art_northam_fitzsimmons

Understatement of the year: it’s been a tough week for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.

As I write this, he is still governor of the Commonwealth. Even so, he has lost enormous amounts of political capital, nearly all of his allies, and any conceivable chance for future political success.

And all of this because of an immensely ill-advised and deeply offensive photo taken more than a third of a century ago, which may or may not feature Northam. Again, I have no idea how this will play out, but allow me to ask a few questions and make a few observations.

(First, in the interest of disclosure, let me also point out that I didn’t vote for Northam and don’t agree with a lot of his political positions. But when he was elected I thought he was a reasonable politician who would gain some support across party lines and serve his term without much fanfare or controversy. Shows what I know.)

1) I have no idea how medical schools handle yearbooks—actually, I’m surprised that a medical school would bother with something so frivolous. But how a photo in such offensively bad taste ever was taken boggles the mind. If neither of the two anonymous figures are Northam, who are they? Even assuming the stupidity of youth, what in the world were they thinking? And then, how did it ever get past whomever had the job of editing content for the annual? I once served on the yearbook staff for a couple of public schools. Granted we were just kids, not graduate students, but I can guarantee someone would have yanked such an image long before it went to the printer.

2) How has this yearbook page escaped public notice through all of Northam’s political career? Reportedly it was a conservative former classmate of Northam’s who, unhappy with Northam’s comments earlier in the week about abortion, tipped off the far-right Big League Politics’ website who then published the photo. But how has it escaped anyone’s notice before now?

3) Had this never happened, it would have still been a tough week for the Guv. His radio remarks about a late-term abortion bill, made before the yearbook surfaced, had already gotten him a lot of negative attention from many directions. What exactly did he mean by the comments? He never fully explained, and the yearbook photo pretty much wiped the subject off of the agenda for public discourse. True, the bill in question failed and Northam’s tenure may well be over. But this is a subject we can’t ignore forever.

4) I wonder how many other high-level politicians across the nation who hadn’t thought about school in years suddenly called in a team of damage control flunkies last week and barked “Go get me every yearbook from every school I ever attended, quick!”

5) Did anyone else notice the reference to Northam’s alcohol consumption on the same yearbook page? I readily confess to being a teetotaler, and I’m not naïve about the use of alcohol on college campuses. But on the whole I prefer to think of future surgeons as sober.

6) Finally, let’s leave aside this particular controversy and look to future ones. A photo from years gone by just wrecked a governor’s career. (Actually, I think you can make the argument that Northam’s artless—in fact downright weird—reactions to the photo delivered the coup de grace). Something akin to this will happen again. We’ve seen indiscretions from the past similarly rise to the surface and challenge other candidates or office-holders. Sometimes it sticks. Sometimes people shrug and there are no serious repercussions.

My question: what are the standards? When does an act or a statement or a photo from decades before mean the end of a campaign or a career, and when does it get a pass? Can we logically and consistently set such standards, or does it have to be on a case-by-case basis? When is a public figure’s apology for bad behavior enough, and when should more be required? In what cases can an apology never be enough?

One thing seems clear to me: the standard for overlooking or condemning past failures should never simply be “I like this politician and I agree with his/her politics.”

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Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.