THE PHRASE is originally credited to Confucius, with some variation over the years, and it’s an apt saying in Virginia politics at the moment: “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
Or, in the case of Governor Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical yearbook picture, even a thousand words doesn’t come close to explaining the image.
The whole bizarre situation began a week ago when a reporter for a conservative blog found a picture on the governor’s medical school yearbook page of two men, one dressed in blackface and the other in a Ku Klux Klan hat and robe. Almost immediately, the governor said that it was him in the offending picture and that he was sorry.
That didn’t cut it. The explanation wasn’t adequate because the image of that old photograph was too powerful.
And believe it or not, the situation actually got worse.
The next day, in an incredibly painful news conference, Northam said it wasn’t him in the picture after all, adding that he had no idea how the photo got on his yearbook page. He said he had never even bought a copy of the yearbook.
And then, to make matters worse, he said that once in an unrelated incident he had put black shoeshine polish on his face in order to enter a talent contest to imitate Michael Jackson. Only the restraining influence of his wife kept the governor from demonstrating his ability to moonwalk Michael Jackson style.
It does leave some wondering if there is anyone in the Democratic political establishment who knows anything about damage control or messaging. The photo was awful, and the resulting explanation and press conference was a disaster. It was nonsensical, weird, and with Northam’s contradictory explanations, none of it made sense.
The calls for his resignation have been mounting day after day. Almost every Democratic operative and politician in the state has called for the governor to resign. Perhaps, even by the time this is published, he will have resigned. Which would be a very good idea.
But let’s get back to this picture business. A person in public life can say, write or do some of the most outrageous things and most of the time, be forgiven for their excesses. If someone brings up an article, a column, or a quote from a speech, a public figure can simply say, “That was then, but my position is different now.”
But find a picture and it never seems to go away.
In 1950, Sen. Millard Tydings was a shoe-in for re-election in Maryland. That is, until someone did a little 1950’s photo-shopping that showed the senator listening to the radio with Earl Browder, a noted American Communist. That was all it took in that paranoid era, and Tydings lost.
It’s since become an iconic photo. Even photo analysts at the time said it was a hoax, but that didn’t seem to matter. It sealed the senator’s fate just the same. All the explanations in the world couldn’t make it go away.
Photos have even scuttled the campaigns of local candidates. In 2010, Crystal Ball (her father was a scientist specializing in crystals, thus her unusual name) was the Democratic candidate in Virginia’s 1st congressional district . She seemed a formidable candidate. That is, until some risqué photos emerged from a party she had attended a decade or so earlier.
The photos weren’t pornographic, but they weren’t G-rated either. What’s more, the reaction was a classic double standard.
Had she been one of the men in the photos, it’s doubtful the image would have made much difference. However, we judge women more harshly in these circumstances and her campaign never recovered.
The upside to the embarrassment Ms. Ball faced was that her spirited defense showed how impressive she was on camera. That soon got her a place on the CNN lineup.
The list goes on. There’s Michael Dukakis looking diminutive and silly in the turret of a tank. It’s a comical and rather sad photo. He lost that November to George Bush.
Then there is one-time presidential aspirant Gary Hart, who was photographed in front of a yacht with a pretty girl who wasn’t his wife sitting provocatively in his lap. The senator was already dealing with charges of philandering and this photo was hardly the family image his campaign was hoping to project.
Hart, once the presumed nominee, quickly became a political footnote.
Pictures, as history shows, are hard to outrun. Particularly in the case of Governor Northam, whose story keeps changing.
But even if he had an explanation, it’s still a lasting image, one that evokes a deep and emotional reaction that can’t be undone. No words, it seems, can make that picture go away.
David S. Kerr, a Stafford County resident, has worked on Capitol Hill and for several federal agencies. He is currently an instructor in the political science department at Virginia Commonwealth University.