Why Ralph Northam Should Not Resign

Should we judge people only by their most shameful moments?

Comments: 203

  1. I think these types of instances will continue on (especially for public figures), because there is a ''play book'' that works most of the time. There is the waiting for the story to pass over, and if that does not happen, then a weirdly vague and quite legalese statement is made. When that is not good enough (and the press actually does their job), then there is backtracking to see how that can turn out. If that doesn't work, then there is obfuscation, denying and more stalling. Most of the time it works, and really it just depends if the person caught can be held accountable. (as in actually being removed from office) There occasionally are times though that a person will immediately come out and say without reservation that they are sorry. They were naive and a whole host of other things that made them do whatever or say whatever. They don't blame youth or ''the times'', or anything else. They just stand up there in front of the microphones and under the bright lights and take their medicine. Those are the ones that we should think about maybe giving another chance. If you cannot do even that, then well ...

  2. Exhibit A: Sen. Al Franken.

  3. The rate at which we reduce heroes to zeroes is astonishing. Someone with a good research team is now able to blackmail, harass and terminate the careers of politicians, activists, artists, journalists, and academics. The problem lies partly in our addiction to hero worship and our gullibility to accept PR-manufactured mythologies. But the bigger problem is our fondness to prove our upstanding nature by condemning others.

  4. George, amen to what you say. I would add a corollary, and that is our large tendency to create heroes in the first place, as well as more and more diluting the concept of "hero" by applying the designation to mere "celebrity." As a culture across the political spectrum we have become addicted to soap opera "reality" shows, then wonder how an entertainer becomes President, surprised when he then continues his role as Entertainer-In-Chief.

  5. @George Your comment is spot on, and I find your last sentence particularly resonant as it applies to the debate about abortion. I think that by “condemning” pro-choice women and men as “baby murderers,” many, not all, anti-choice advocates have found a way to “prove their upstanding nature” and prove that they, and they alone, occupy the moral high ground.

  6. @George Exhibit A for your well-reasoned thesis is the ex-Senator from your state.

  7. It would have helped if Governor Northam hadn't changed his story several times about the medical school yearbook photo. He's in a pickle of his own making. He could have straight up apologized and let the chips fall. As for going to a "dark place", there certainly seems to be no lack of candidates happy to step up to run for public office, thus no cause for worry.. What is a worry is the impact of campaign donations, thanks to Citizens United, on their decision making once they actually win.

  8. Leadership involves managing crises, whether or not they are of one's own making. Northam could certainly be forgiven for an offense from years past, but he has shown himself not to be up the responsibility of his office. When Northam initially said that he was indeed one of the men in the crude picture, it seemed like he was on his way to owning and atoning for a past wrong. He could have survived that. But then he did an about face and said that it wasn't him! Who would remember, then remember not remembering, such a thing? That speaks poorly of his character, mental faculties, or both. Then there was that train wreck of a news conference. The one where Northam inexplicably described the difficulty of removing layers of shoe polish from one's face. The one where he described dressing and moonwalking like Michael Jackson. The one where Northam's mortified-looking wife informed him that it would be inappropriate to try dancing right then and there. Yes, we should all hope to be forgiven for, and able to move on from, regrettable, crude things we once did and said. That's maturation. But we are accountable for what we do when confronted with the past, and for what we do in the here and now. Never mind that disturbing photo itself; Northam gave us an image of a man not worthy of a governorship.

  9. Yea, Northam is a bit bumbly. And yet, if a Republican replaces him, they're a party that wholeheartedly supports a leader who defamed entire countries, bragged about sexually abusing women, stalked his female opponent during a debate, called people marching through an American city behind Nazi banners "good people," sent American soldiers to teargas children, stoked up KKK like rallies to lock up his political opponent and Dr. Blasey-Ford, has hired any number of cabinet members that he's then characterized as incompetent or stupid, caused untold suffering to probably more than two million federal and contract workers, many of them minorities, and their families.... should I go on. Most if not all of his appointees reflect his values or lack thereof. So Northam's big sin is holding bumbly press conferences when his job is on the line? I'm not in favor of a race to the bottom, but Northam's big job for the next 3 years is mostly blocking bills pushed by the R majority in the legislature. I think he's capable of managing that.

  10. @NM But every day, we should put up with an incompetent in the here and now who is not now, or was ever, worthy of the presidency. At least this governor has a 35 year career, since his graduation from med school, that through deeds and actions shows that he harbors little or no prejudice. That must be worth some consideration.

  11. @NM Right on. He's willfully adopted a remarkable resemblance to the aw shucks @ the fence post persona of Bush Jr in his media appearances on this (Matthew in Cahrlottesville)

  12. We must remember that there is a difference between non-criminal insensitive behavior from decades ago and credible allegations of criminal behavior even if never prosecuted in judging the character of our leadership.

  13. It seems to me that we need to dial back the sanctimony and to focus our outrage at its rightful target. I have no idea what's contained on my yearbook pages, but I'm not 100% confident that I'd be proud of it today.  I have no political aspirations, but I'd hate to think that one or more indiscretions during my youth would bar me from public service for the rest of my life. We all have our flaws; every single last one of us. In time, most of us outgrow them.  That doesn't mean that we should tolerate a walking, talking 24/7 flaw in the White House. But if we insist upon doing so, let's at least cut some slack for the individuals who seem to have turned their lives toward greater understanding, integrity and decency.

  14. @John I agree except for one thing (comparing anyone to the guy in the White House) That is where we are prone to possible warping of our sense of view and decency. We all know what is right, and we don't have to compare, or even have the guy in the conversation. Judge things on their merits, and the conviction of anyone trying to make amends. Just a thought.

  15. I agree, Mr. Lebaron. Mr. Northam has said he did not include that photo in the medical school yearbook. A fellow classmate said he is not unusual for unauthorized photos and information to appear in that schools yearbooks. Mr. Northam admitted that many years ago he participated in a dance contest and used shoe polish to darken his face to do Michael Jackson's moon walk. Mr. Northam was a doctor - not a polished politician - before he was elected governor. He hasn't learned to lie. The media is pouncing on him for his lack of "polish". Frankly I find it refreshing to hear from someone who is obviously a kind person who is open and honest. WE THE PEOPLE need more like him. The attacks against him started with an article by the people behind a hard-right hate-anger-fear website propaganda tool. It started right after he approved a woman's right to choose what she does with her own body. Readers can read the article for themselves here: https://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/A-tip-from-a-concerned-citizen-helps-a-reporter-13585192.php

  16. As with David Brooks, who I have also disagreed with on many particular political points, I find that Bret Stephens, the further he gets from a narrow political issue and into a broader, contemplative mode, has much to say, providing perspective when others are more interested in simply staking out turf.

  17. When Brooks and Stephens offer understanding and sympathy for a Democratic Governor the hairs on our necks stand up. Danger! Northam must find the identity of those in the photo. If he is one he should resign. If not he should apologize contritely. His wife should be in charge of his statements. It is abundantly clear that his alma mater was a racist institution. Is anyone examining this medical school. How many universities and colleges or high school yearbooks have blatant racist photos or words in them. Maybe we should survey yearbooks and reveal all that are racist. Institutional racism must be identified and acknowledged if it will be ended. This incident could be instrumental is admitting racism.

  18. @Steve Fankuchen, I would put the blame on the hypersensitive media for hypersensitivizing everything. Today's political correctedness is a direct result of media hyperventilating at everything anyone says or does. 24 hours news media likes to spin spin everything, omg he said this, omg what did she say?? Pre teen, teen behavior.

  19. @Steve Fankuchen This is a succinct way to sum up my own thoughts on Bret Stephens. His hiring by the New York Times nearly led me to unsubscribe, yet now I have to admit that he’s one of the columnists I read most frequently here, even if I still vehemently disagree with him on so many issues. This column is the best I’ve read so far on this topic, and one I think a lot of people need to read. By all accounts, Northam has been the type of person so many people claim they want in politics: humble, honest, sincere, and truly seeking to improve his constituents’ lives. There’s nothing that has been revealed so far that rises to the level of truly questioning his character, and certainly nothing that justifies the calls for him to resign.

  20. We do not want to cede the political field to those with no shame. Nor do we want to reward political parties with no standards other than acquiring power. But it isn't too much to expect enough guts from our "Leaders" to admit to past mistakes honestly. The first time. Not after exhausting every plausible (or not so plausible) execuse. Taking responsibility goes with the job. Or at least it should.

  21. Can we take this moment as a chance to discuss the impulse to shoot first and ask questions later as Democrats have done repeatedly in the past, for example ACORN and Shirley Sherrod? Not to excuse or dismiss any behavior by elected officials that in retrospect appears by current day standards to be insensitive, intolerant, boorish, or even racist, why condemn or pass judgement before there is any thorough investigation or thoughtful analysis of the actual context and gravity of the questionable acts? In long ago events, why not an examination of whatever has transpired in the intervening years? Is there no statute of limitations for those in public life who have acquitted themselves of any misdeeds, repented, or made amends for prior deeds? There are plenty of examples in our history of politicians who started out their careers in odious fashion by today's norms, who subsequently became a force of good and progressive reform, Robert Byrd being a prime example. Can we take a deep breath and take that approach to contemporary persons before we determine that banishment from public life is the only remedy for long ago transgressions?

  22. @Old Farmer, Thank you for your comment. I strongly agree with you.

  23. @Old Farmer -- "the impulse to shoot first and ask questions later as Democrats have done repeatedly in the past" Yes, but they've also done the opposite, making excuses for the sake of power. We could have had Gore for near 10 years, if he'd run as a successful incumbent who'd replaced Bill. Then we would never have had Dubya. But no, we had to abuse the women and excuse the inexcusable.

  24. @Mark Thomason We also could have had Gore if the votes had been counted. Just sayin'.

  25. "If he weathers the scandal, it will mainly be because all of his potential successors have grave compromises of their own." I am concerned about an individual such as Ralph Northam who would have the bad taste to wear blackface, but I am more concerned about being surrounded by people who take such pleasure in finding fault with others. In my generation, gloating was frowned on, so was kicking a person while he is down. We got a good look earlier this year into Justice Kavanaugh's youthful antics, included drinking excessively or being around excess drinking. What I see in Northam's behavior is more immaturity than racism, more excess, conformity, bad taste, and bad judgment than so-called white privilege. One would like to hear somebody call for some effort to restrain adolescent debasement, of the sort best captured by Joe Belushi in his Animal House performance; behavior, I dare say, still celebrated to this day. It caters to young men and women's desire for debauchery and reveals an evident lack of adult supervision. This I would say is where kids are today as they were in Mr. Northam's time. What we should want for the young is to live productive lives not to destroy our colleagues in middle age for their youthful excesses or follies.

