Wall Street Journal article: Virginia's Confederacy of Dunces

Virginia’s Confederacy of Dunces How can we continue looking down on Arkansas and Mississippi with this sort of stuff going on? Feb. 7, 2019 6:53 p.m. ET When word leaked that Gov. Ralph Northam was in hot water over a medical-school photo, some Virginians smiled knowingly. We’ve seen pictures of med-school friends posing with cadavers they’d hung with monikers like “Bessie,” “Big Boy,” and “Wee Willie, ” as circumstances dictated. Then came the jarring news of Mr. Northam’s costume mishap and moonwalking incidents, which instantly converted him into a political untouchable deserted by everyone but his shadow. Abe Lincoln probably had more friends in Richmond when he visited in 1865, just before the South went under new management. Mr. Northam now appears determined to hold on to his job, and though he’s picking up some support, Richmond remains aghast. The Commonwealth of Virginia, after all, prides itself on being the mother of presidents (eight so far) and a place of profound political decorum. But suddenly we’re living in Dogpatch. Not only were citizens initially left to ponder whether their governor was the guy in the hood or the guy in blackface (at least until Mr. Northam reversed course and insisted he was neither). A few days later Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who would accede should the governor depart, faced assertions of an old sexual assault, whose public airing he suggested was the work of Mr. Northam. That suspicion was redirected toward Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a potential rival to Mr. Fairfax in the 2021 race for governor. Not to be outdone, Attorney General Mark Herring announced Wednesday he that had performed a rapper imitation wearing “brown makeup” when he was 19. On Thursday Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., a Republican, was identified as managing editor of the Virginia Military Institute’s 1968 yearbook, which included blackface photos. The way things are going, we’ll soon discover contemporaneous sketches of Patrick Henry and George Washington in drag. Adding to the din are Republicans who sense cosmic payback over Northam campaign ads that accused his GOP opponent, Ed Gillespie, of racism, plus other critics who insist the governor clings to his job because his pediatric practice was damaged by comments about abortion and infanticide that were more in the spirit of Herod than Hippocrates. These are indeed dark days. How can we continue looking down on Arkansas and Mississippi with this sort of stuff going on? Yet Virginians are comforted that our dunces are not the only ones in this confederacy. Those calling for Mr. Northam’s head include Sen. Cory Booker, who admits to a youthful sexual encounter that would qualify as assault under today’s campus standards; Sen. Elizabeth Warren, widely criticized for appropriating a Native American identity; and Sen. Kamala Harris, who doesn’t seem to mind rubbing shoulders with controversial pols in the cause of career advancement. Her early patron (and romantic interest) Willie Brown was, among other things, an enthusiastic supporter of cult leader Jim Jones, who went on to lead the largest murder-suicide in modern history. Newsletter Sign-up We can even sympathize with Mr. Northam (and perhaps Mr. Herring) as they wonder if an indiscretion in young adulthood will erase everything that came after—which in the governor’s case includes the expansion of Medicaid, restoration of voting rights for felons and support for the removal of Confederate monuments. This supposed racist also attends an integrated church with a black pastor—perhaps the perfect place to ask that age-old question: “Why me, Lord?” The clear answer is politics. His party seems happy to throw him to the wolves in exchange for greater credibility in attacking President Trump, a Satan figure to people who tend not to believe in the supernatural. Sorry, Ralph, but don’t take it personally. Best of all, Mr. Northam’s story reminds us that many people change for the better. Here in the Bible belt we recall Saul of Tarsus, who went from persecuting Christians to becoming the primary expositor of Christianity. Lincoln, by modern standards a thoroughgoing racist, played an incalculable role in racial advancement. Lyndon B. Johnson used the N-word nearly as often as a typical American teenager uses the F one, but pushed through crucial civil-rights and voting-rights legislation. Former Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia didn’t pose as a Klansman; he was a Klansman—an “exalted cyclops”—who repudiated his past and served honorably. “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.” Romantic types may also recall another redemption story—Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” in which Jean Valjean, a reformed petty criminal who brings prosperity to a town and saves a child from unending misery, is pursued relentlessly by Inspector Javert, a fanatical lawman who cannot forgive ancient transgressions. Mr. Northam may be no Valjean, but we are certainly lousy with Javerts these days. This storm will eventually pass. Until then the beleaguered may seek context and comfort from ancient scribes, including Richmonder Edgar Allan Poe, who observed in an 1844 letter: “Man is now only more active—not more happy—nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago.” Amen to that. We may also amend an old adage to reflect modern realities: “Don’t eat the brown acid” is hereby updated to “Don’t wear the brown makeup.” Mr. Shiflett posts his original music and writing at www.Daveshiflett.com Appeared in the February 8, 2019, print edition.

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