in which a man in blackface and another in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan appear – it was clear the Virginia governor’s political career was over.
Northam on Friday night confirmed that he was one of the two people in the photo – he didn’t say which one – and issued an apology. “I cannot change the decisions I made nor can I undo the harm my behavior caused then and today,” he said in a statement. “I am committed to continuing that fight.”
But on Saturday morning, CNN’s Ryan Nobles reported that Northam told a top Virginia Democrat that he wasn’t in the photo and that he wouldn’t resign. And then, in a statement on Saturday afternoon, Northam again refused to step aside – and tried to explain.
“I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo,” Northam said, adding, however, that he had darkened his face to look like Michael Jackson in a dance contest in 1984. He blamed insensitive decisions he made on race to “the place and time where I grew up.” Reminder: We are talking about 1984, not 1954.
That apology – and explanation - was designed to buy Northam some time. I get it. But here’s the thing: Northam simply cannot survive this politically. There is no political strategy that gets you through something like this. None.
Consider what we know: This is a photo from Northam’s medical school yearbook in 1984. Everyone – EVERYONE – knew by 1984 that appearing in either blackface or in KKK robes was absolutely unacceptable. Whether he was in the photo or not – and he said Friday he was before recanting – he has now acknowledged that there was a separate instance in which he did wear blackface during a dance contest.
Remember that this was Northam’s medical school yearbook. Not his high school yearbook. At the time the picture was taken he had to have been in his early to mid-20s. This isn’t a “I was just a dumb kid doing dumb stuff” thing. This is not a youthful indiscretion. (Even if it was, I’m not sure that Northam could – or should – keep his job.)
Think about it in your own life. By the time you have graduated from college – and likely WAY before that – you know what’s right and what’s wrong. If someone came up to me in college and said, “Hey man, wouldn’t it be hilarious to dress up like this?” I would have known that under no circumstances is that something that should even be contemplated.
There’s just nothing more to say beyond that. Northam needed to know better – and he clearly didn’t. You cannot be one of 50 governors in the country if you are unable – in your mid-20s – to exercise good judgment in a moment like that. Once you have lost the moral authority to stand before people and say credibly, “I understand your hopes and dreams and fears, and I will represent them,” then it’s time to go.
Recognizing that fact, virtually every major figure within the Democratic Party – from former Vice President Joe Biden to California Sen. Kamala Harris to former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe – have called on Northam to resign.
Northam seems to think he maybe – just-maybe – can hold on. He cannot. This is not the sort of thing you come back from – nor should it be. Northam will realize that fact – and the sooner he does so, the better for Virginia and the country. My guess is that current Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is the governor of Virginia by the end of this weekend.