  26. @David "Youthful antics" ? I am appalled at your attempt to diminish what Kavanaugh was purported to have done. If he is guilty, then these are not antics. They comprise rape. And his denials constitute perjury, and character assassination against the victim. If he is innocent, he should have insisted on an FBI interview and lie detector test to clear his name. As an aspiring Supreme Court Justice, he is called to a higher standard of integrity, than just not being a criminal. In either case, these were not antics. They debase the office to which he was aspiring. They insult America.

  27. @Karen I agree. If guilty, they are not antics. His accuser never suggested rape. Both remained clothed. At worst, it was a case of rough housing. There was never ever any evidence of sexual contact. Let's be accurate and not hysterical.

  28. I agree with Stephens here. There must be a chance at remediation, re-education and redemption. If we learn the right lessons from our worst moments, all the better for having them. The opposite is Trump’s lifetime of such moments with nothing redeeming learned or earned.

  29. @Mark Moe - Trump haters just keep hating. Frankly, its highly likely you really don't know President Trump so why would you call him out. As far as President Trumps redeeming or earned accomplishments Here are a few; President of the US or dramatic roll back of 8 years of President Obama's social democrat policies or economic and law enforcement policies that actually help minorities in a concrete way or maybe taking on US-China trade polices that the last four President let slide or two new Supreme Court Justices or aggressive Opioid law enforcement and much more. Oh, by the way he has done this in about 2 years. Imagine, with the new social democratic green deal ideas, he maybe there for 6 more years.

  30. Brett's confessions of bigoted jokes, racial and ethnic slurs, and the like strike me in one way as merely the reverse of the old rationalization "some of my best friends are . . ." All of us are by no means perfect but systematic racism (which we still suffer from as a society) cannot be compared to a few youthful high jinks. I'm not sure yet how I feel about the blanket resignations of top Virginia politicians, but we do need to examine all this seriously. We just ok'd someone for the Supreme Court who has a questionable youthful record and who is likely to endanger Rowe v. Wade. Were his actions youthful high jinks? I guess his fellow senators thought so.

  31. @Rebecca Hogan Respectfully disagree. It is the youthful high jinks put in the context of the life that follows that's important. Northam, until last weekend, seemed to have passed that test. Kavanaugh did not fare so well.

  32. @Leonard Levine Complete focus on individual, intentional actions when discussing misogyny or racism makes it easy to dismiss incidents as character flaws and personal failings rather than as evidence of systemic, structural problems that preserve an inequitable status quo.

  33. I certainly agree with the axiom that one should not be judged by one's worst actions in their life, but what I see is lacking in Stevens' call to deference in this piece is proper context and the requisite contrition he expects of the audience. It's absolutely true that nearly everyone of us have done things in our past for which we are sorry or feel embarrassment over. I think it's also true that racist acts, either those deliberately taken or those done as a result of pure ignorance, exist in a different context than acts of simple criminality, for instance, carrying a ounce of marijuana (which has its own racist underpinnings). As private citizens, the remedies of past racist acts outlined here - genuine self reflection and seeking knowledge in alternate perspectives - are certainly a start for forgiveness of those acts. But I think it's also true that our public representatives should be held to a much higher standard, and the remedies here are hardly sufficient, given the incredible influence elected officials wield over the reigns of governmental power. An apology offered only after the public discovery of past racist acts is hardly a genuine act of contrition and deserves to be treated skeptically absent any obvious pubic acts fighting against the systems that allow racism to exist. It's not enough to have lived "a good life" in the wake of engaging in clear systemic denigration of other people, especially if that definition lies solely with those in power.

  34. Not sure I agree with your notion that public employees/politicians should have some “higher standard” than the plebes they represent. They’re human as we all are. I’d much rather have a fallible person with thoughts, emotions and maybe a few warts over a perfectly scripted, polished public image (Ie. Hillary Clinton) that’s supposed to represent me. I don’t know enough about Northam to form an opinion of the man, but if I were his constituent, I’d look at his entire record and goals and see if those represent the goals I want and then consider this lack of judgement or character in the contextual totality.

  35. @V N Rajan Completely, utterly blaming the victim. And completely missing the responsibility of men to govern their own impulses, whether alone in a room or in a crowd. It is the MAN's responsibility not to assault, not the woman's to constrict her freedom of movement to prevent it.

  36. Some clarification can be obtained by noting visual evidence is more powerful than auditory or verbal. Few of us have not heard or said something hateful that if memorialized would be damaging. In the digital era a disturbing picture is worth more than a thousand words and therefore may unjustifiably warrant more than a thousand accusations. Our culture has yet to fully come to terms with the right to be forgotten and the right to be forgiven.

  37. @Djt Well said.

  38. Our shameful involvement with racism is more than just individual. We Americans live in a country that is infused with a racist past. We see it in the names of places such as Brooksville, Fla (eponymous to congressman Preston Brooks.) We see it in our language, our humor and entertainment, our food and our culture. Sometimes we see it during football games, other times with team logos. More than a few prominent historians maintain that our current prosperity was constructed upon 19th century slavery. We are long overdue for a national reckoning both of racism and misogyny. Surely it won't be pretty. But it is necessary.

  39. Brett, Thanks so much for your thoughtful essay. I totally agree.

  40. In general, forgiveness is the perogative of those harmed. So I think Mr. Stephens is wrong to express a firm opinion on this matter without input from Black Virginians. Of course many White Virginians also have a stake in their governor and AG. Ideally, perhaps a confidence referendum would be called - with White voters hopefully giving due deference to their Black neighbors' judgements about severity of offense versus policy outcomes that may hang in the balance. My own sense is that the issue isn't what happened 30+ years ago. The issue is what our selection of a leader says now, today, about how we view & value each other. It may just be a matter of luck that this came out about Northam and not some others. But with it having come out, Black Virginians are owed a new opportunity to weigh in on whether Northam & the AG should stay or go. Respect for their dignity as equal persons demands it.

  41. Food for thought. Trouble for Northam is his authority as governor seems diminished, and our trust he'll do the right thing in doubt, hence, his ability to serve his constituents seems compromised. By the same token, whosever is, or has been, free of fault, throw the first stone. No takers, after reflection?

  42. I am reminded of the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa. The aim was to identify and make public past abuses, but without the intent to punish. By its laying bare the problems in the past, the county would be able to unite and to move forward. I do not think Mandela would have been much bothered by these actions - decades ago. The relevant questions would have been recent and future behavior, and whether the individual recognized and acknowledged that the past behavior was wrong.

  43. @Gerard Great point

  44. Thoughtful column with a sound message. Outrage is replacing reason and forgiveness for sins of poor judgment and insensitivity, but not illegal conduct. This is true of both parties, for different sins.

  45. Mr. Northam is quite welcome to become a better person, and to make amends for his past attitudes, on his own time. The issue here, though, is in his credibly representing all the people of the State of Virginia. Remember that phrase from a long, long time ago, in a faraway galaxy - "the mere appearance of impropriety..." which was a theoretical benchmark for ethical standards? (shows how far we've strayed in the T45 era).... but, it's hard to imagine an African-American citizen of Virginia feeling great confidence in Mr. Northam's judgement and abilities, and by extension, any other citizens who support the idea of racial equality and equal treatment for all citizens. Mr Northam cannot credible offer that - and of course, the Republican party, even less so.

  46. I’d like to think I was as pure in my teens and early 20s as my imagination ties to convince me I was. But the truth is I would never wish to be judged for the person I was at that age. Three or four decades is a long time for awareness to grow, for maturity to arrive and for society to change. Northam’s behavior then . . . if the photo proves to be Northam . . . was indefensible. But a life that genuinely belies and repudiates that behavior should count for something. Otherwise redemption has no meaning.

  47. Many years down the line it will be unacceptable to humans that - how come honorable and smart engineers worked for companies like Facebook and Google who compromised on people's 'data and information'? So, folks chill down. We ought to use the metric relatively and in the context. Was the behavior illegal then? Is it illegal now? Thos are the starting points. Then how has the person performed thereafter? All that must be considered. If our politics is such that it does not have a place for anyone who has redeemed himself (yah, sticking with 'him'; I no qualified to point fingers at females...); we have no hope and for sure we are on the path of not finding useful leaders to lead us through our mess. So thanks Bret Stephens for putting these thoughts out.

  48. @Umesh Patil, on that relative tone scale you mention, what is universally racist will remain racist, yesterday or today or tomorrow. Making fun of anyone’s race, stereotyping people their accents their mannerisms, whether in good humor or ill taste, is no longer tolerated by our PC youth. They are fed up of this nonsense, of adults making excuses for their entire generation. My daughter has some very interesting dialogue with her grandmother when she is told, ladies should be like ladies...

  49. There is a whiff of puritanism and holier than though attitude concerning Northam. A man's (or woman's) character should not be judged by a shameful incident that happened decades ago while ignoring everything that person did since. To me the hounding of Northam is Al Franken all over again. In their eagerness to prove themselves better than Republicans, Democrats are making no distinction between people who made a mistake decades ago and those who show consistent abhorrent behavior. And please spare us any comparison with Kavanaugh who not only had a pattern of violent drunken behavior but never apologized or acknowledged that his past behavior was anything but stellar. The condemnation of Northam has the opposite effect that those clamoring for his head expect. Truly repulsive behavior will be excused as being no worse and accusations dismissed as another over the top clamor.

  50. @serban Northam, like Kavanaugh, is a liar. Admit the mistake, in Northam's case, and you have my respect. Admit it and then lie when you see that the photo is amibiguous--well, you're another Brett Kavanaugh. Which is to say--kind of disgusting.

  51. @Susan Nakagawa You don't know for sure that he lied about the picture. He did admit he wore black face on an occasion. That is quite different from Kanavaugh who never admitted to anything despite a clear pattern of abusive drunken behavior. The point: is Northam a racist? Everything in his public life argues against it. Is Kavanaugh a drunken lout? His performance at the hearings practically confirms it.

