Indiscretions from more than 30 years ago threaten the entire leadership of Virginia’s state government.
Gov. Ralph Northam (above) was 24 in 1984 when he dressed up in blackface as Michael Jackson and won a dance contest in San Antonio with his excellent “moonwalk” routine. He was a student at Eastern Virginia Medical School, where his “personal page” in the 1984 yearbook showed a photo of one white student in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe.
After the news broke and large groups of both Democrats and Republicans yelled for him to “resign,” the other two top office holders ran into issues:
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax became a target of a claim that he sexually molested a young woman in his hotel room during the Democratic National Convention in 1984. Like Northam, he was also 24.
Mark Herring revealed he did a dance number as a rapper in 1984 at the University of Virginia. He was 19. He feared the same website, founded by a Trump supporter and a former staff member of two right-wing sites The DailyCaller and Breitbart News, was ready to expose that juicy piece of piece of information.
But no such information came from that website about involvement of Virginia Republican Majority leader Thomas K. Norment when we learned he was the top editor of a 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook that featured photo of students in blackface and racial slurs throughout.
That news came from The New York Times:
As a senior at Virginia Military Institute, then an all-male college that was sometimes called “the West Point of the South,’’ Mr. Norment was managing editor of the 1968 edition of the Bomb yearbook. That edition included students in blackface and slurs aimed at African-Americans, Asians and Jews, according to a copy viewed by The New York Times.
The first three revelations appeared to be part of a plan to selectively release information about the top three Democrats in Virginia government. We might wonder if the plan was to release the damaging info on Gov. Northam with the hope he would immediately resign, putting Fairfax into the governorship to he could then pull out to and put Herring into the job.
If Henning hit the streets, the Virginia’s line of selection would put the Speaker of the House, an appointed Republican chosen by lot after the last state elections left the House tied between the GOP and Democrats.
Might have been a good plan but Northam spoiled it by refusing to step down immediately and seems determined to hold on to his job. Fairfax seems to be in more trouble now after a second woman came forward to say he molested her back while he and she were students at Duke University in 2000.
Of the three, Fairfax is the only one accused of a crime but has not been charged from other claimed event. Just last year, a nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, came under fire after a woman said he tried to rape her in a party while in high school. Like Fairfax, a second women came forward with a similar claim. He was not charged and now sits on the Supreme Court.
Republicans who defended Kavanaugh, saying it was a clear case of “she said, he said” with no hard evidence, now want Fairfax’s head. Democrats demanded Kavanaugh be denied a seat on the court but now demand Fairfax resign.
“It’s unrealistic to expect politicians to have lived perfect lives — the general public doesn’t expect that, and they are much more forgiving than the Twitter outrage mob,” says Democratic strategist Elisabeth Smith.
As a student at The University of Virginia in the latter half of the 1960s, I saw racism exhibited by some white fellow students. Blackface routines were often part of frat parties and other events.
As Herring, then 19, admitted in his the blackface performance as a rapper, he obviously felt it was something to do. That was more than 30 years later and a different generation. Have they learned to do better? Perhaps not.
A more lingering question here is how much difference youthful indiscretions should be on someone’s career decades later. As a teenager who wrestled in the backseat of my 1957 Ford back in the early 1960s, I struck out some times with young girls but also succeeded several other times.
Only one, I remember, did not start the exercise with “no.” The ground rules back then considered “no” a potential “maybe” that might change with a little more attempted seduction. When a young woman said “no” definitely enough, I backed off and those whose “no’s” changed for “maybe” and then “yes ” never cried rape afterwards.
Am I ashamed of my behavior now. Of course. I hope I’ve learned over the years and with the changes in attitudes but remember that my introduction to sex came at the attentions of a woman 11 years older than me when I was 15. “No,” was not a word that either of I used during out months long relationship.
An interesting sidelight to the “MeeToo” revelations came from a woman I’ve known since high school and who I dated during my time as a young reporter in Roanoke, VA, for the first five years of my journalism career. We had lunch a few months ago during the height of the “MeeToo” period and she noted that we never had sex.
Her question of “why not?” caught me by surprise.
“You said ‘no’ and I felt you meant it,” I responded.
“I don’t think I did,” she replied. “We petted a lot and felt each other up. I was ready to lose my virginity. It could have been to you.”
“I was also in love with you and I was little scared of you,” I said. “I slept with other girls during that time but I wasn’t in love with them.”
“Too bad,” she said. “You might have enjoyed what followed.”
A little over a year later, I proposed to a woman.” That proposal was: “You’re what!”
We all make mistakes, particularly when we were young. A Virginia State trooper avoided charging me with racing and getting away from him. I would have had a felony on my record.
I’ve broken laws over the years but have, fortunately, never been charged or arrested for anything. I managed to hold security clearances from the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy as an alcoholic, but that never turned up in their investigations.
Since I have no intention of ever serving in political office, I can freely admit my past crimes and misdemeanors. For someone like me, who gives a damn.
But should people be giving such a damn about actions by an elected official committed during he or her youth? Is Ralph Northam a racist? Nothing in his years of public service or as an outstanding pediatrician show a reason to think so. Mark Herring? Same excellent record.
Justin Fairfax? Sexual assault and rape are serious crimes. He has never been charged with either and some could say the claims coming out now could be questionable. Further investigation should be made but it is the backbone of the American judicial system that anyone charged with a crime should be considered “innocent until proven guilty without a shadow of reasonable doubt.”
The same, of course, should applied to president Donald Trump but let’s also remember that he has been convicted of some violations: Racial blackballing at his properties, using undocumented immigrants on his projects, thousands of judicial judgments on unpaid bills to his vendors and questionable actions by his now-closed real estate “university,” where he signed a consent decree.
A check of such or similar violations found no such actions against Ralph Northam, Mark Herring or Justin Fairfax.
Those shouting the loudest for resignations appear to be putting politics above justice. Seems that happens a lot.
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