Opinion

KOLB: 5 Months After Blackface Incident, Northam Calls Virginia Voters ‘Confused’

(Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is still trying to move beyond the embarrassing series of events that have plagued him since February 2019, when it was discovered that his 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook contained a picture on his profile page of two people in racially disparaging, outrageous, and unacceptable attire. One person wore blackface; the other person had donned a Ku Klux Klan costume that completely hid his identity. He also could not explain why some of his medical school classmates referred to him as “Coon Man.”

Now, some five months later, the governor is still discussing the incident, says that he learned a lot from the experience, apologizes for the way his administration handled the matter, and adds that Virginians remain “confused” about everything that transpired.

I’ve never met Northam but confess to initially having a soft spot for the governor. He was born in the same small town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore where my late mother was born 100 years ago this month. Nassawadox (an Indian term meaning “land between two waters”) occupies 0.4 square miles and had a 2017 population of 483 people. I had assumed that small-town, rural values might characterize this governor’s approach to his responsibilities.

Not only was the governor’s handling of the yearbook matter extremely poor (some readers will recall that Northam seemed to be on the verge of doing a Michael Jackson “Moonwalk” at that February press conference until his wife, sotto voce, called him back from a political abyss), but his credibility has been totally shot. His explanations make little sense. Most people also know why they have nicknames. Perhaps he considered Davy Crockett a personal hero and mentor.

I don’t have a Twitter account, so I don’t send or receive tweets. But on one occasion in late 1977, I attended a Halloween party in Charlottesville, Virginia, dressed from head to toe as Tweety Bird. University of Virginia Law School professor Charlie Whitebread hosted an annual themed Halloween party for law students. That year, the party’s theme was “come as your favorite cartoon character.”

So there I was wearing orange house dusters, white leotards, yellow underwear briefs and a matching tee-shirt (on which yellow feathers had been carefully sewn), plus a perfect Tweety Bird mask. I looked pretty ridiculous. To avoid embarrassment, I kept the mask on the entire evening, even though my glasses kept fogging up beneath the mask.

Unbeknownst to me, a photographer was present, and there I was the next week, the largest of the six black-and-white pictures printed on page 3 of the Nov. 4, 1977, “Virginia Law Weekly.” There were just the pictures, with no identification of any partygoers by name.

Here’s the point: 40-plus years later, I know that I’m in that picture. There is no doubt whatsoever, and my memory of the event is crystal clear decades afterwards.

If Northam was not in that infamous yearbook picture, why did he at first admit that he was? You don’t forget pictures like this; you cannot be confused.

Some observers believe that had Northam been a Republican, the media and others would have turned on him and made sure that he’d left office by now. This fall’s Virginia elections will no doubt resonate with some of the issues raised by the behavior of Virginia’s three highest office holders.

You can’t be in a picture one day and not in the same picture the next day. If anyone remains confused some five months later, it’s the incumbent governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, not his constituents.

Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House from 1990-1992. From 1997-2012, he was president of the nonpartisan, business-led think tank, the Committee for Economic Development.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.