  52. 100% agree with Stephens. And I’m sad to say that as an idealistic leftist, I’m disappointed in AOC, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro and other supposed “champions” of the left who have all been so quick to call on Northam to resign. At best, it demonstrates lack of nuance and sophistication in one’s thinking. At worst, it demonstrates callous opportunism. Neither is what I want to see in the future faces of the Democratic Party. The Dems need to seriously grow up. Or be fine with Trump 2020.

  53. @Vince -- "The Dems need to seriously grow up. Or be fine with Trump 2020." Is Trump in 2020 what it will take, the price we must pay, to get grown up Democrats? When I say grown up I mean grown up with principles, not sold out in "You gotta do what you gotta do to get power."

  54. @Vince No truer words ever spoken. As a Dem living in Virginia I was appalled at the voracity in which almost every Democratic leader went after Gov. Northam and was actually impressed at the civility of many of the Republicans. There was a movie called Ender's game produced in 1985 that I watched recently and there was a particular quote that the Dems could take a lesson from. Upon being learning he was tricked into winning a war game in less than an honorable way.... Ender stated "It is how you win that matters."

  55. @Vince as a lifelong progressive dem I could not agree with you more.

  56. Thank you Bret Stephens. Brilliant piece.

  57. People need to relax. The most depressing part for me was not that the PC left got in an uproar, but that nearly every politician called for his ouster. Put yourself in his position: you have been an exemplary employee at your company for decades and are widely respected. Suddenly someone finds something compromising from not 10, not 20, but over 30 years ago which has never repeated itself, and you are now persona-non-grata. I challenge one person to honestly tell me that they would feel they were justly treated. I certainly wouldn’t. Those who cannot forgive cannot be forgiven. I don’t relish the opportunity to hold any and every misstep of those preaching fundamentalist purity against them for the rest of their lives, but I might enjoy it a little.

  58. Great article. Im sure those calling for his ouster will publicly volunteer every sin in their past to give the public a chance to see them for who they truly are and forgive them...oh wait...

  59. When this story first broke, the availability of Lt. Governor Fairfax as a replacement was apparently impetus for certain activists calling for Northam's immediate resignation. However, now that Fairfax is facing far more serious challenges than Northam, coupled to the realization that young white men putting on blackface was apparently a thing in Virginia in the 70s and 80s (who knew...), perhaps this is an excellent time for all of us to take a deep breath. Cultures evolve, sometimes awkwardly, but inevitably; and to err is human. In this less than best of all possible worlds, what perhaps matters most is not where you started from but how you finish.

  60. @Matthew Carnicelli, Well put. We should also bear in mind that evolution is not progressive; cultural evolution can move forward, sideways, or backward with respect to our own ideas of progress. And overall, despite some progress on the recognition of individual rights, there are few signs of forward movement in our culture. So much attention is going toward allegations of racism or sexism, while world population contiues to balloon, global temperature continues to rise, and the resources for life (like clean water) continue to dwindle. We are drifting toward a late Chaco Canyon scenario. Time to wake up!

  61. @Matthew Carnicelli, Your points are valid. But I am puzzled by why you, and so many other commentators, reference blackface but ignore the Klansman in the photo. In these discussions shouldn’t we try to reckon with the history of violence associated with the Klan at least as much as racial parody and negative stereotypes?

  62. @Barbara, Perhaps because it's not a Klansman in the picture, but a young man at a costume party. If you really want to deal with the history of the KKK, you look forward and move forward. You don't dwell on the past and rend your clothes in righteous anguish. That doesn't accomplish anything useful.

  63. Please stop it - just stop it... What's next - going to be condemned for viewing Chris Rock on YouTube, instead of sticking to politically-correct white meat like George Carlin or Craig Ferguson??? There - I said it...

  64. Thank you.

  65. Let's not forget the racist behavior in the 1980's by the present occupier of the Oval Office.

  66. I'm just shy of 88 years (1931). I have a broad vocabulary since I was a university lecturer for many years. However, I was brought up in a household in which every ethnicity in our city had a tag ID: Wops, Frogs, Kikes, Coons, Harps, Pollacks, Krauts, Japs, Chinks, and on and on. I learned them as a child. All were discarded over time, but I remember them clearly even today, Certainly most went unused by the time I was graduated from college under the GI Bill following my discharge following the Korean War. I was less provincial by then. Vocabulary evolves. So does usage.

  67. “I write this as someone who isn’t a...” Republican but I entirely agree with what you write. This Is an excellent column that deserves far wider exposure than the Times alone can provide. I shall do my part.

  68. O M G. Here’s a guy who came from a working class background, served honorably in the military, became a physician specializing in pediatric neurology (one of the more heartbreaking sub specialty practices), went on to public service and a political career without a whiff of impropriety, and all that is negated by a grainy photograph over 30 years old? Have we all lost our minds? So no one else had an edgy, hard, ironic sense of humor when they were young? No one remembers Eddie Murphy satirizing misogyny and nascent thug-life tropes in his ghetto-take on Mr Rogers on SNL? No one remembers Mel Brooks dressing up Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder in Klan outfits and repeatedly trotting out the N word in Blazing Saddles specifically to mock racist attitudes? Nobody has any idea what the context of that photo really was. Even if the worst possible connotation of it is true, the subsequent 30 years of behavior and accomplishments should count for something. Brett Stephens has a compelling point about human fallibility and what constitutes an unforgivable crime. I hate the snarky dismissal and empty cant embodied in the charge of “political correctness”, but I have to admit I am completely mystified by the level of outrage generated over this stupid old photo.

  69. Ross, what it boils down to is intellectual laziness. It is so much easier to reduce everything to a God-given bumpersticker one can feel supremely (self)righteous about, than it is to consider nuance and context.

  70. @Ross Goldbaum Putting pictures of yourself in blackface (or a Klan uniform) in your yearbook isn't about being "edgy" or "ironic." Its about marking your space (in this case, a medical school) as "whites only." The context here is not nearly as mysterious as you suggest. This garbage happens all the time and it makes the lives of black people immeasurably harder. Northam's life won't be ruined by not being governor. He can return to a well-rewarded life of doing good works as a doctor. But he has disqualified himself to be the governor of all and not just white Virginians. He disqualified himself not because of what he did thirty years ago but by how he has responded to the revelation. Northam put those pictures on his yearbook page. He knows that he did and he knows why. He could have spoken forthrightly and in detail about how such actions are used to intimidate black people from pursuing professional careers. He could have made this not about him or his career but about the real and concrete damage done by his actions and the similar actions of so many others. Instead he acted like a weasely politician and now he is paying the price.

  71. @Christopher A lot of people just aren't aware of the significance of their actions at the time or the impact to people of the same race or gender being imitated. Michael Jackson or Beyonce or Dolly Parton costumes put on by some people can be a form of admiration or sharing in their celebrity shtick. There can be no racist intent at all. We are all becoming much more aware of the insensitivity.

  72. He who casts the first stone...too bad the trump fan base could care less...at least you mr Stephens haven’t completely lost your moral backbone

  73. Well written reality check!

  74. We shouldn't judge the good Governor for his earlier transgressions. People change. Heck, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia didn’t pose as a Klansman; he WAS a Klansman. But he changed. “Senator Byrd reflects the transformative power of this nation,” NAACP chief Benjamin Todd Jealous wrote after Byrd died in 2010. “Senator Byrd went from being an active member of the KKK to a being a stalwart supporter of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and many other pieces of seminal legislation that advanced the civil rights and liberties of our country.”

  75. @Hopeful Libertarian excellent point, thank you for pointing this out

  76. @Hopeful Libertarian Thank you for pointing this out. I'ts incredible how quickly we've gone from "people can change, and should be rewarded for making that change" to "He did bad thing once...must destroy career". Why has negative reinforcement replaced positive reinforcement , when the latter is known to be more effective for persuasion? I think the answer is that people enjoy it! People enjoy the gossiping, the righteous indignation, and the power to remove a powerful person from society with just a twitter account. I don't expect this to go away any time soon.

  77. @Hopeful Libertarian, It is long past due for the powers in authority to abolish the KKK once and for all. There is a short documentary airing at the moment of a rally held in honor of Hitler at Madison Square Garden in 1939, bringing to mind Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'. America, a reminder that we are a young nation who can learn to clean up our act and do better, and The Statue of Liberty invites us to come along with her.

  78. Ah! The moment they've been waiting for--the news media have finally decided the flames have died down enough that it's safe for them to come out in support of Ralph Northam's decision not to resign. How different it would have been if he had been a Republican.

  79. @Ronald B. Duke True, but only true because the GOP is the home of white racists. Mississippians, with their deep-seated racial prejudices, aren't enamored of Democrats. The Democratic Party, last I looked, is the party of liberal values and minorities. If Northam had done this and had been a Republican, it would have been seen as evidence that he hadn't changed. Yes, it's a bit unfair to the GOP, but that's the way the cookie crumbles when -- oh, I don't know -- a bigot like Donald Trump wins your primaries. Once upon a time, white Southern Democrats were Dixiecrats and made up the "solid South." Back then, the place of white supremacists was firmly in the Democratic Party. The reverse is the case now, and because of this, see above.

  80. Gov Northam has for the past 35 years acted to support Civil Rights and as both a medical doctor and politician improved the lives of minorities. He should not resign. What he did was stupid. Same for the AG and Senate GOP leader. However the Lt Gov needs to have a hearing as his actions may have been unlawful.

  81. 1st, EU's 'right to be forgotten' needs debate here as a model of privacy protection for citizens on social media. Bret is trying hard---but we haven’t all made bigoted jokes or slurs. Or done callous things like dressing up in blackface NEXT TO a Klan costume (a terrorist organization that got away with murders) But Rev William Barber's op ed in W. Post is food for thought. If the Gov stays & works for racial equality, this may set in motion positive forces that will then build in society. He shouldn't be seen as staying in office because the photo was excusable or just a silly stunt. If he resigns, it could be deliberately exploited to stoke anger in white supremacist types who listen to Trump talk. Sen Robert Byrd, former Klan member, changed. ”In 2010, Byrd got a 70% lifetime rating from the ACLU for supporting rights-related legislation.” (Wiki) On Gov George Wallace, once great apostle of “Segregation Forever", NYT Clyde Haberman wrote this: "In 1979, Wallace went to a church in Montgomery, Ala., where Dr King had once been pastor and spoke of having learned the meaning of suffering. “I think I can understand something of the pain that black people have come to endure,” he said. “I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness.” Blacks voted for him in large numbers in his final runs for governor. Rep John Lewis said-- “George Wallace should be remembered for his capacity to change.” We’ll see, in VA. Standards are being set.

