At surreal press conference, Northam struggled with the one question that mattered most

February 2, 2019 10:28 pm

During a press conference at the Governor’s Mansion this month, Gov. Ralph Northam denied appearing in a KKK yearbook photo but admitted to moonwalking in blackface. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

For all the theater of the absurd on display Saturday during Gov. Ralph Northam’s bumbling, stumbling news conference — Michael Jackson, moonwalking and shoe polish are just some of the cringeworthy moments — the whole thing really came down to one question.

If, as Northam says, he’s not either of the people in the racist photo at issue — the one in blackface or the Klan costume — then why did he tell the world Friday that he was?

Though he talked for what seemed like an excruciating forever and was asked this multiple times, it was a question the governor never answered in anything close to a satisfactory way.

Variations of the answers:

  • “It has taken time for me to make sure it is not me.”
  • “I tell the truth. I’m telling the truth today. That was not my picture.”
  • “I’ve always been straightforward and honest with folks and that’s what I’m doing now.”
  • “I didn’t study it as well as I should have.”

In sum, Northam’s basic argument appeared to be that because the image was so incendiary and appeared on his page in a yearbook he had never seen before, he felt compelled to apologize first.

Then, he searched his memory banks and phoned up old classmates before proclaiming his innocence of appearing in or submitting that image for the yearbook (while at the same time admitting putting shoe polish on his face and dressing up as Michael Jackson to win a dance contest in a separate instance).

It doesn’t appear that he’s changed anyone’s mind. Rather, he seems to have dug himself a deeper hole.

Senate and House Democrats remain insistent that he resign. Attorney General Mark Herring, a self-declared 2021 gubernatorial candidate, has done the same. All favor Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax taking over.

“It is no longer possible for Gov. Northam to lead our commonwealth and it is time for him to step down,” Herring said. “I have spoken with Lt. Gov. Fairfax and assured him that, should he ascend to the governorship, he will have my complete support and commitment to ensuring his success and the success of our commonwealth.”

The Legislative Black Caucus also remains unmoved. The group’s statement may also offer a window into what’s really going on.

“During our meeting, both the members of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus and Gov. Northam were direct and honest with each other. In light of his public admission and apology for his decision to appear in the photo, he has irrevocably lost the faith and the trust of the people he was elected to serve,” the group wrote.

“Changing his public story today now casts further doubt on his ability to regain that trust.”

In short, they’re not buying the belated “It wasn’t me” defense.

Could it be that Northam thought that by owning up promptly he could expect forgiveness and remain in the governor’s mansion? Then, when the calls for his resignation began mounting, he decided to change his tune?

That makes a lot more sense than what Northam actually said, which essentially boiled down to this:

He couldn’t have been in the yearbook blackface-KKK photo because he actually wore blackface at a dance contest in Texas in which he impersonated Michael Jackson. And he remembers that. But he has no recollection of the yearbook photo, so it can’t be him.

Or something.

Northam did promise to continue to gather evidence in the coming days.

“I think all of you will be reassured to see that I am not in that photograph,” he said. How that will be established to anyone’s satisfaction remains to be seen.

The realpolitik is impossible to ignore. All the seats in the General Assembly are up this year, and Democrats have a real shot at capturing majorities in both chambers. Those prospects look much less rosy with Northam as the party standard bearer, especially with the GOP cynically whipping pro-lifers into a frenzy last week over a failed bill that would have eased restrictions around late-term abortions.

Northam took tons of heat, mostly unfairly, for some inarticulate but misconstrued comments he made on WTOP about the bill.

Despite his wins — Medicaid expansion, landing Amazon — let’s not forget that his record as governor isn’t spotless. His raw exercise of power to help Dominion Energy get its compressor station permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline stunned environmentalists who backed his campaign.

So losing him now would give voters plenty of time to forget. With the governor stubbornly insisting on staying put, though, there were lots of jokes about the “ship going down with the captain” on social media Saturday night as the press conference was mocked.

“I hope everyone in Virginia will be patient with me,” Northam said.

For his fellow Democrats, however, that patience ran out on Saturday morning when it was clear the governor was refusing to step down.

We’ll find out if there’s any left on Monday when the General Assembly convenes.

CORRECTION: All the seats in the Virginia General Assembly are up this year. The post has been updated to reflect that.


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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]