There is no place in America for blackface and Ku Klux Klan costumes. And it’s becoming clear that there may be no place in public office for Ralph Northam.
Since a photo from Northam’s medical-school yearbook page, showing two men dressed in blackface and Klan regalia, surfaced late last week, the Virginia governor has refused to do what every major politician has called on him to do: resign. After first admitting wrongdoing and apologizing on Friday, Northam contorted his original story, walking back his admission in a Saturday press conference while conceding that he, on a different occasion, had darkened his skin for a Michael Jackson impersonation.
But if Northam left the press conference confident in his chances of remaining governor, he was in for a surprise. The chorus calling for his exit is only growing louder. For a country grappling with complex debates on race and its role in American life, the Northam scandal has led to an uncommon consensus, with representatives from both major parties applying the same harsh scrutiny to his actions.
Just hours before the Super Bowl, two days before a much-anticipated State of the Union address, and 12 days before another potential government shutdown, the scandal and its fallout dominated the Sunday-morning news shows. (The exception was CBS’s Face the Nation, which aired a prerecorded interview with President Donald Trump.)
“Hello, I’m Jake Tapper in Washington, where the state of the union is shaking our heads,” Tapper began his program. The CNN anchor said this was “the first time in American political history that a politician attempted to explain his innocence regarding one racist, blackface incident by pointing to another one that he recalled participating in.”
“Northam’s political future is clearly in peril,” Chuck Todd, the moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, said in his opening monologue. “Virtually the entire Democratic establishment, including Virginia’s two Democratic senators, has called for his resignation. And Northam’s press conference only accelerated those calls … It’s possible that 10 or 20 years ago a politician like Northam could have apologized his way out of this. But the political climate has clearly changed.”
Todd’s first guests were two Democratic members of Congress, Representative Karen Bass of California, the Congressional Black Caucus chair, and Representative Donald McEachin of Virginia, the caucus whip. Their denouncements of Northam were uncompromising, reflecting Todd’s assessment that Democrats are showing “zero tolerance,” even with one of their own. Bass said Northam has been “disingenuous” in the scandal’s fallout, and “still does not understand the seriousness of his actions.”
McEachin, meanwhile, rejected the governor’s claim that what’s depicted in the yearbook photo was “commonplace” in eastern Virginia in 1984, when the picture was taken. “But let’s assume without conceding that it was commonplace,” McEachin continued. “Slavery [at one time] was commonplace; that doesn’t make it right … Jim Crow was commonplace; that didn’t make it right. And so, too, if blackface was commonplace in 1984, that doesn’t make it right. And Ralph should have known better.”
As Todd suggested in his monologue, Democrats seem to understand that their criticisms of other politicians for racism will fall short if they are hypocritical about racist elements within their own party. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a potential Democratic candidate in 2020, told Todd that Northam could “contribute to [a] dialogue” aimed at helping Virginia heal from this scandal—but only once he resigns. “This country hasn’t dealt well with the issues of race,” Brown said. “I mean, we have a president who’s a racist.”
On State of the Union, former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, another 2020 Democratic hopeful, told Tapper, “Once that picture with the blackface and the Klansman came out, there is no way you can continue be the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Only one Democratic voice on the news programs offered a defense of Northam. Former Representative Jim Moran of Virginia told This Week’s George Stephanopoulos that Northam should not resign. “I hate to be on the other side of virtually all of my friends on this, but I do disagree with their judgment, because I think it is a rush to judgment,” Moran said. “Even if the worst case scenario is true … I think there is an issue of redemption.”
Northam appears to be counting on Americans to see things Moran’s way—to believe that he at least deserves more time to explain himself. But for most of the governor’s peers in American politics, his time has already run out.