  82. Agree totally. The most important point is that witch hunts based on distant transgressions (assuming they did not cause actual harm) will cause only the shameless to enter politics.

  83. Among all the follies our politicians have done over the last few decades Stephens chooses just by chance a Democratic governor, Biden's condescension and Jesse Jackson anti semitic phrase and the left leaning persons. And just by chance he ignored Reagan's welfare queens, Nixon's southern strategy and about a few hundred of congressman King's utterances. Not too mention the daily barrage of Trump's racist, misogynist, homophobic and xenophobic tweets. It seems a very selective list that Stephens has chosen. Northam became a target the day he proposed an abortion rights bill for VA. That is what all the fuss is about. Not what stupid things he may have done in a one day skit in medical school.

  84. @Edward B. Blau Well stated, Sir!

  85. @Edward B. Blau i totally agree. Glad someone finally said it out loud.

  86. @Edward B. Blau Fair point - I initially had the same thought. But then I realized that Stephens probably did not want to compare "youthful indiscretions" with republican examples since he realizes that his party is not a good example of change and growth on this issue. Additionally, Stephens knows that he is talking to Democrats (repubs really aren't interested in forgiving a Democrat of anything - they are that rabid and debased). So, I assume that he is speaking to us Dems and encouraging us to forgive Northam and others who have made dumb mistakes but have since lived a life in an exemplary fashion. And that is the correct thing to do. Forgive and try to forget this.

  87. If the standard is that visual or audio evidence of a compromising nature from twenty or thirty years ago will nail you in the present day, then anyone who has been indiscreet or inappropriate on the internet had better get ready for a future downfall because in today's America, the internet is allowed never to forget your embarrassing or impolitic posts, tweets or selfies. Live by oversharing, die by oversharing. Is that what all the self-righteous flame throwers want? I hope your yearbooks are ethically blooper free and that a vengeful colleague or disaffected lover didn't film that tasteless, drunken skit you performed way back when, before you grew up and steered towards the straight and narrow.

  88. While Democrats engage in their purification rights, the Republican long game in the courts continues unimpeded. Am I the only reader to notice that all that stands between dismissal of Roe vs Wade is the health of one very elderly woman who just underwent cancer surgery? Silly liberals applauded today’s 5-4 SCOTUS decision staying new restrictions in Louisiana. Much is made of John Roberts’ vote. But if Trump gets to fill one more SCOTUS vacancy, Roberts becomes irrelevant and we have a Gorsuch/Kavanaugh Prep School Court. Democrats are helpless in the Senate and are reduced to not passing legislation, but rather preening for cameras, running for President, and purging one another. Does any one notice we are on the razor edge of a 30 year Trump court system? Oh maybe “ Spartacus” Booker or “DNA” Warren or “Purger” Gillibrand do? Maybe?

  89. In fairness, I don't think many people know the origin of "gypped" (it's from Gypsy).

  90. @Thomas I've been around for three quarters of a century, grew up in urban grittiness....and had NO IDEA the word gyp had racist origins. Until reading this column.

  91. I'm sure all of us have embarrassing behaviors in our past we wish would go away. But some of these are more embarrassing than others. I've done plenty of things I'm not proud of that seemed like a good idea at the time. But, probably because I am a member of a number of groups that have traditionally been harassed by Caucasian patriarchal practitioners, they generally didn't involve blatantly racist, sexist, or homophobic displays of insensitivity. I don't think it could have even occurred to me that it was okay, or even possible, to put on "blackface". I mean, isn't that obviously beyond the pale (pun intended)? And I don't walk around with pulling my eyes in a semblance of an epicanthal fold or satirizing people's accents, either--my own Brooklynese/Staten Island flat drawl is accent enough. I'm not saying I'm an angel, by any means. But my depredations don't tend to run through the realm of making fun of people's ascribed or physical characteristics. And I find it hard to imagine that so many people think this is just so "normal" and "everyone's done it". Now, making fun of people's illogical behavior and utterances--their achieved characteristics--that I'll do all day long.

  92. @Glenn Ribotsky Imagine it. You only have to go back to 2013 to find polling data showing only 37% of Americans thought blackface was unacceptable. Imagine how things were in the 80's. What is acceptable and what is unacceptable always seems self-evident. The constant evolution of acceptability shows that this is not the case.

  93. @Glenn Ribotsky I don't know anyone who argues that donning blackface is "normal," or that "everyone's done it." But everyone has said and done stupid, mean, disrespectful things. Those of us fortunate enough to grow up or go to school in more civilized environments can't fathom some things that were or still are common elsewhere. I was a graduate teaching assistant at Vanderbilt in the early 90s and was astounded to discover that the fraternities and sororities were "unofficially" segregated by race. I remember white students telling me, with no apparent self-consciousness, that, "It's only natural to feel more at ease around your own kind! Blacks and whites just don't see things the same way!"

  94. Well, even your use of the word "blackface" suggests a failure to see this through an accurate historical lens. That term originally referred to garish theatrical face painting with exaggerated red lips and wooly wigs. It's offensiveness stems from its blithe and insensitive reference the racist history of black minstrelsy and obnoxious stock stereotypes. Thirty years ago I, a white male, would not have thought that there was anything wrong with going to a Halloween party as Michael Jackson. He was perhaps the most famous pop star in the world, handsome, and hugely wealthy and talented. The idea would have been an homage to a music idol, not a reference to the insulting stereotypes of the bad old days of Jim Crow. Now, blackface is considered to include just about any instance in which a white person dons black face paint. That may be progress, but its logical underpinnings are not as clear. So no, I don't know that folks so quick to condemn the Governor really would have recognized 30 years ago that adopting a Halloween "disguise" as MJ was so obviously offensive that it cannot be forgiven several decades later.

  95. Yes, the Democrats should play by the rules they set for others. Anything less is Calvinball.

  96. Thank you, Mr. Stephens. The sentiments you've expressed here are as accurate as the ones in your recent op/ed on Anti-Zionism and its (dubious) relationship to Anti-Semitism were absurdly incorrect. The sins of the past can be forgiven once the sinner has himself/herself learned from the past and become a better, more sentient person. Unlike The Thing in the Oval Office and his pal in the Knesset, Mr. Northam appears very much to have learned those lessons- as I did, following my own appearance in blackface in a Xmas party skit of approximately 35 years ago (I did another one a year later in which I played a dwarf...). Stupidity never dies but it can be overcome, if only by a change of heart provoked from within.

  97. @stu freeman: Come to think of it, it was closer to 45 year ago. Ouch! Time flies but perhaps not quickly enough.

  98. Yes. And about time. For years I used routinely used the the word gyp and quoted the expression “I’d rather cheat you than gyp you out of it.” And then one day the first young lady, fine and interesting, I ever met who identified herself as gypsum. And suddenly I stopped using that term. Strangely I had never made the connection before. So Lord help me if I ever again run for election somewhere and someone accuses me of that as proof I am a racist, have been, and always will be. And may the Lord help you if they ever do the same to you.

  99. No, we should not judge someone else's past behavior by our standards and mores of today.

  100. Well stated. Should the Dems purge themselves of men and women who made bad decisions thirty years ago, but truly didn’t hurt anyone, as the GOP moves forward with no shame and actual racists, not to mention the one in the White House? I think not. Let’s let him apologize and move on. He did not beat or assault anyone.

  101. @Anthony Actually, what Mr. Northam did 35 years ago was to exercise his right of free speech and free expression. The issue is with the content of what he expressed, not with his right to express it.

  102. Bret, I do not agree with a lot of your articles, but this one is a winner! Thank you for reminding folks that forgiveness is also on the table. Ralph did this 35 years ago and I'm pretty sure he meant no harm, although the exposure of this photo has caused harm. He is a stellar Gov. and person who attends a church that is 60% Black and has removed confederate statues fought for the right to choose for women and expand Va. into the ACA. Let us not let one lapse of judgement be the only way to think about this man.We have all made mistakes and think about 'you' suddenly being judged so publicly and try and collect yourself.

  103. I agree with the sentiments of this article but I still have difficulty getting past why he put this picture front in center on his yearbook page. Dressing up like that at a party could be a "youthful, dumb mistake" or could have been related to alcohol use etc. but he had time to think it over before putting it front in center on his yearbook page. That is what he needs to explain. Who cares if it is him in the picture. When graduating from a 4 your medical school why was that the picture he chose to represent himself with?

  104. @isabella I'm sorry you missed the article re how the yearbook was made. The person making the yearbook, gathered the pictures and submitted them to be printed. The layout was totally out of the students hands. Some even say, some of the pictures on their page were not even theirs. Judge not by the past, but judge only the present, unless what they did was unlawful or it hurt a specific person.

  105. @kilika And advanced the cause of the right to choose to after a child is born. What a progressive!

  106. Thank you. Brilliant piece. Yes, he who is without sin, please, cast the first stone. It appears the governor regrets his actions and genuinely wants to make restitution with the people of Virginia. Restoration should always be the goal of persons truly repentant and yes, staying in office will provide him that opportunity. But there are consequences to bad choices and we should be careful not to gloss over his deeds of misconduct for the sake of those offended. But on the whole, it’s healthier for our future to back off the attacks and allow him to prove his sincerity, however weak his character might seem presently.

  107. Very funny. All democrats and Democrat leaders were requesting Northam's resignation INSTANTLY, loudly and powerfully - since the succession was safe. But now, when we need Northam to stay, we are free to philosophize, discuss the subtleties, write opinion pieces. It's really funny what a couple of days could do to our principles.

  108. @areader I noticed that too. It's become much more of a fascinating philosophical puzzle now that it's unclear that Northam would be succeeded by another Democrat. In other words, just as Mike Pence is often referred to as Trump's strongest protection against impeachment, so too is Justin Fairfax now Ralph Northam's strongest protection against demands for resignation.

  109. @MyThreeCents, And it's interesting that both Pence and Fairfax are respective protections from Democrats.

  110. Unfortunately for your theory, Bret Stephens is not a Democrat. He's a conservative former Republican who can't tolerate Trump. His plea to forgive the Governor's stupidity and insensitivity from 30 years ago has nothing to do with fears of a Republican succession and everything to do with concepts of humility, grace, and common sense.

