Let them, who would feel justly stoned and deprived of high office for doing something as racist as Ralph Northam did 35 years ago, launch the first projectiles. One bad part of what the press constantly refers to as “near unanimous calls for Northam to resign as Virginia’s governor” is that the virtual unanimity exists only among the talking press. Public opinion polls reflect a significant minority (38%) wanting him not to resign. And although Ocasio-Cortez tweets that people holding this opinion “deserve scrutiny” and H.L. hasn’t checked their closets for MAGA hats, we are pretty sure that this is not exclusively or even primarily the base Trump base. The minority includes classic liberals who believe in the perfectibility of humans and the sort of redemption that Northam’s life in the last 35 years appears to reflect. The same liberals opposed and helped repeal three strikes laws and those that deprived felons of the franchise after their sentences were served.
Deep down somewhere in the minds of the 62% who believe Northam must resign, and the near 100% on CNN, MSNBC and NPR, is unease about their demand. That’s why instead of focusing on his 1984 blatant racism, they dwell upon and pick apart his demeanor at recent press conferences, the sincerity of his abject apologies, the exaggerated inconsistency between the Friday and Saturday mea culpas and his response to the request that he “moonwalk.” This rush to judgment sadly may be another one, just like the other one, regretted quickly, as Senator Al Franken’s was.
As we’ve watched the cable talking heads aggregate the demand that Northam resign, two post 1984 events come to mind. Eleven years ago, H.L. was the only state official urging another governor not to resign amidst “unanimous” demands that he do so immediately. The mob then screamed that Eliot Spitzer must spare New York the tedium of due process and the only constitutional mechanism for removal. Spitzer listened to them not his family or H.L. who argued that unless impeached (likely, but not certain) he had a duty to voters that elected him to attempt fulfillment of his many wonderful and plausible promises for New York’s improvement.
Pressed upon him was the example of Ted Kennedy after Chappaquiddick. Kennedy could have and was expected to disappear into rich guy debauchery. Instead he returned to work, was subjected to unrelenting abuse for 40 years, mainly by Republicans in Congress, but died as the “Lion of the Senate.” His record of achievement ranks among the greatest in American history.
Spitzer’s quick resignation ushered in three years when virtually nothing was accomplished, and historic opportunities lost. On his first day as governor, David Paterson held a press conference to preemptively disclose four recent affairs, including one with a woman on the governor’s staff. That is less a commentary on Paterson than on the reality that all of us including elected officials have done things. They and we should be judged on an entire body of work and life, not just on the worst moments.
The Spitzer affair also points to the unfamiliarity of most voters with the lieutenant governor, if they even know her/his name. Something to think about as the demands for Northam to step aside keep coming from T.V. commentators like Al Sharpton.
Thirty years ago Sharpton led a team of advisors to Tawana Brawley and her family and orchestrated one of the premiere racist spectacles of the 1980s. That is, unless one subscribes to the modern sociology construct that Americans of color are incapable of racism. The Brawleys and Sharpton’s team accused a cop and prosecutor in Wappingers Falls, New York of beating, sodomizing and raping Tawana Brawley, a teenage African-American woman. When New York’s governor, Mario Cuomo, appointed Attorney General Robert Abrams as special prosecutor to convene a grand jury and conduct an investigation of the alleged atrocities, Sharpton and team accused them of orchestrating a cover-up in a conspiracy with the Klan, the Irish Republican Army, the Mafia and federal officials. Abrams was compared to Hitler and a crowd of Brawley supporters were told that he regularly masturbated while looking at photos of Ms. Brawley. The selection of the fabricated conspirators and the comparisons used by Sharpton were carefully calibrated to the ethnicity of his targets; Cuomo, Abrams, Assistant D.A. Pagones and police officer Crist.
Brawley and her family refused to cooperate with or testify to the grand jury which sat for six months and delivered a 170-page report detailing the hoax that Brawley, her family and the advisors had perpetrated. Many mark the Brawley affair as the dawn of the “truth doesn’t matter” era. Perhaps Al Sharpton will be honored alongside Donald Trump in the “Facts Don’t Matter Corner” of the National Cathedral.
Last weekend, as Reverend Sharpton cast many stones at Governor Northam, the irony and hypocrisy that he embodies and that pervades press coverage of the Northam scandal was evident for all who chose to see.