Opinion: Staffers among most betrayed in Virginia
First, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he wasn’t sure which of the two people in the 1984 “clearly racist and offensive” photo on his yearbook page was he.
Was he the grinning white guy wearing blackface?
Or was he the guy wearing the Ku Klux Klan robe and hood?
“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo,” he said in a statement, “and for the hurt that decision caused then and now.”
The next day, Northam, a Democrat, held a news conference to say: No, wait. He was neither of those people in that photo.
“I believe then and now that I am not either of the people in that photo,” he said. “This was not me in that picture. That was not Ralph Northam.” Further, he claimed that even though the photo appeared on his page of his medical school’s yearbook, he had never before seen it until this week.
He did, however, want to let Virginia’s 8.5 million constituents know that in that same year, when he was in his mid-20s, he did wear blackface to compete in a dance competition as singer Michael Jackson.
He did the moonwalk, he added.
A reporter asked, “Are you still able to moonwalk?”
Northam’s adolescent response telegraphed the depth of his betrayal of all who had ever trusted him.
Could he moonwalk? He nodded and looked as if he was about to do it until we heard the voice of his wife, Pam, who was standing next to him.
Northam startled like a reprimanded child. He grinned as he patted her on the shoulder and cast her as a scold.
“My wife says, ‘Inappropriate circumstances.'”
I’m two years older than Northam. We all knew in 1984 that blackface is racist. He thought it was funny.
So far, Northam has refused to resign, despite the flood of fellow Democrats insisting that he must.
On Feb. 2, Virginia’s attorney general, Mark R. Herring, another Democrat — and one with gubernatorial aspirations — called on Northam to resign in a statement: “It is no longer possible for Governor Northam to lead our Commonwealth and it is time for him to step down.”
Four days later, 57-year-old Herring publicly admitted that he, too, once wore blackface in college. It was 1980, and he was 19. He’s very sorry.
“That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behavior could inflict on others,” he said in another statement. “It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then.”
I have chronicled all of this because that is what columnists must do. We can never assume that all readers know what we know, no matter how widespread the coverage.
Regardless of how much we’ve been following this, few of us have thought about a group of people who don’t deserve the harm these men have inflicted on their careers and on their lives.
I do not mean constituents, although they are surely entitled to their outrage. I am thinking of all of their staffers. Many of them are young, and they have invested their careers in the success of these two men because they believed in them. They are similar to the many young people working for my husband, Sen. Sherrod Brown, and his colleagues in Congress.
I have come to know these people for their brilliance and their sacrifice. They are the brightest of the bright, and they make far less money than their peers in the corporate world. They need only check their former classmates’ social media accounts to find that reminder.
They do not aspire to live in pricey homes or take exotic vacations. No corner offices for them; even senior staff members often work in cubicles. They measure their worth by how much good they are contributing to the world. Most of them are the truest version of public servants — all work and little glory.
They are the relentless optimists in a culture of cynics, and they’ve been betrayed by their heroes.
But sure, Governor. Show us your moonwalk.
— Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with Creators Syndicate.