Past could decide political future
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
That line from William Faulkner is usually used in reference to the South and its ghostly connections to the time of our grandparents. But more and more, it applies to politicians who find themselves squirming when youthful antics suddenly become front-page news.
Mind you, it’s not a completely new phenomenon. Politicians have been haunted by old charges dredged up by opponents ever since George Washington was accused of being a Deist instead of a Christian, which was probably true.
But today the practice of “opposition research” has become an art form. If you’re running for office or getting ready for confirmation hearings, you’d better hope you didn’t do anything too wacky back in the day — or if you did, nobody remembers it.
Now the spotlight is on the state of Virginia, where the top three officials are fighting for their political lives.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s yearbook from medical school, bizarrely and completely lacking context, had a photo of one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
First he said he was in one of the photos (though he wouldn’t say which one), and then he denied that role — though he admitted appearing in blackface for a Michael Jackson dance contest.
Northam is resisting huge pressure to resign, but now the drama has taken a more disturbing turn. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has been accused by not one but two women of sexual assault. That’s not just a youthful prank if it happened. It’s a crime, and the statute of limitations has not expired on one of the allegations.
If both of those officials step down, the governorship would pass to Attorney General Mark Herring — except that he also has admitted to putting on blackface when he dressed up as a rapper for a college party.
Incredibly, the next person in line is a Republican — in a state where Democrats just trounced the GOP in November in almost every major contest.
In Virginia, and the rest of the country, stunned voters are trying to sort through all this.
Is a dumb photo in a college yearbook OK, but not one from medical school, when students are a few years older? How do we come to grips with the use of blackface years ago by not just clueless conservatives but liberals such as Joy Behar, Ted Danson and Jimmy Kimmel?
We’re all trying to figure out what should be forgiven and what’s a deal-breaker, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each case is unique, and so are the political pressures that surround them.
Maybe the solution is to trust democracy. In the end, voters reward the behavior they like and punish the stuff they don’t like. It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s the best one available.
And it’s slowly working. Mocking another culture is no longer socially acceptable — not that it ever should have been. The mysteries of dating are being clarified by one important point: No means no. If you think a joke or costume might be offensive, it likely is.
Best of all, this could be soaking in for a few teens or 20-somethings. They might not post that photo or send that tweet that is going to boomerang on them far down the road.
But let’s face it. Most of us don’t have that judgment when we’re young. These scandals will keep popping up on and off, in both parties, from the people you might least expect. Just be ready for the next one, and decide for yourself if it’s too much, or too old. Good luck; you’ll need it.
Thomas Taschinger, TTaschinger@BeaumontEnterprise.com, is the editorial page editor of The Beaumont Enterprise. Follow him on Twitter at @PoliticalTom