  111. A couple observations I find interesting at this point in the comment discussion: 1/ After almost four hours up, this column has received only thirty-seven comments. 2/ The large majority of comments are supportive of Stephens' view. What I conclude from this tends to support my view that most comments to articles essentially reduce to a loud "boo!" or "yaay!" That is much harder to do when you have a thoughtful piece that acknowledges the need to recognize nuance and context. Thus most readers are likely not even bothering to read the piece. Interestingly, Stephens' previous column, which was more observational and analytic, elicited hundreds of comments and recommends (though my own comments were not seen as fit to publish by the-algorithms-that-be.)

  112. @Steve Fankuchen -- The boo or yaay seems to be more about the subject of the article than about how well the author expressed an idea. Trump -- boo. Democrat -- Yaay.

  113. The field has already been ceded to those with no shame. Trump said he alone could fix things. I think most politicians believe the same even though they are not likely to say it publicly. I am not sure what Ralph Northam should do. Generally politicians act like political animals and do what is best for their party rather than what is best for the people. In this case his actions are somewhat complicated by the other democrats in Virginia that are having their own issues. However, you'll only see democrats even wondering about what should happen here. If he were a republican he would just ignore the issue like they always do.

  114. @V N Rajan I make no such case. I don't say what Northam should do or what the Democrats should do. I simply state that only Democrats would worry about it at all. That is simply a fact. However, I suspect that the most intolerant in the DFL are really not liberals because true liberals believe that people can change. People who seek revenge are generally right wingers, or worse, centrists.

  115. Whether guilt is truly known or not we can know this: that while people can change they are not owed public offices elected or otherwise. We can show mercy and forgiveness where it is due. But we have a country of talented people. Public office should be held by the best and those most deserving of our trust; those who we have the most confidence will best serve, protect, support, represent every citizen regardless of race or gender or religion or creed. Those in question should be allowed, where the law allows, to move forward with their lives, to change if change is needed. But they are not owed office. Not as a police officer or a mayor or a governor or president or justice or even a clerk.

  116. @rg So 30-plus years is not enough time to change? How many years does one need to be forgiven and to show through their actions that they're not that person anymore? The Lord's Prayer (said daily) and Yom Kippur the yearly day of atonement say that we forgive people for their transgressions. To disqualify a person's entire 30 year career of good service based on a young adult mistake however distasteful and offensive id foolish. It's clear that Gov. Northam is not that person anymore.

  117. Instead of demanding perfection, because that's what a lot of the commenters here are uncomfortable with, the idea that we all needed to be perfect 30 years ago - let's demand the bravery and honesty from our leaders. I read Mr. Stephens' piece right after reading about the death of Navy and NSA cryptologist, Shannon Kent, in Syria. And what struck me moving from that story to this one, is that Mr Northam, in his denial, disappearance, and story changing, didn't have the bravery that Shannon Kent had in her eye tooth. Woman up, Mr Northam. A true leader knows you can't lead from under the bed.

  118. Another very thoughtful and wise column from Mr. Stephens. Excellent work by the NYT to take, and keep, him on despite his ideological differences with the editorial board. This is what keeps me as a subscriber. The sad truth is that many white people from working class and rural backgrounds, especially in the midwest and south, grew up with very limited and wrong notions of what constitutes actual racism. Myself included. It is the job of people like me (and Mr. Northam) to learn and improve over time, to the benefit of American society. It is the job of people who have always understood that most race-based "comedy" by whites is the product of some form of bigotry to teach those who don't why they need to rethink their world view. This can help build more understanding and trust between people of different races in this country-- exactly what we need in today's overly polarized climate. People who have made an offensive mistake in the past but go on to build a life on a reformed basis can be a real asset to this country, as Mr. Northam has shown. However, if they think they can never be redeemed in the eyes of society, they may only see one last option on the table: rail against the system and vote for Trump.

  119. Thank you Bret Stevens! I am relieved to experience a thoughtful consideration of what has become an emotional issue. So many go through life just "reacting" rather than considering and wisely reflecting. I appreciate your words and understanding--and empathy. They reflect my experience of the situation, and I have felt very alone in my perspective, until now. I appreciate the NY TIMES having you among its team of writers. With deep respect, Claudia Crawford

  120. As an independent, I try to follow varying viewpoints on issues. This regularly causes my head to explode. Thanks to Bret for his clear thinking on this issue.

  121. I have no doubt that most of us today are saying and doing things that we think are ok that will be considered wrong 30 years from now. Anyone know what they are. The question that needs to be answered--primarily by black Virginians, not by pundits and comment writers--is whether the interests of black Virginians are better served by Northam remaining in office or by his being replaced by the Speaker of the Assembly. Is Northam's sin grave enough to justify overturning the results of the election.

  122. Somehow out of the best parts of the Book of Matthew.

  123. A point of view well expressed and worth considering. However it is hard to imagine anyone in my class at medical school in the mid seventies thinking that appearing anywhere for any reason as the governor did was appropriate. The Sacramento California area where our school was located seems something like Virginia in some ways; I’m not sure that the place explains or mitigates the behavior. By all accounts, Dr. Northam has had an exemplary professional career as a physician and that lifetime of work stands strongly in his favor. Is it enough for the people of Virginia, particularly his supporters to allow him to stay in office if he doesn’t resign? I don’t know but a full debate is required if we are ever to overcome the original sin of American racism.

  124. wasn't the original sin of America killing all the actual native americans? and how about the Chinese expulsion act and concentration camps for Japanese californians? gov northam was a deer caught in the headlights ehen mercilessly attacked. remember the suthor who wrote the words"grace under pressure" shot himself in the head even as he had no one accusing him of anything. isnt it supposedly a right to face one's accusers? who were they?

  125. Growing up in the South in the 1950's, I believed in segregation. Later, in college, I participated in the Civil Rights movement, going so far as to occupy the Governor's office in Annapolis, Maryland. Who is the real me? People change. Hopefully, for the better. This is what makes us human. We shouldn't forget this when judging our leaders.

  126. @James Mensch What you believed was never photographed, I assume.

  127. The degree to which everybody jumped on Northam surprised me. For a couple of days, I would turn on CNN or MSNBC and see panels where the guests were competing to see who could vilify him with more intensity. Rather than even attempting to play devil's advocate, hosts were encouraging their guests to go deeper with their condemnations. One of these hosts was Ms. Reid, whose homophobia scandal was remarkably similar to the Governor's from an admission of somewhat less offensive bigotry to a somewhat hard to believe claim of quasi-innocence. Yet their was Reid, still secure in her job cheerleading as others called for Northam to lose his. On the same network we saw the same sentiments with somewhat more snark from Brian Williams who lost a job but quickly got another one after admitting to serial lying, not a good hobby for an anchorman. I posted a comment on Facebook making a similar argument to Stephens call for proportionality to our disapproval and got some quiet praise from friends who told me they agreed but wouldn't dare say so on social media. I wonder if all those who demand that everybody be as outraged as they are about decades old offenses, they are merely telling people that they prefer dishonest agreement to an honest discussion?

  128. Lucid thinking and a gutsy commentary. I fully agree with Mr Stephens that we should take a moment to reflect on our own behavior before condemning the actions of others. Compassion and self-awareness are critical elements of a civilized society. However, I also believe that we should hold our elected officials to a higher standard, so that we can have complete and unfettered confidence in those we ask to represent us. This may be a tall order — we are all human and prone to error. But this is what makes public life extraordinary, and extraordinarily difficult. The real challenge for the electorate lies in finding the balance between understanding and expectation. Between knowing when to forgive and when to hold to account. Hats off to the NYT for engaging writers who are willing to articulate unpopular views, including perspectives that may be contrary to those of the editorial board; this may be as close as we can get to a "national dialogue" on challenging issues, and multiple voices need to be heard. I encourage the Times to take further steps to reflect the diversity of views in our country, a feature of balanced journalism that is virtually absent in contemporary media (the NYT included).

  129. Brett, thank you for this article, you have expressed my thoughts exactly.

  130. I agree. And based on the many discussions I've heard and read in the last week, I think most people, black & white, Democrat & Republican, agree. It's the media, the politicians pandering to groups, & the professional pontificators who rely on litmus tests and labels who are driving this "crisis". To reduce the complexities of racism and inequality to these "gotcha" simplicities is neither respectful not useful.

  131. One of Mr. Stephens' more sensitive and astute columns.We are struggling to define distinctions between behavior that violates current norms without revealing a vicious character and actions which merit ostracism (or at least public condemnation) because it inflicts real harm on vulnerable individuals. Northam's stunt deserves evaluation within the context of his entire life. No context, however, can ameliorate the seriousness of Lieut. Governor Fairfax's behavior, if in fact he assaulted the women who have accused him. He committed a crime, and even if the statute of limitations has expired, he merits expulsion from public life. We might apply the same standard of judgment to our ancestors. The many slaveowners among our founders, for example, deserve censure for values that even in their own day had begun to encounter opposition. But men like Washington, Jefferson and Madison rendered invaluable service to their country. Each person must decide for herself if their violation of human rights justifies their expulsion from the pantheon of American heroes. We could at least acknowledge, though, the difficulty of evaluating our forebears by a code which was not yet widely accepted in their own day. Some time in the future, attitudes which seem perfectly reasonable to us may strike our descendants as evidence of prejudice.

  132. This is a well articulated article that presents a broad and, as a psychologist I would say, developmental perspective to this and other similar situations. If we as a society cannot accept that many of us have made mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, at some point in our lives and then go on to be kind, helpful and understanding contributors to that same society, then we have become merciless in our values. As an example, our former prime minister, David Cameron, when an MP actively supported a draconian law in the UK (Section 28) that barred any positive promotion or acknowledgement of gays/lesbians, which affected people teaching, working across any government agency and in universities causing terrible distress. It led to job losses, harassment and in some cases, suicide. Years later as prime minister, he introduced and actively supported a law to allow same-sex marriage, going beyond same-sex civil unions. This has positively impacted pensions, property ownership, civil rights and helped to reduce discrimination. It is arguably his major positive political accomplishment to our country during his period in office. We cannot as civil societies cannot only judge past behaviour without accounting for a lifetime of positive actions as is the case with the governor of Virginia. He needs to stay on and continue to do good.

  133. "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion" was the battle anthem of anti-democrats and anti-republicans 2,000 years ago too. The only way that Northam can dig his way out of his awkward mess is to explain it openly and publicly. Those who wanted politics -- and not the law -- to prevail in Virginia have received an embarrassing rebuke in the person of the Lt. Governor.

