Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam held onto his office over the past week by saying as little as possible.
Following the circulation of a photo on Northam’s medical school yearbook page that featured a man in blackface and another in KKK robes, Northam held a news conference that went, well, disastrously — culminating in his almost-moonwalking.(Northam admitted to darkening his face to go as Michael Jackson to a dance party in 1984.)
At which point, Northam went almost completely silent. This paragraph, from a terrific Politico piece on Northam’s plan to survive, gets to that silent strategy:
“This week, Northam has been largely holed up in his office and has not walked next door to the Capitol, where the Legislature is in session, according to multiple lawmakers. Most of the legislators he’s called or texted are Republicans who had not called for him to resign.”
And it worked! Now, much of that success was due to the fact that Democratic state Attorney General Mark Herring admitted he, too, had blackened his face in ’80s, and the ongoing allegations of sexual assault against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, also a Democrat. But regardless of the reasons, Northam stayed out of the spotlight — mostly — and lived to fight another week, a prospect that seemed very, very unlikely at this time last week.
Which is what makes Northam’s decision to start talking — to The Washington Post and to CBS News — all the more baffling.
Northam: “We are now at the 400-year anniversary — just 90 miles from here in 1619. The first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores in Old Point Comfort, what we call now Fort Monroe, and while —
King: “Also known as slavery,”
You are trying to quiet criticism that you are an out-of-touch white guy who doesn’t grasp the racial realities of both the state you govern and the country more broadly. “Indentured servants” rather than “slaves”? Really? (In a statement on Monday, Northam explained that seeming gaffe this way: “During a recent event at Fort Monroe I spoke about the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia and referred to them in my remarks as enslaved. A historian advised me that the use of indentured was more historically accurate — the fact is, I’m still learning and committed to getting it right.”)
But wait, there’s more!
In that same interview with King, a portion of which ran on Monday, she asked Northam what the controversy over blackface had taught him. Which led to this exchange:
Northam: “Well, several things, starting with I was born in white privilege and that has implications to it and it is much different the way a white person such as myself is treated in this country…”
King: “Did you not know that you were born into white privilege?” King asks, cutting off the governor.
Northam: “I knew I was, Ms. King, but I didn’t realize, really, the powerful implications of that. And again, talking to a lot of friends, that has come crystally clear to me this week. I’ve also learned why the use of blackface is so offensive. And yes, I knew it in the past, but reality has really set in.”
So, let me get this straight: You are the white governor of a state in which one of every five residents is black. And a state with a decidedly checkered history on race. But you didn’t realize that blackface was truly offensive until February 2019? Seriously?
With those two comments, Northam thrust himself back to the top of homepages and cable news — and not in a good way. He continues to benefit from the fact that Fairfax and Herring are staying in office despite their own problems — creating a weirdly united front, although each for their own selfish reasons. If, say, one of those three resigned, the pressure on the other two to go would be considerably higher. As long as all three stay on — no matter how embattled they are — it makes it easier for them all to hang on.
Still. Northam’s national media tour is a terrible idea. Rather than revealing how this blackface picture was simply a lapse of judgment in a lifetime well-lived, it has suggested that Northam just doesn’t get it. At all.