Op-Ed: The “Inconclusive” Northam Yearbook Report Is No Surprise

by | May 23, 2019 | VIRGINIA POLITICS

This report was commissioned by Northam’s alma mater, not the state of Virginia, and we shouldn’t be surprised when it serves its client’s aims, writes Rich Meagher.

Eastern Virginia Medical School (EVMS), Ralph Northam’s alma mater, was not able to figure out if Governor Ralph Northam wore blackface in an old yearbook photo. That’s the conclusion of a report the school commissioned, which was released on Wednesday.

No one should be surprised about this result, for two big reasons.

First of all, that’s just how these things go. When educational institutions like EVMS go wrong, they want an “investigation” to dig into their history, but not TOO deep. They are trying to close the door on the past without getting anyone important fired. We can best see this with the recent travesties concerning sexual assault and abuse: Penn State and child rapist Jerry Sandusky; Baylor University and their football team’s history of sexual assault; and Michigan State’s gymnastics program. The goal of any of these investigations, past and present, is not so much to find out the truth as it is to preserve the reputation of the university.

If anyone wants to criticize the Northam investigators from law firm McGuire Woods, they should focus on that mandate, and not any motivations due to Democratic partisanship. Yes, I’ve seen a few people note that McGuire Woods has given Northam’s thousands in campaign cash, and even hosted a fundraiser for him as recently as December.

But the head investigator for McGuire Woods, former Virginia Attorney General Richard Cullen, supported Ed Gillespie in the last election, not Northam. The law firm’s partisan leanings are less important than the medical school’s; the current and former President are also Northam donors. And both of these men knew about the racist photo on Northam’s yearbook page. Both kept quiet, they say, to avoid any appearance of trying to “influence” Northam.

The bottom line: this report was commissioned by the medical school, not by Northam, and definitely not by Virginia citizens. So it should be no surprise that it ends up serving the needs of its clients, not the truth.

Still, we shouldn’t drag EVMS and McGuire Woods too much, because proving Northam’s guilt or innocence one way or another would always be a daunting task. And that’s the other big reason the investigation’s lack of a conclusion is not a surprise: we would need someone to show way more courage than we can reasonably expect.

If Northam is NOT in the photo, we would need someone — probably a respected and successful doctor at this point — to admit they were in the photo instead. And as much as honesty is the best policy, most doctors I know would have a hard time jeopardizing their lucrative medical practice or prestigious hospital position, not to mention public reputation, by explaining how they used to dress up in Klan robes or blackface.

If Northam IS in the photo, we would need someone, possibly a longstanding friend, to throw his pal under the bus, AND probably implicate themselves as well. “Sure, Ralph and I are in the photo together; my mom was real progressive, taught me how to sew, so I made my own hood.” Not likely.

So we get somewhat of a nothingburger of a report. This leaves Virginians exactly where they were before: every one of us has to decide who and what they believe.

If you believe Northam, he panicked when he first saw the photo and rushed to “take responsibility.” He quickly realized that it wasn’t him in the photo and backed off his earlier claims. He was never in the photo, and never really said he was.

The report actually does a nice job of explaining how this kind of response might have developed in the chaos following the photo’s reveal in February. It contains interviews with both Northam and his chief of staff, and they reveal a not-terribly sophisticated pol letting events get the better of him. There have been worse instances – President Bush reading about goats while thousands were being murdered comes to mind – so this scenario isn’t that hard to believe.

But you do NOT have to believe it. A competing story recognizes that Northam did not immediately deny he was in the photo, suggesting it was at least a possibility. Once he figured out that no one could PROVE it was him, he started lying. Maybe Northam is more sophisticated of a pol than he lets on; he’s still in office, isn’t he? And the report only contains interviews by the Governor and his chief of staff, so why wouldn’t it show us a poor, overwhelmed Ralph?

In the end, the opinions of smallfolk like you or I do not really matter; we don’t get a vote on Northam anymore.

He is term-limited by Virginia law, with no real institutional mechanism to remove him. The opinions that matter are those of Democrats across the state with the title “Delegate” or “State Senator,” or those candidates who want one of those titles. With primaries next month and the fall elections looming, what do they do? Continue to reject the Governor, or embrace him? Most are still trying to figure it out, but they are running out of time.

No matter what this investigation tells us, Governor Northam remains Governor Northam. We’d all better get used to that fact.

Note: Op-Eds are contributions from guest writers and do not reflect RVA Magazine editorial policy.

Rich Meagher

Rich Meagher

Rich Meagher teaches political science at Randolph-Macon College, and is the author of Local Politics Matters (Lantern Publishing and Media, 2020).

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