  134. @Sequel Just an obvious point to anyone older than 40: he may not be able to explain it openly, because he may not remember the details of what to him may be an insignificant event that occurred 35 years ago. Furthermore, as you struggle to remember such things you often 'rewrite' any actual shreds of memory. And this applies to other people's recollections of the history of that page, as well, I suspect.

  135. Governor Northam has now told us something about who he was 35 years ago. But the issue is who he is today and, even more important, who he will be going forward. Does his life experience demonstrate that he has been for many years and is now 180 degrees from where he was 35 years ago? If so, is it a reasonable expectation that his life going forward will remain 180 degrees from where he was 35 years ago?

  136. A few thoughts: 1. Democracy works because it has pre-defined rules. We have elections. Winners take office. And there are prescribed rules regarding removing them from office, i.e. impeachment and its justifications. 2. If we allow a system to develop in which anybody holding a megaphone (talk radio, news media editors, party leaders ...) can pressure office holders to resign even though they have not committed impeachable offenses, the will of the voters is undermined by a handful of individuals holding excessive power. Democracy becomes a joke. Any democratically elected leader can be pushed out by a power elite despite the will of voters. 3. When the mere allegation of a crime becomes enough to demand resignation, the situation becomes even worse. ANYONE can be the subject of an allegation whether they have committed a crime or not. 4. The people of Virginia elected Northam et al. The people of Virginia are the only people in this country who should have a say in whether these men continue in office, and the people of Virginia should use the LEGAL means available, i.e. impeachment, or similar procedures such as votes of confidence. The rest of us need to get our noses out of it. We're opening up a major pathway for an assault on Democracy. Note: I almost always vote DEM. I would write exactly the same above if the VA politicians in question were Republicans. We MUST follow legal processes. Pressure by party insiders and media is NOT acceptable.

  137. @J Jencks You mean like the sustained daily pressure to undo 'wrong decisions' (from the Elites point of view) like the wrong elction results whether Trump, Brexit, Ukraine, Egypt, Honduras etc where many democratic regimes are overturned by us for friendly to our Elites interest Dictators like Sisi and the Saudi Regime?? Do people even understand what principles mean anymore. It s not, what we do is our business but don't you do it or else does not fit the bill!

  138. I completely agree with Bret Stephens' point that we should NOT "judge people only by their most shameful moments". But when it comes to elections, it is up to the voters to decide what to forgive and not to forgive regarding a candidate's past misbehavior. And is there any doubt that the voters of Virginia would NOT have elected Gov. Northam to office, despite his accomplishments, had the offending photo become public (and not by Gov. Northam's decision) before the election? End of story.

  139. A refreshing dose of reason, Bret, amid the maw of negativity, attacks, rumors, opposition research madness. My first question after hearing of the yearbook pictures was how has this man conducted his life since. I'd sure hate for a TV station to get a hold of some of the videotape of some of my college and high school behavior.

  140. @Al Singer Racism, the KKK and blackfacing were considered evil already in 1984. This was 20 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act.

  141. If Northam is finally and definitively proven to be one of the individuals in that photo it is an example of something that has been on my mind lately. Can a person be expected to see beyond the moral and ethical consciousness of his time and place. Consider slavery. There were people who saw it as evil throughout history. St Augustine of Hippo is reported to have regularly visited the slave market of Hippo where he purchased such slaves as he could and then liberated them. But we must acknowledge that before say 1600 nearly the entire world saw slavery as a natural thing. It wasn't questioned. Consequently we can't say that a slaveowner of that time was evil. But in time slaveowning became evil. Is there a magical date that marks this moment? In fact to judge another without taking into account the mentality and norms of that person's time and place is provincialism and bigotry. Many of the judgements we are seeing recently reek of this provincialism and bigotry. Seeking growth and progress should not mean losing perspective and understanding when we evaluate other times and other cultures. In these matters we must advance but we must advance with care and empathy.

  142. Excuse me, but...I lived in Norfolk, Virginia in 1984, when I was 23-years-old, and no one I knew, of any ethnicity, any age, would’ve used black face, dressed up in a KKK costume, or been called “Coonman.” It was as offensive then as it is today, except to racists, of course.

  143. I am impressed by this thoughtful analysis. Let's encourage deep reflection in ourselves and our public leaders versus nurturing righteousness to the point of vigilantism. We only have to look at the present occupant of the WH to see what happens when a leader does not have these abilities.

  144. I agree entirely with you on this issue Mr. Stephens. We do allow "redemption" for violent offenders in prison, who have worked for many years to rehabilitate themselves and who have asked for forgiveness, yet many in our country won't forgive our political leaders who have made immature mistakes decades ago! It makes no sense to me. We need to forgive, and allow redemption for everyone who has made non-criminal mistakes in the past….which is all of us.

  145. @Tom Christiano Should Brett Kavanaugh be forgiven, too, for alleged sexual misdeeds committed decades ago? It seems that there is a double measure on the left.

  146. Thanks Bret for reminding the progressive audience of how Northam smeared Ed Gillespie on race - it does illustrate that karma has a sense of humor. And that the governor 's infanticide comments quickly got buried in the mainstream press in all this shows just how much the progressive press is fixated on race - killing born babies doesn't seem to rate in importance. Yet I agree with those who say we need to have some sense of time and proportion. Northam and the AG both did things 30+ years ago they would never think appropriate now. All of this creates an impossible standard which the current youth will never be able to meet since they post the equivalent of yearbook pictures and comments daily on social media. The most relevant issues in the whole VA mess are contemporary. Democratic Congressman Scott knew of Fairfax's allegations and the WAPO buried the story to Fairfax's benefit. As a conservative I find it hard to believe that a Republican would have been given the same benefit.

  147. I abandoned my political ambitions when I realized that politicians SHOULD be held to a higher standard, and I didn't reach it.

  148. Every time I come close to thinking Northam should stay, I read what his defenders are saying and go back to "absolutely not." I'm learning from this discussion that some people think "blackface" was okay 30 years ago, and some consider it just a small transgression, like getting drunk in high school. When people say these things, we have a problem. And, if this is what people are saying publicly, I shudder to think what they may be saying privately. I've done things I'm not proud of, but even when I did them, I knew they were wrong. I don't think I've ever laughed at a bigoted joke, but I've stayed quiet when I should have said it was wrong; who wants to be the one who calls out someone more popular or powerful? I’m ashamed of that. Recently I've started paying more attention, and almost daily I hear someone - usually an older white male - say something offensive. (It happened just yesterday.) No-one corrects them. For me, ironically, it would be easier to overlook what Northam did thirty years ago if we were living in a society where everyone understood just how wrong it was. We’re not.

  149. Racism and sexism are not good, but most of us, as Stephens points out, are guilty of thinking and sometimes even saying racist and sexist things. But this fact is not innocent of history, which is what Stephens forgets. We say and think racist and sexist things because our culture has been shaped by mostly white male conquistador types who pinned their conquests on the logics of racism and sexism. That's a cold fact but it does us no good to continue to bracket it, as if it's beside the point of what we've turned out be as a nation when the opposite is the case--in many ways, we've turned out the way we have BECAUSE of those logics. Enter Ralph Northam, who does not seem like a bad man to me, but who still is going to have to pay the piper for something pretty gross he did a long time ago. The thing is, Bret, there are black people in significant quantity who are paying much worse prices for the sins of aging white men in power, and you don't speak to that at all. I don't think it's entirely fair that Northam will be judged for his blackface episode, but it's way less fair how black people are treated in this country every day. Where's your column on that?

  150. @Jeremiah Crotser Fair point about black people (but while you’re critiquing omissions, do other people of color count too?). But injustice toward people of color is not an honest comparison to this situation and Bret did not need to speak to it to make his relevant point. Which is common sense.

  151. @Jeremiah Crotser This eloquent response echoes some deep collective business...

  152. @Jeremiah Crotser I completely agree with you. And I agree with Stephens if Northam can use his (OUR) history to begin the process of reparations. Why not be the first to REALLY confront our past and our sad present of systemic racism.

  153. It shouldn’t have taken failures of #2 and #3 to recognize that the statute of limitations on lack of perfect judgment shouldn’t be forever. Democrats have nobody but themselves to blame for pinning themselves down on the mat of hypocrisy.

  154. I would agree, in principle, Mr. Stephens, that we need to judge our youthful transgressions with ruefulness and forgiveness. We have all been young and foolish. Many of us are older and still foolish. But... As long as we continue to give a pass to the casual, unthinking racism being dissected here, we will be unable, as a society, to have the conversation we need to have about racism and the way it corrodes our body politic. Those of us who are not black or asian or native american cannot viscerally understand what it means be be judged and dismissed with a slur or -- what is even worse -- a joke, based on the color of our skin. Such unthinking dismissals remove an entire group from the body politic, pushes it aside, and leaves it exposed and open to more such marginalizations and, yes, even worse consequences. There must be penalties for our casual, unthinking racial transgressions, since those transgressions foster a culture of denigration and -- ultimately -- violence. How do we dare ask the family of a dead, black teenager killed by police to forgive us when we are unwilling to hold a powerful, white politician (no matter how much good he has done) to account? As a society, we won't understand how racism hurts until it hits home for each of us.

  155. It is difficult to imagine just how corrosively compelling it is to grow up in a community where racism is both casual and pervasive. In the late 1950's I went to elementary school in a white suburb of western Maryland. The local PTA put on minstrel shows, as did the Cub Scouts and the Lions Club. These were glowingly covered by the local newspaper. When I was in the 4th grade, I performed in blackface in a Cub Scout skit. I'm sure my face was also blackened a few times when I went trick-or-treating. Fortunately, we moved to the west coast the next year, and I was removed from that poisonous environment. Of course, not everyone there was racist. Still, I wonder, if I hadn't moved away, how would I have realized how abhorrent my actions were? It involves a significant change in mindset to turn your back on your upbringing and abjure it. At what age should I have been able to look upon my past with a new clarity? In no way should we excuse what happened in Maryland or Virginia, but these difficult questions must be part of the discussion.

  156. No, we should judge people by how they handle revelations about their most shameful moments. Bezos, pretty impressively handled, Northam, not so well.

  157. The most illuminating and positive aspect of this ugly affair is to realize that behaviour considered normal and expected just one generation ago is now universally regarded as completely unacceptable. The extreme reaction is an accurate measurement of how far we have come in our thinking about racial inequality.

