Flash back to the heated, contentious race for governor of Virginia in 2016, when then-Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam accused his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, of racism.
Democrat Northam cast Gillespie and those who supported him as “racist” for his opposition to a sanctuary-city policy for Virginia. The Northam campaign also aligned itself with a Latino political action committee that produced a television ad depicting a pickup truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker menacingly chasing minority children.
The audacity of Northam’s campaign back then is even more outrageous today in light of the racist photo of a grinning man in blackface, standing next to an unidentifiable person in a KuKluxKlan costume, that appeared on Northam’s 1984 medical-school yearbook page.
When the revelation came out on Friday and the governor was confronted, he issued a written statement and a social media video.
This is what Northam said then: “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in the photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.” Although he admitted that one of the two racists depicted in his yearbook profile page was him, he could not remember which one was him.
In the subsequent social media video, he again apologized but did not change his story. He ended the video by stating that he would not resign and intended to finish his term as governor.
That was Friday. On Saturday, Northam held a press conference during which he said that, upon reflection and conversations with his wife, classmates and staff, he concluded the offensive photo did not depict him. He did admit that, after graduating from medical school, he appeared in blackface when he dressed as singer Michael Jackson for a dance party in San Antonio, Texas. The governor also admitted that he had a racially offensive nickname among at least some classmates at another school he attended but insisted he did not know the reason for it, and then stated once again that he would not resign his office.
Gov. Northam is incapable of being believed. He is resting his case on the fact that the man in blackface in the yearbook photo cannot be identified and that the face of the person in the KKK outfit is, obviously, hidden by the hood. The main reason the Klan dressed in hoods, of course, was to hide their identities while they practiced their racism. Given the governor’s changing stories, one might wonder if he hopes to benefit similarly, his identity protected from being affirmatively disclosed.
While Northam may not be the person today that he was as a younger man in 1984, one thing seems clear to his growing chorus of critics: He is spinning the truth about his behavior and choices of 35 years ago.
As a lawyer I was taught — and the law generally recognizes — that what a person says contemporaneously with an occurrence is the most reliable statement. And the fact is that, when first confronted about all this, the governor admitted that one of the racist figures depicted in his medical school yearbook was, in fact, him.
But what a difference a day makes: After having an opportunity to talk with his staff, family and friends, he is now telling a different story that seems inconsistent with the facts and circumstances and with what Northam himself admitted just a day earlier — all complicated by his additional, surprising and odd admission Saturday that he donned blackface to portray singer Michael Jackson at a widely attended public function not long after leaving medical school.
For all these reasons and more, Gov. Northam now is incapable of being believed by the public.
Another person who seems a disappointment in this matter, at least so far, is the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Justin Fairfax, himself an African-American. Before issuing his own public statement, in which he did not call for the governor to step down, he allowed Gov. Northam to speak for him at Saturday’s press conference, during which Northam said he had Lt. Gov. Fairfax’s support.
Fairfax, a descendant of slaves, was nowhere to be found. He waited while other prominent African-American leaders and Democrats denounced the governor or called for him to resign.
While Gov. Northam cannot be removed from office legally over all of this, however, he already is effectively gone — because he will lack the moral, ethical and political bone fides to govern as a result of his own shifting responses to this scandal.
Bradley Blakeman was a deputy assistant to President George Bush from 2001 to 2004. A principal of the 1600 Group, a strategic communications firm, he is an adjunct professor of public policy and international affairs at Georgetown University and a contributor to Fox News and Fox Business.