At several moments this week, the unfolding fiasco in Virginia succeeded in being simultaneously the top news story in the New York Times, Washington Post, the cable networks and, come to think of it, POLITICO.
Nicely done, Virginia.
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As a former state capital reporter in Richmond, I confess to a twinge of perverse pride in seeing my old haunts back in the spotlight, a quarter-century or more after I was there.
The circumstances—by last count four top state officials embroiled in controversy of a racial or sexual nature—are sickening. They are also, let’s face it, mesmerizing, in a way that politics can be when the plot hurtles wildly between drama and farce and the politicians are stripped of their customary veneers of respectability.
Virginia is a state that for historical reasons has always imagined its political institutions and leaders as possessed of special virtue. Now they are known for uncommon vice. With widespread demands for the resignations of both Gov. Ralph Northam, embroiled in controversy over a racist blackface photograph, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, an African-American politician facing on-the-record allegations from two women accusing him of violent sexual assault, Virginia state government is facing a comprehensive meltdown.
In part because the state limits governors to a single term, and in part because Virginia politicians in recent decades have played a prominent role in national politics, Northam is the first governor out of the nine elected since 1981 that I do not know personally. Fairfax was still in high school when I left Richmond. Time marches on.
But the cascade of headlines this week reminds me that it marches slowly, at least in the Old Dominion. There are echoes between this week’s uproars involving Northam, Fairfax and attorney general Mark Herring and uproars back in my day involving outsized characters like Charles S. Robb, the former governor and U.S. senator who many once perceived as a future president, and L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first elected black governor. The surface details are quite different (and, in the present case, much more disturbing); the torrent of accusations flying against a backdrop of sexual hypocrisy and tortured racial history is quite familiar.
The current spectacle in Richmond, in fact, is the latest incarnation of one of the great themes of Virginia politics: the gap between myth and reality. That gap, of course, in some sense is a feature of politics in all places at all times. But the contradiction has special significance in Virginia, where the tension between heroic reputations and ignoble behavior often touches on race, and where many of the most important Founding Fathers wrote the charter documents of American liberty while invariably owning and sometimes sleeping with slaves.
Let’s not take this too far. I can’t with a straight face make more than the most glancing connection between Ralph Northam and Thomas Jefferson (who following independence served as Virginia’s second governor, after Patrick Henry). The main point is that Virginia—because so much consequential history from colonial times onward has taken place on its soil—has a political culture with an uncommon reverence for its institutions and traditions. That culture also tends to invest its leaders—and governors most of all—with an aura of supreme respectability, even when they emphatically do not deserve it.
The current era of politics, prone to media storms of the sort that threaten to swamp Northam and Fairfax, is especially hostile to heroic myths. But the shock of exposure is greater when—in contrast to more flamboyant and obviously roguish politicians like Donald Trump—the disreputable behavior was obscured by a solemn façade.
Shocking is the mildest word for the image of a man painted in black face posing next to man wearing the white robes and hood of the Ku Klux Klan. Northam apologized for the photo, appearing on his page from his 1984 medical school yearbook. Then he reversed course, saying that photo couldn’t have been him, but that he had once donned blackface while doing a Michael Jackson impersonation. It seemed like his resignation was inevitable, until a woman came forward saying that Fairfax, who would replace Northam, sexually assaulted her in 2004, and many people are no longer rushing to make the trade. Combined with racial controversies involving Herring and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, and Virginia’s gap between respectability and reality has rarely been larger.
People outside the state might understandably conclude: Wow, as recently as 35 years ago in the home of the Confederacy the prejudice was so endemic that flagrant racism of the sort depicted in the yearbook was no big deal.
But that assumption isn’t quite right. I grew up in Upstate New York, and I didn’t begin reporting on state politics until the late 1980s. I’m pretty sure, however, that even in 1984 it would have shocked the sensibilities of many in Virginia’s political and business elite to be confronted with a photograph of the state’s governor in an openly racist pose—even if the photo was taken in 1949, 35 years earlier.
Make no mistake: Virginia does indeed have a not-so-distant past steeped in systemic racial discrimination. But as writers like Frank B. Atkinson (who wrote the political history, “The Dynamic Dominion”) make clear, for the most part in the 20th century did not devolve into open racial warfare of the sort that took place in Mississippi, Alabama and other parts of the Deep South, and which later migrated to major cities of the North. The face of discrimination in Virginia—where leaders in the 1950s and beyond engaged in “massive resistance” to avoid integrating the schools after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision—was more typically understated and shrouded in respectability. It came dressed in the well-starched suits of court house lawyers and pols for the Byrd Machine, which dominated state politics for decades, not the gaudy robes of Klansman.
