Politics provides lessons ad infinitum, many of them in the form of cautionary tales and none greater than that of humility.
Approaching 400 days in office as Virginia’s 73rd governor, Ralph Northam, until the events of last week, had enjoyed a relatively smooth ride, buoyed by occasional reaches across the aisle in an era when bipartisanship is largely construed on both sides as an indication of weakness.
Then came the stunning revelation Feb. 1 that his page in a medical school yearbook featured a picture of a man in blackface standing alongside another figure cloaked in a white hood. At that juncture, with his reputation in flames, the governor began lighting matches.
Initially, he apologized for appearing in blackface in the picture. On the following day, he said he did not appear in the photograph but had donned blackface to play Michael Jackson in a dance contest. He explained that he dabbed on only a small amount of shoe polish, which, he observed, is difficult to remove.
Since he did not appear in the yearbook picture for which he initially apologized, Northam declared, he would not resign, despite calls from three former governors in his own Democratic Party.
We are under no illusion that our voice sounding with others – including U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe – will incline Northam to do now what he will inevitably do at some point, becoming the first post-Civil War Virginia governor to resign. But we must join the call nonetheless, for, clearly he has stripped himself of the ability to govern. He must step aside.
What would happen next is not so clear as it was at the onset. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was poised to become the state’s second black governor, but he is fending off allegations of sexual assault, a claim he vigorously denies.
Blights on the Virginia Way multiply. This state has a history both rich and troubled, but it enjoyed a prolonged period of relative political quiet until Gov. Robert McDonnell came along at the start of this decade. The Republican won election by a landslide, then slid into ethical and legal entanglements over his and his wife’s acceptance of money, gifts and loans from a company CEO who, federal authorities charged, gained political favor in exchange.
Federal quid pro quo convictions of McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, eventually were overturned by the Supreme Court, but their lives were wrecked and their reputations decimated. The governor, who ran partly on his religious bona fides, recently filed for divorce.
A half-dozen years after the McDonnells’ world splintered apart, Ralph Northam, in a snap of the fingers, stands on the plank ready to either step or be pushed over the edge. Their separate miseries were each of their own devising, and so it is difficult to pity them. It is wiser, while witnessing this latest unraveling to remind ourselves, especially those among us seeking the public’s trust, to take care what we do now and beyond.