The situation last week in Virginia again raised unsettled questions: What is OK, and what is not OK, in a public figure’s past? How far back do we go? Who gets to judge, and what are the standards?
The governor, Ralph Northam, is a Democrat who is a physician by occupation. A week ago, reports surfaced with a photo from Gov. Northam’s page in his medical school yearbook from 1984. That photo showed one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. It was not clear which of those people was young Mr. Northam.
Gov. Northam initially apologized. But the next day, he backtracked, saying he did not believe he was in the photo. He did acknowledge wearing blackface in a Michael Jackson dance party, at around the same time.
He said his pain at remembering that occasion tells him that he would have remembered the other scene depicted in the yearbook, and since he had no recollection of it, he had to conclude that he wasn’t in the photo.
Exactly how this will all play out is not clear as we write, but many of Gov. Northam’s political allies in the Democratic Party have urged him to resign. They say he can’t govern effectively, at best.
That’s probably true. It’s hard to believe Mr. Northam knew nothing about that photo, at the time or in the years afterward.
Those of us who were alive in 1984 can testify that such a picture would not have been OK at that time, either.
Democrats forced their own Al Franken out of the Senate over allegations that he had groped multiple women. They did so attempting to take a “zero tolerance” policy toward those sorts of transgressions, seeking to claim the high ground in the era of a Republican president who had appeared on tape saying he could grab women by their private parts with impunity.
Democrats held to that standard in the biggest flashpoint of this era, the hearings on the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In that battle, the Democrats lost, despite compelling testimony from one person who said she was a victim of his sexual assault.
Judge Kavanaugh denied her claims, and in the end, Republicans in the U.S. Senate backed him. Plenty of people around the country did, too, saying that they were uncomfortable destroying his career over a he-said she-said.
But the questions remain unanswered, really on both sides: If a person was never arrested, charged or convicted of a crime, is it OK to take them down politically now? If the person apologizes and claims to have changed, is that OK? If it happened 30 years ago, is that OK? What about 10?
Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that Gov. Northam is telling the truth, and that somebody else put an offensive picture on his yearbook page without his knowledge.
Well, then what? Should he be run out of office because he “can’t govern”? Who gets to decide that? Party donors? Fellow office-holders?
(It’s worth noting here that his likely successor, the lieutenant governor, is now facing unverified allegations of sexual assault at a political convention 15 years ago. So the questions go on.)
As always, facts matter. There are unanswered questions, and how you judge a person’s fitness for office depends on finding some of those answers, and on how the person responds as these answers become more clear.
In the Kavanaugh case, the attempt to gather all the facts included a delay in the hearings to allow the FBI to ferret out what it could. That was wise, but the ultimate truth of what happened three decades ago remains unclear.
We are in the middle of a national conversation on these issues, and probably will be for many years to come. In each episode of that conversation, though, the same issues arise.
Nobody lives a perfect life. Exactly how flawed a past we as a people are willing to allow is something we’re still trying to figure out.