  158. For once, I'm going to agree with Bret. My original impulse was that it must be possible to find a decent politician who has not worn blackface or uttered racial slurs to serve as governor, and therefore Mr. Northam had to go. But it is also true that nearly everyone, of every race, religion, sexuality and ideology, has had moments and maybe even periods of ignorance and stupidity. Myself included. So I am inclined to judge not, lest I be judged. But I also think that we need to codify some code of behavior so that we do not indefinitely tolerate intolerant or hateful behavior of any type. Count me as "thinking about it..."

  159. The Governor of Virginia, his Deputy Governor and the third in line for the governorship, the Commonwealth's AG. are all human beings, and should be judged by their actions. They like all of us are guilty even though we believe our worst moments and words shouldn't define us, but do. American moral beliefs cast in ignorance and bigotry may not be worthy of redemption. even though a European ruling against previous 'sins' aren't relevant to our present behaviour on this side of the pond. Americans' dumbest thoughts raked over the coals today by social media (bigotry,sexism, racism, anti-semitism, homophobic remarks from some of our leaders pver the years) are current in our newspeak of Trumpian social media. Old brooms, now withered by scandalous behaviour, need to be removed from government, whether state or federal in America. Let those 3 bad boys resign from Virginia's Commonwealth leadership. Let better boys and girls take their places in 2020.

  160. It is an extremely difficult time we are living through. I think that this whole "look into their past" thing was because of Trump and his unfortunate comments about grabbing people. Trump has been the catalyst of so much ill will and bad news that I wonder how he can sleep at night with so many millions of people hating his guts.

  161. A big part of the problem is the they did it excuse. People who believe Kavanaugh was unfairly treated are OK that Northam is unfairly treated because they did, so, we should do it too. Or, people remember Swift Boating. They did it, so, we should too. The worst part of it is sanctimonious politicians with many skeletons joining in the fray. This has to end.

  162. First time I've almost wholeheartedly agreed with Stephens. My concern is based not on what happened 20 years ago but on the waffling Northam has done in the last 10 days. His varying explanations have been a bit too much like "I didn't have sex with that woman" which is of course closely related to "it all depends on what the definition of 'is' is." Did he do it or not?

  163. Northam's decades-old behavior should be forgiven, even moreso given his history of honorable accomplishments and achievements. His lying about it, however, warrants his resignation. I begged for him to admit that this was a stupid Halloween stunt (or something akin) that he regrets. How, he's no better than Brett Kavanaugh.

  164. Governor Ralph Northam is guilty of...something. But given the state of affairs in Virginia--and I am not punning on "state" or "affairs"--a perhaps fatally-compromised lieutenant governor and an attorney general who has admitted to the same behavior as a younger Ralph Northam, perhaps he can salvage his reputation but, even greater, begin to bind the wounds that are bleeding the good will out of the state--and from without. We're all guilty of falling or sliding or jumping below the bar of what is acceptable in a civil society. As you, Mr. Stephens, have admitted, I have done the same--and far, far worse. In my old age, I remember a lifetime of others' cruelties to me but then I remember my cruelties to others and find that I am comforted, somewhat, in holding the "sins" of others to a far more generous standard. "What of my own shortcomings?" I ask myself. Every day. What's clear that this blackface and Klan hood and robe has caused a fault line in the governor's life. I think that, whatever he faces from his family, friends and fellow-Virginians, he is now face-to-face with the most difficult task of his life: defining who he really is. I think he'll pass the test. Racism or sexism or homophobic taunts are cruelties; they lay bare the need for a victim, someone to blame. I would rather forgive than ask for forgiveness for myself; it is not a choice. I have seen the wounds on others' faces after I said what I said or did what I did. Those memories haunt me to this day.

  165. Even as I largely agree with Stephens, I am surprised at the degree to which I agree. And that is because I do think that many transgressions that are better called minor faux pas are being lumped with other transgressions that are truly horrific. How can we compare what Al Franked did with what Trump said? Yes, there is a continuum and we should not lump a bad joke with an extremely bad behavior. For, if we do so, we will have lost our sense of proportion. And that will be truly sad.

  166. Virginia resident and photographer, Sally Mann, in her iconic memoir " Hold Still ", warns about the ability of photographs to corrupt and supplant the past, by freezing the moment and leaving a false impression. We are approaching some kind of nadir as a society, when because of racial or political correctness, the visual rhetoric of a snapshot taken 34 years ago is more dispositive than a lifetime of political behavior. Northam's initial response was a disaster, but not as egregious as the disingenuous, suffocating, sanctimony that surrounds this issue.

  167. To me, the issue is less about whether or not what he did was legal or 'shameful', and more about how what he did betrays an inability to govern with as much fairness as is theoretically required. Is he acting on behalf of 'the people' if he's willing to ridicule a sizable chunk of the people as a part of some random party gag? If I'm white and my response to the column is, "Oh, it's not that bad," then I'm reflecting the same complacency and insensitivity that white people have traditionally espoused when confronted with the realities of black pain. If I'm white and I think this doesn't matter or is not that big a deal, that's a direct result of it not really being about me, and having no bearing on how I move about the world and am treated in it. We shouldn't judge people globally by any one particular shameful moment because judging people globally based on a moment is ridiculous, limited, and unwise. But we should be able to see that someone is lacking the impartiality and the sense of justice and fairness that is required of their office. Oppression can only be brushed off and treated with levity by those who don't suffer its effects.

  168. We are witnessing expressions of moral outrage as a form of virtue signalling. Unless all of those who are piling on Northam are free of sin, it would follow that they are hypocrites. Oops, I just fell into virtue signalling myself. It seems self-evident, now that you heave raised the question, that no one should be judged by his worst moments, especially if they occurred in the remote past. Thanks for stating the obvious, which so often needs to be stated.

  169. Thank you, Bret Stephens. What's missing in public discourse today especially on the left I hate to say is humility and forgiveness. All of us of a certain age were born into a world where sexism and homophobia were the norm. Northam's world included racist stereotypes that somehow lingered in Virginia long after the civil rights struggles of the 60's. I give him credit for not acting on those prejudices in his career as a politician and as Stephens suggest, here's a great opportunity for Northam to be an agent of change- this is who we were but not any longer who we are. I have to say I don't feel that way at all about sexual assault if the accusations against Fairfax turn out to be valid. What was criminal misconduct in the past is criminal misconduct now.

  170. Bret Stephens describes feeling sympathetic to Northam's situation despite their different political ideologies. The corollary to that notion is willingness to criticize something wrong within our own party. And I more than suspect that if it were a Republican in Northam's position - accused of being in a grotesquely racist picture, owning up to it, then claiming innocence and making a fool of himself publicly - most Democrats would want that individual out of power. As high profile and exciting as Northam's election was, it is still crucial that we have standards for representatives of our own party.

  171. Making certain sins unforgivable makes confession and repentance self-defeating, puts a premium of secrecy and dishonest denial, and invites a backlash against the very morals such rigid rectitude seeks to enforce. Crime is one thing, including the various forms of sexual assault; there is no statute of limitations in that regard in terms of public opinion or public officer. Refusal to give Northam and Herring the change to prove their repentance and conversion with actions that speak louder than words is like denying felons the right to vote and at the same time expecting them, quite rightly, to behave as model citizens. In terms of calls for resignation for any and all past failures of moral perspective, what we need here is a little dose of sentencing reform..

  172. This is one of the few times I completely agree with Bret Stephens. As a white male in my 60s, I can well relate to the casual racism and homophobia that I grew up around. I would also suggest that black Virginians, most who have overwhelmingly supported Northam, are best placed to decide his fate. My bet is that he has done too much good for them to throw it all away.

  173. This is the first truly sensible column I've read on this incendiary matter. If Northam had burned crosses on people's lawns 35 years ago, he would have been guilty of a racist crime that could never be overlooked. But it isn't clear that his behavior at that time had anything to do with racism. He was insensitive as most of his Virginia culture was insensitive at that time. Apparently, as a political figure, he has worked to advance African American issues. His adult behavior should count for more than his earlier, widely shared insensitivity.

  174. @Louise Barnett I agree. The problem I have is that he acknowledged that it was he in the photo one day and denied it the next. My original response was, “Finally, a politician with enough integrity to admit a mistake.” Now I don’t know.....

  175. What he did was a shameful, racist act, akin to cross burning. In some ways, it was even worse because it was there in public, for all to see, not hiding underneath a white robe. What really matters are the White Nationalist and racist policies of Trump,and the Republicans — voter suppression, environmental racism, condoning discrimination, supporting police occupations of urban areas, reveling in White Privilege, etc.

  176. @Louise Barnett I also am reminded of Senator Byrd, ,one of our longest serving senators. He was an actual racist in his younger years, an actual Klu Klux Klan member who came to repent his actions and went on to champion civil rights the rest of his life. He was one of the few members congress with the ethical temerity to stand before the Senate and beg them with tears in his eyes to not engage in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even folks who actually held deeply racist views or one point can change and serve us well.

  177. I agree in general with this column, though I think that Northam may have damaged himself too greatly with the press conference last Saturday--particularly with his off-the-cuff remark about the difficulty of getting shoe polish off your face. But the call-out culture is too judgmental in regard to non-criminal offensiveness, has no room for genuine repentance and reform, and has, most importantly, forgotten the Biblical caution against "casting the first stone."

  178. I admit to knowing very little about the cultural climate in Virginia, and agree with some of the content of this article. But the rationalization that "everyone does it" isn't one of them. I've had the good fortune to know many people in my life who are indeed thoughtful enough, empathetic enough, responsible enough, mature enough, and reflective enough to think about the consequences of their words and actions BEFORE they undertake them, not after. I agree that considerations like immature age, intent, frequency of behavior, honest lack of awareness, degree of harm, self-correction, etc. are important factors to consider, but actual impact is of the most importance. (This evidently equally applies to the mob mentality of the present day internet, and the dire consequences that go with it). But when evaluating where people's shameful behavior falls on the human spectrum, don't just compare them with other people who are equally as thoughtless. Include the people who never needed to be explained why those behaviors are harmful - even 40 years ago, and at a younger age.

