McGUIRE Woods, a Richmond law firm hired by Eastern Virginia Medical School to determine how a racist photo made its way to Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 personal yearbook page, supposedly without his knowledge or consent, released the results of its three-month-long investigation on Wednesday. The legal team looking into the matter reported that they “were not able to conclusively determine the origin of the photograph” of two still-unidentified persons, one in blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
Earlier this month, while the yearbook photo investigation was still underway, Northam declared May “Second Chance Month” for former offenders in Virginia “who have paid their debt to society and are living in a law abiding manner.”
One can agree with the sentiment behind Northam’s declaration while remaining highly skeptical of the timing. Was the embattled governor’s “Second Chance” proclamation just more self-serving pandering as he seeks absolution for something he still claims he didn’t do?
Although McGuire Woods couldn’t unravel the mystery of how the offensive photo wound up on Northam’s yearbook page, the governor’s own conflicting statements since the photo was initially published on the Big League Politics blog have completely shredded his credibility.
Remember that Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo. A statement posted on the governor’s website Feb. 1 stated: “Earlier today, a website published a photograph of me from my 1984 medical school yearbook in a costume that is 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.”
But just one day later, during a bizarre press conference in Richmond in which he admitted dressing up in blackface as Michael Jackson, Northam claimed that he wasn’t either one of the people in the yearbook photo and had actually never seen it before. In a subsequent interview with McGuire Woods, Northam cravenly blamed his staff for drafting his initial apology, although he admitted he read and approved the statement before it was released.
What innocent man apologizes, yanks back the apology after having 24 hours to think it over and figure out an angle, hides from the resulting public firestorm, and then goes on an “apology tour” to make amends for something he didn’t do? Northam’s continued denials of what he already admitted doing are an insult to voters’ intelligence.
The general rule in politics is that if you screw up, just admit it and take the hit, because the trust-eroding cover-up is usually worse than the initial offense. Apparently Northam didn’t get the memo.
Numerous demands that he resign from top members of his own party, including U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, were quickly forgotten when scandals also engulfed the two remaining statewide Democratic officeholders—Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring. Party leaders—including a number of prominent black Democrats—cynically ditched their moral outrage to retain their political power.
Gov. Northam is right about one thing: Inmates who have served their time and shown remorse for their criminal behavior do deserve a second chance to become law-abiding, contributing members of society.
Although Northam’s political transgression doesn’t rise to the level of criminality, his own contradictory statements on the racist yearbook photo have shown him to be unworthy of Virginians’ trust. And for dissembling politicians like him, there should be no second chances.