Respectable establishment racism, of course, is no better and arguably worse than more flamboyant other kinds. One person whose career was organized around this belief was Wilder, whose election to lead the former capital of the Confederacy drew international notice. This is where my own familiarity with the Virginia story becomes firsthand.
In the 1980s, in the years before and after Northam (or somebody) posed for that photo, Virginia Democrats (who did not yet include Northam, then still a mostly apolitical physician) were not busy practicing divisive racial politics. They were busy congratulating themselves for moving the state into the modern era, chasing away the last ghosts of the Byrd Machine. They saw themselves pushing the state toward a cautious, mild-mannered brand of progressivism that could unify blacks and whites, rural voters and urban. These Democrats wanted to merge the more noble parts of the Virginia tradition with the dynamism and innovation in places like the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington and the booming port at Hampton Roads into an exciting New Dominion.
The most important face of this appealing vision was Chuck Robb, a Wisconsin native transplanted to Virginia. Elected governor in 1981, there was all manner of speculation about his national future as his term came to an end. Among those who bolstered the case that Robb had ushered in a new era in Virginia politics was Wilder, who won his race for lieutenant governor in 1985, putting him on track for his eventual historic ascent to the top job in 1989.
But there was a problem with the Robb-Wilder alliance. These two heroes of a resurgent Democratic Party came to loathe each other. Wilder did not especially respect Robb, and resented his easy stroll into a state where Wilder had lived and battled prejudice for decades. Robb and his advisers considered Wilder an ingrate and were deeply offended by Wilder’s penchant for jabs and putdowns and were determined to put him in his place. Wilder, who loved both the public stage and private intrigue, lovingly cuddled his grievances and was equally invested in payback.
Robb always struck me as a decent if somewhat awkward man, in some ways a bit like Al Gore: How did someone who labored so uncomfortably with the theatrical side of politics choose this as a career? The same question lingers over Northam’s excruciating performances of recent days, including what for a moment (thankfully interrupted by his wife) seemed to be his offer to demonstrate his Michael Jackson “moonwalk” at a Capitol news conference.
Wilder, by contrast, was a natural performer, an electric presence whose refusal to relinquish his resentments or push himself outside his natural habitat of Richmond intrigue robbed him of the outsize role in national politics that by all rights he should have claimed.
Both men compiled impressive records as responsible progressive governors. But both were co-conspirators in shredding Virginia’s image for stolid, sober-minded politicians.
Wilder offended many Old Dominion sensibilities by using the state plane for secret romantic getaways with Patricia Kluge, then married to billionaire John Kluge (himself a top Wilder contributor who for understandable reasons came to regret his choice).
But it was Robb, the straightest of arrows in public, whose private life came to light in even more uncomfortable ways during his competition with Wilder. Unknown to the public at the time, while Robb was governor he left Richmond many weekends without his wife or family to socialize with a fast-lane crowd in Virginia Beach. Some of his fellow revelers had links to organized crime, and some were later convicted for cocaine distribution. Robb said he never saw the stuff much less used it. A former Miss Virginia who posed for Playboy, Tanquil “Tai” Collins, said she had an affair with Robb. He said, “The only person I have ever loved emotionally or physically is my bride.”
When NBC came to town to shine a light on the controversy, including a two-hour interview with Robb, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article by Mike Allen (yes: same guy) describing “questions about toga parties, boozy rubdowns, and hot-tubbing with prostitutes.” In the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz (yes: same guy) asked whether the media had failed in not probing Robb’s private life earlier or whether it was failing currently by publishing “salacious tales” with no relevance to public duties.
This all feels far away now. There was no doubt that allegations of sexual assault and rape toward Fairfax, who initially accused Northam and others of peddling rumors about him, would instantly become national news. And in the years since the time of Wilder and Robb other governors, including George Allen and Robert McDonnell, have had careers marred by uproars over their personal conduct.
Virginia is a state filled with statues everywhere, from Washington and Jefferson to the Confederate leaders towering over Richmond’s Monument Avenue (the latter of which many people now want torn down). For believers in the Virginia mythology, it is an unpleasant surprise to keep learning how its modern leaders are not made of metal or marble but of very frail flesh and blood.