  179. Mr. Stephens makes many excellent points. What should be highlighted, too, is the role of media. Media creates scandal without facts. Mr. Northam is an effective advocate for civil rights today, so he obviously moved on from his alleged past. What is frightening is how the media continues to play the 2016 election over and over again, a bad version of "Groundhog Day". Example? "Legitimate" news like NPR and MSNBC repeat this "news" over and lover using words like "scandal". They make it sound like the end of the world, while the real world may be ending in places like Miami. That is the news. Fairfax is probably done as a politician, but where are the facts? The media must refrain from jumping on the innuendo train, and they should stop emulating the National Enquirer. Facts should matter to someone.

  180. Bret knows that to cast Northam aside causes problems for those supporting the “Renate Alumnus” currently handing down decisions about abortion clinics in Louisiana, so he’s treading lightly. His thoughtfulness leads him to consider the future of these men who still have much to offer society when they’re not campaigning against a Republican. After all, it was a different time. And it was different. It was a time when young men like Northam were so secure in their privilege that an image evoking violence against an entire group of Americans was considered funny and worth cherishing. Northam says he never looked back, which might be so. But he didn’t have to, because the lessons he learned at that school are with him always. It was a different time. And now it’s time for these men to go. There are plenty of Americans who understand and understood even then, that violence against others is and always was wrong. The Northams of the world can take comfort that they are the cautionary example for young men and women now. In this time, in our time, it has never been appropriate to glorify the racism and misogyny of America’s past, or present.

  181. It seems to me there is a line somewhere. Like most lines, it is hard to place, but putting on blackface in a era when it was legal and commonplace is on one side, even if deplorable. Sexually attacking a girl is on the other side. As far as proof goes, I would not hire a person to look after my children if there had been a credible accusation of abuse even if the accusation did not rise to the level of legal proof. And there is the matter of alternatives. There do not seem to be any reasonable alternatives in the Northam case while there were many distinguished jurists that could have been nominated in Kavanaugh's case. And just think, wouldn't it have been a real profile in courage if Mr. Kavanaugh had had the character to stand up and announce that he would not take the nomination until the Chief Judge of his court, who he had said IS a distinguished jurist, had been afforded the dignity and respect of a hearing before the American people just as other SCOTUS nominees such as Robert Bork had received

  182. Exactly. Hope requires that tomorrow be a new day. Today is yesterday's tomorrow. Has the man changed? Is the man now a better man on a better path? If we a build a system that says people can never change, two things will happen: 1) they won't; 2) the system won't. Do we want change or not? I do.

  183. Well written and on point. Yes, the Governor and all of us have thought or said something not acceptable in society today. I am sorry that he had the photo taken. I mean, what were they thinking. Regardless, I hope that he remains in office and focuses on mending the many fences that he has broken.

  184. In the Nov 2017 election, I was glad to vote for Northam. I agreed with most of his policies, and I thought he was a decent individual. In light of the current revelations, I still consider him a decent individual. Flawed, yes, very. But the course of his adult life have been one of service and without evidence of racism. Agree that he needs "get his story straight". He did himself immeasurable harm in last Saturday's press conference, with his shifting stories and in which he appeared shell shocked and to have lost his critical thinking abilities (e.g. Moonwalking). Going forward, I will be interested to see if Northam has the moral courage, strength and leadership ability to use this episode as an opportunity to directly address the persistent, ongoing, and egregious examples of racism in VA that other politicians tip toe around. Currently, I don’t know if Northam has that courage and those leadership skills. It does not help that he is not an eloquent speaker. So we will see. But if he does, or can develop the these qualities and skills, there is a tremendous opportunity for him lead an open discussion of the persistent racism in VA, and address the ongoing policies in place that continue to enable racial injustice. And if Northam does lead in addressing these issues, I will support him in those efforts.

  185. It seems to me the issue the media continues to gloss over is the fact that Mr. Northham has either equivocated (at best) or lied (at worst) regarding the photo in question. I believe in forgiveness and celebrating personal growth, but, by his conduct, Mr. Northam has demonstrated a lack of integrity such that-regardless of whether it is him the photo-he has to go.

  186. A friend of mine has a saying, "when I knew better, I did better".

  187. It is not the 1960's 70's and 80's where this happened in most schools in the country. So I agree with the sentiment expressed here.

  188. @William A video of two students at Brooklyn's prestigious Poly Prep wearing blackface was the focus of a local scandal last week. The idea that this practice is a thing of the past is nonsense. It still happens all of the time. Occasionally it becomes public and even more rarely gains media attention. But it happens a lot more than you seem to realize. And that is precisely why this push now to forgive Northam even after his utterly inadequate response to the revelation is so disturbing.

  189. Stereotyping is not racism. Our success as a species was in great part due to the ability of the brain to detect patterns of appearance, sounds, dress, and behavior. Today, we mostly take for granted who is a safe person to be near. Two million years ago, before we had speech to discern by conversation who was friend or foe, we might easily perish if not suspicious of a stranger. Having that trait was a Darwinian selection. The brain evolved to create stereotypes. THIS WAS AND STILL IS A NORMAL FUNCTION FOR ALL HUMANS. Today, we have the ability and responsibility to use our cerebral cortices to overcome prejudicial feelings which may arise due to stereotyping. It is only when we actively engage in harmful behavior to someone who looks, sounds, and behaves a bit different than self, that we are practicing racism. Those who feel we need more of a national dialog about racism, miss the fact that we are all prejudiced. WE PRE-JUDGE BECAUSE OUR BRAINS ARE WIRED THAT WAY. We all need to overcome that normal mechanism, deeply seated in the brain, to avoid treating others in a prejudiced way. Racism is the choice to actively hate someone or group for whom prejudice has already risen.

  190. Mr. Stephens is, as usual, both thoughtful and correct. To extend the analysis without wanting to elevate Governor Northam to a level he does not deserve, consider the life of Hugo Black. An enthusiastic member of the Klan when he was a young man, he evolved into a Supreme Court Justice that we liberals would love to have on the court today. Some people do change for the better (and yes, Bret, that includes Joy Reid) and some for the worse, and some (like Jeff Sessions) don’t change at all and if we want to live in a rational world, we have to take them for who they honestly and demonstrably are now, not who they used to be.

  191. I appreciate the boldness it takes to write this today. Making awful mistakes is regrettably a part of character building.

  192. @Seth Parrish, the key is have we collectively learned anything from this incident! That is what my grown up kids ask. Is this a teachable moment? Cuz we all know human beings are awful learners. They repeat same mistakes over and over again in every generation. War violence racism genocides go on and on, even today in the 21st century. How old is mankind, geologically speaking, what have we learned this far!

  193. Ya. We took back Teddy Kennedy after his many stupid mistakes - but of course, he was one of the gods. Now, a mere mortal may have to resign. We’re getting closer.

  194. Right on. If we are ever to make progress, grace, understanding and acceptance of human's changes are necessary - along with support for each person's growth and movement into greater humanism. All humans.

  195. Ralph Northam sits in a position of power which may be used to review and correct state policies or administrative practices that promote institutional or structural racism. These are abuses that have prevented many in minority communities from participating in educational advancement and wealth building activities. We should call upon all of our elected leaders to do the same. Further, he is in a position to open an ongoing conversation about how casual attitudes about tropes perpetuates harm to others. We all need to be better, and kudos to Bret S for putting this out there. We need leaders who set good examples and we need to do the same ourselves for the betterment of our society and future generations.

  196. When Kirsten Gildebrand denied Al Franken his right to a hearing, I viewed it as grandstanding. When Dr. Blasy Ford gave her testimony in the Kavanaugh hearing, initially she was viewed almost unanimously as credible, of which Trump himself supported her credibility. Then the political reality set in and the GOP dropped Dr. Ford as though she were nothing more than a hot potato. When Dr. Juanita Hill testified in the Clarence Thomas investigation, she was ostracized by the male legislators, both Republicans and Democrats alike. With the exception of everyone but Al Franken, they were afforded their day in court and politics set in and the discrediting began. One of my favorites, Al Franken, wasn't even given the time of day. I believe in my heart that history will be kind to Al Franken, Dr. Ford, and Dr. Hill and expose our divisive politics for what it is, grandstanding at it's best.

  197. @Diane Kropelnitski Mr. Franken agreed to resign. He could have declined and faced an investigation but he caved.

  198. @Diane Kropelnitski At least six women accused Franken of incidents of groping over a period of almost a decade. Several had shared their experiences with friends or family years before they became public. One had a photo. Franken was not the victim of injustice in this and it is perverse to compare his being forced to resign to outrageous treatment suffered by Ms. Hill and Ms. Ford for coming forward. Franken was not denied his right to a hearing. He waived it because he was almost certainly guilty of what he was accused of.

  199. @John "Caved" suggests that he wasn't guilty. Credible accusations from six different women, several with corroborating evidence, suggest he was.

  200. I don’t think what Northam did 30+ years ago rises to the level of resigning today. The incident in question does not appear intended to harass or intimidate. Additionally, if Governor Northam agrees to resign then we run the risk of being stuck with a governor that now has been accused by multiple women of sexual assault.

  201. Mr Stephens, thanks for causing us to think deeply about this issue. Do you think that his position as the first citizen of Virginia has a bearing on how we should navigate the challenges of racism and the fight for social justice? Same question for POTUS as the first citizen of our country. To me, the standard for elected officials should be higher than for private citizens. Your thoughts?

  202. Agree with Stephens. Al Franken shouldn't have resigned either. The capitalist economy is a "marketplace" and democracy is "marketplace of ideas." Both work to society's benefit when there is sufficient transparency for consumers to choose among competitors. In the economic arena, governments allow too much behavior by enterprises to go unreported, especially in the case of privately-owned vs. publicly owned. The consuming public would like to know, for example, the lowest and highest salaries paid by the organizataion as a simple factoid that the consumer could compare to a competitor. Let's amend the laws so corporations - whether publicly or privately owned - must post that information prominently. Likewise, people want to know before voting for someone everything about them, and I believe part of the outrage about Northam is that this "worst moment" of his wasn't made clear to people ahead of time. So, for example, making tax returns public for the previous, say, 10 years should be required of any candidate for any public office. Etc. Let's bolster democracy and capitalism by greater transparency requirements, including supply chains of products - so consumers can make the best, most informed choices possible.

  203. @cljuniper Al Franken was a serial groper credibly accused by at least a half dozen women of acts spanning almost a decade, several of whom were able to provide corroboration of having revealed their experiences to friends and/or family members before the first accusation went public. He was right to resign.