The Unraveling of Virginia

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Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook pages.

People are always complaining.

There’s too much news. Too much turmoil. As the late actress and comedienne Gilda Radner titled her autobiography: “It’s Always Something.”

The record, month-long federal shutdown is over … for now. Below-zero temperatures passed through our area and others. The Patriots won the Super Bowl. Venezuela is in crisis.

And, not to forget, as noted elsewhere, President Trump gave a slightly overdue State of the Union speech last Tuesday which lasted until 10:30 p.m. and resembled something between a patriotic, inspirational pep talk and a reality show. He gamely called for unity while facing an audience that included newly elected Democratic women members of Congress dressed in white, and Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic Speaker of the House, seated behind him with a gavel.

Forget all that.

The real news was elsewhere, right next door in our neighboring commonwealth, where the once burgeoning Virginia Democratic Party and the state government itself was falling apart. Ever since Friday, the local media were loudly notifying us every time another shoe dropped. [Update: Another has dropped. See below.]

It all began on Friday, the first day of Black History Month, no less, with this headline from the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam admits he posed in yearbook photo showing men in blackface, Klan robe.”

From that announcement, echoed all over the state — and, more importantly, by an excitable local and national news flock around the region and eventually the nation — it’s a surprisingly quick journey to yesterday’s headlines. Example: “Northam, Fairfax, Herring scandals could have ripple effect on November elections.”

You may note that the shaky fingers of political concerns have already crept into the conversation. You will also note that in addition to the embattled Gov. Ralph Northam, there are references to scandals concerning his potential successors, should he resign his office, which he has adamantly resisted. First in line is Lt. Gov. (and Northam friend, at least in the past) Justin Fairfax.

Fairfax was the subject of a report accusing him of sexual assault in 2004. He flatly denied the accusation, but since then, a graphic response from his accuser Vanessa Tyson, an associate professor at Scripps College and a fellow at Stanford University, has heightened this particular scandal and made his predicament more dangerous.

Not long thereafter, Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he had dressed in blackface at a party in 1980, when he was a fan of rappers like Kurtis Blow. He was a 19-year-old undergraduate at the time. Herring, it should be noted, was one of the first of noted Virginia Democrats to call for Northup’s resignation.

That came after pictures from a 1984 yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School, from which Northup had graduated, appeared, with Northup’s page showing him in a suit and tie, in comfort wear, beside a convertible. In addition, there was a photograph of a man in checkered pants, bow tie, hat and blackface, standing beside a man in Ku Klux Klan garb, complete with pointed top.

The reaction was immediate. The members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus called for his resignation and, after an initial hesitation for caution, so did the state’s two Democratic senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, followed by African American legislators, who were stunned and hurt by the photos.

Northup, apparently a liberal, low-key, exemplary and decent man, who had a kind of affable awkwardness, hitched to a solid public service record that included military service as a doctor in the army, was initially silent. Then he gave a press conference. And then added to it.

In his first reaction, he seemed to indicate he was one of the two men in the infamous picture and apologized, saying he was “deeply sorry.” He said: “The photograph was clearly racist and offensive. 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. This behavior is not in keeping with who I am today, and the values I have fought for throughout my career in the military in medicine and in public service.”

Later, however, he said that he was not either one of the men in the picture and, instead, admitted that he had put on blackface at a party where he had imitated Michael Jackson and moonwalked. This turnaround instead of helping, hurt him. It was plainly awkward and uncomfortable to watch. At one point, he seemed to want to show his moonwalking ability, only to be gently restrained by his wife.

More importantly, he has continued to refuse to resign, nor has he appeared in public. He has indicated that he would wait at least until the legislature completed its session, even as calls for his resignation increased.

Fairfax, the African American lieutenant governor, is now deeply embroiled in his own scandal and difficulties, which echoes the themes sounded out and embroiling and roiling the nation in the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings — which are now bound to echo strongly with the hiring of the same lawyers that represented the principals in that controversial and wrenching process.

In these last few days, which have no seeming resolution in sight but only further personal, emotional, political and even national ramifications, the party of Virginia Democrats seems to be unraveling. It’s doubly painful for all concerned, and reflective of the state’s standing both as a cradle of democratic and national origins and Founding Fathers, and the cradle for the existence of slavery, the continuing national struggles, battles and divisions over race and identity (witness Charlottesville), the arguments over how to remember the Civil War and the Confederacy and memories of the Jim Crow period and the civil rights movement.

The ballooning political and social crisis have exposed deep wounds in the Virginia body politic, as the legacy and continued existence of racism become entangled with the #MeToo movement. The danger of a GOP takeover — if all three Democratic leaders now under fire and in danger should resign — exists. But what’s also been exposed is the merciless result of the rush to judgment in this age of even less than a 24-hour news cycle, not to mention the lasting pains of slavery and inequality in Virginia and the South.

Whatever happens next — including the opportunities for forgiveness and reconciliation, as opposed to the opportunities for political advantage that the president has already noted — is anybody’s guess.

What remains, though, are those two pictures and the shock and hurt that they contain. When we note Black History Month, we note that those pictures, and others like them which come out of the past like horrible unwanted guests, represent a shared history that refuses to be ignored.

[2/7/19 update from the Virginian-Pilot via the New York Post: “State Sen. Tommy Norment oversaw the Virginia Military Institute’s ‘The Bomb’ yearbook in 1968 — the same year the college first allowed black students to enroll.” The yearbook featured “photos of people in blackface alongside other racist snapshots and slurs.”]

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