WASHINGTON — In 1983, just before winning a third term as Louisiana’s governor, Edwin Edwards famously said the only way he could lose the race was “if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
Presumably, no one checked his yearbook.
Given today’s mounting pressure on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to resign due to a photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook — and last year’s inquisition of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, which included Senate questioning about his high school yearbook — we clearly have a new exception to certain electability (or, as the case may be, confirmation): “if a yearbook reveals that I was once young and foolish.” Implicit in this new category is that personal evolution isn’t possible and redemption is dead.
Which raises several questions we must ask ourselves: What is the statute of limitations for being an inconsiderate, thoughtless, jerk-goofball-hellraiser? Can a person who misbehaved or acted offensively in high school, college or graduate school ever change? Does having lived an exemplary life as an adult mean anything?
The verdicts in both of these cases were swift and unyielding in the public square, where all accusations seem to be adjudicated these days. Kavanaugh, based largely on a single person’s uncorroborated recollection, was virtually condemned as a would-be rapist. Though, ultimately confirmed, he is forevermore besmirched in certain quarters.
Much of what was treated by some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee as the closest thing to evidence against Kavanaugh came from his high school yearbook page. Did he or didn’t he drink a lot of beer? became an essential question of his character among Democrats on the committee. And, in some twist of logic, his answer some 40 years later was supposed to be correlative to his guilt or innocence of sexual assault. Obviously sexual assault is a horrific crime, but without conclusive evidence or corroborating testimony, there’s no basis for a prosecution.
In Northam’s case, a photo on his personal page in his yearbook featured two individuals — one wearing blackface and the other dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The image isn’t just offensive; it’s appalling. Even way back in 1984, most would have found it so.
Did the young individuals think they were just goofing around? Most likely, but again, the image is too hurtful in the glare of history. Klansmen were and are terrorists who murdered, raped and lynched African-Americans and burned communities during a reign of terror that affected multiple generations. Horror, not humor, is the only appropriate response both to this history and to those who would mock it.
Northam apologized when the photo first surfaced, which, in light of his life since medical school would suffice in a normal world. But, not in today’s arena. Yes, it was horrible and stupid, but might nearly 35 years of healing children and public and military service since then make up for a 20-something’s poor choice? Does this isolated photo capture the essence and spirit of the now-59-year-old Northam?
The governor surely has made things worse for himself by changing his tune, now saying he doesn’t think he’s in the picture, combined with confessing to another experiment in blackface, also in 1984, when he performed Michael Jackson’s moonwalk in a dance contest. It’s nearly always true that it’s best to apologize, full stop.
Interestingly, both Northam and Kavanaugh were faced with similar decisions — whether to drop out and put an end to the public torture and protect their families — or stay the course because surrender would seem an admission of guilt. We know by Northam’s own words that he once played around with blackface, which, again, is disappointing, but does it rise to the level of a firing offense these many years later?
For Kavanaugh, dropping out most likely would have meant an end to his judicial career, even at the lower court level. And then where would he go? What would he do with a ruined reputation and the forever suspicion that he was guilty?
Kavanaugh’s story ended as it should have. By any measure of fairness, Northam deserves a chance to further redeem himself as governor.