Virginia political scandals show why words, and their delivery, truly matter

As the debacle in Virginia continues to unfold involving three top government officials — Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring — what they’ve said and how they said it can offer lessons in how communication can sink, or potentially save, a career.

Let’s begin with the publication by a conservative media website, Big League Politics, of a picture from Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 medical school yearbook, showing a man in blackface standing next to another who is wearing Ku Klux Klan robes. The governor inexplicably reversed his position from a public apology to this statement: “I believe now and then that I am not either of the people in this photo. This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam.” He has vowed not to resign.

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If competing bad news is the fervent hope during a crisis, the heavenly powers were active and a California college professor, Vanessa Tyson, issued a two-and-a-half page statement accusing Fairfax of escalating kissing into sexual assault while they were at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Two days later, a second woman, Meredith Watson, came forward to publicly accuse Fairfax of raping her in 2000 when they were students at Duke University. He has said both encounters were consensual.

Then, along the lines of “you can’t make this stuff up,” Herring stepped forth to proactively admit that he wore blackface and a wig at an undergraduate college party in 1980.

Northam has insisted he had never put on Klan robes, and had not been so drunk that he would have forgotten such a picture. At the news conference where he retracted his apology, he volunteered that he once darkened his skin for a dance contest at which he impersonated Michael Jackson. The media, sensing a photo opportunity, asked if he could moonwalk. Without the intercession of Mrs. Northam, it appeared the governor might have obliged them with a demonstration. Later, when pressed to explain why he reversed his stance, he said that he had “overreacted.”

This could be taught as a case study in how not to handle a crisis. My interpretation of the governor’s first reaction was that he panicked. He rushed to respond without reviewing the facts and then deciding on a course of action. Most importantly, he did not rehearse what he would say. A cardinal rule for such high-profile situations is to rehearse — do not ad lib during the event. In his press conference on Day Two of the scandal, when he volunteered that he impersonated Michael Jackson, he felt compelled to try to lessen the impact by claiming it was only a light coating of shoe polish, because shoe polish is hard to remove. By this time, it was hard to take anything he said seriously.

His public reversal also competed with his initial actions. Virginia Del. Charniele Herring, chair of the state’s House Democratic Caucus and no relation to the attorney general, claims that the governor “told me personally … that he acknowledges it was him in the photograph.”  

During the course of the week, while continuing to insist he would not resign, Northam flailed around trying to find something that would get traction. He floated the idea of having an investigator review the yearbook picture to determine the identities. He said he was reading “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Alex Haley’s “Roots” to gain a deeper understanding of African-American experiences. He announced he would spend the remainder of his term working to heal racial divides. He emailed state employees insisting he deserves their trust. In other words, he’s desperate.

While the governor’s misery was unfolding, Lt. Gov. Fairfax steadfastly was denying the accusations levied against him. He acknowledged the encounter with Tyson but insisted it was “consensual,” and he flatly denied Watson’s accusation. In a move that likely gladdened the hearts of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s defenders, he decried a rush to judgment and suggested the FBI investigate.

As for Herring, it appears he will survive the scandal — although his infraction of wearing blackface is situationally similar to Northam’s. First, he got ahead of the story, making it public himself. Second, he is reported to have met with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus. The word that signals his strategy and delivery of the message is contained in numerous reports: that he apologized “effusively.” These reports contained powerful descriptions that he appeared to be  “sincere” and had asked for “forgiveness” for his blackface episode.

By contrast, several of the state’s powerful Democrats, including Rep. Donald McEachin, said Fairfax should resign, expressing frustration that he had appeared dismissive of Tyson and did not consult with them.

Fairfax tried to address the matter, saying: “I take this situation very seriously and continue to believe Dr. Tyson should be treated with respect. But I cannot agree to a description of events that is simply not true.” He continued with a denial: “I say again without reservation, I did not sexually assault or rape Meredith Watson, Vanessa Tyson or anyone else.” Unfortunately, the  words “or anyone else” invite listeners to wonder what other situations with women might be in his past.

Our prediction? Herring will survive politically because he employed the correct strategy, coupled with effective delivery. Fairfax is less likely to remain in office. A hint may rest in the words that media apply to his situation — “embattled” and “embroiled” — as their way of signaling they consider him finished politically.

Gov. Northam’s fate hangs in the balance. Though the word “embattled” also has been applied to him, he performed relatively well in an interview aired on CBS — despite a major gaffe of referring to slaves as “indentured servants.” Several African-American leaders have spoken up to say events that occurred decades ago might be forgiven.

The racism scandal, Northam said, has been eye-opening and now he better understands what is offensive. In his words: “Reality has really set in.” The reality is, this is a lesson in self-awareness and self-examination that everyone should take to heart.

Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas communications consultant, was President Reagan’s director of media relations. Follow her on Twitter @SpaethCom.