Explaining Ralph Northam’s Weird Response to the Blackface Scandal

A man somehow got elected governor without being very good at politics.

A report from Gregory S. Schneider and Laura Vozzella in yesterday’s Washington Post (“‘This isn’t me’: Gov. Northam’s defiance caught advisers off guard“) answers a lot of questions I’ve had about the incredibly hamhanded response of my governor.

Most of his staff was gone for the night as Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and his wife, Pam, worked the phones in the Executive Mansion. They called friends back in Norfolk, old classmates from his medical school, looking for answers about the racist photo that had emerged from his 1984 yearbook.

When advisers showed up the next morning to what they thought would be the task of helping Northam resign, the near-sleepless governor had a surprise.

“This isn’t me,” he told them Saturday, according to one adviser. Northam was now firmly convinced he was not in the photograph, despite having told the world the night before that he was.

And he wasn’t going to resign.

That set what was already a crisis into uncharted waters, as Northam staged a national news conference and defied calls to step down from virtually the entire political establishment. He wanted to fight, clear his name and avoid becoming the first Virginia governor to resign since the Civil War.


The tale of this fast-moving crisis is one of stumbles, miscalculations, and the distance between the way the public came to view Northam and the way he sees himself.

Never a natural politician, Northam, a pediatric neurologist, built his public career on the idea that he was honest. That identity was forged in college, where he enforced the ethics code as president of the Honor Court at Virginia Military Institute.

Northam laid the groundwork for his rise to governor by stumping for Democrats in every corner of the state. Instead of charisma, he had authenticity — the warbly accent of an Eastern Shore waterman — and that built a web of loyalty that paid off with his nine-point victory over Republican Ed Gillespie in 2017.

But his assumption that allies would give him the benefit of the doubt contributed to Northam’s poor handling of the crisis over the photo, according to people close to the governor. And his shock at being so quickly discarded by the party has made it harder for Northam to accept the calls to resign, the people said.

Over the past several days, he has even toyed with the idea of leaving the Democratic Party and governing as an independent — a sign of the degree that he is isolated from every political ally, from his state party and from the national party.


Northam’s first reaction was confusion, according to numerous people who spoke with him as the situation unfolded. He told several people that he didn’t think it was him in the picture, but he couldn’t explain why it was next to other photos that were clearly his.

At the medical school in Norfolk, someone found the yearbook and verified that it was real. Calls were flooding in to the governor’s office. Emails and texts were lighting up devices. Staffers began quizzing Northam, trying to pin down the truth.

“I think it just really froze or rattled his mind,” said a person who was with the governor that day and who, like others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. “His first inclination if someone feels hurt by something he’s associated with or did is to apologize.”

Because the public was demanding a statement, Northam decided to take the blame, according to two people familiar with the events of that evening. He didn’t think it was him but felt responsibility for it being on his page and couldn’t explain how it would’ve gotten there without his participation.

“I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” Northam said in the public remarks.

Northam sought out African American political figures, and that evening he sat down for an emotional meeting with about 10 members of the Legislative Black Caucus from the General Assembly. Lawmakers said they felt Northam betrayed them, according to people who were present.

“It was a conversation between a man and his friends . . . expressing love and admiration, while also expressing deep hurt and disappointment,” said one lawmaker who was present.

Despite his clear public statement, Northam told the group he was confused by the picture. “He never said it’s absolutely him in the picture. He was in doubt, but understood the implications of the picture appearing under his name,” the lawmaker said.

Later that evening, the caucus members decided that despite feeling some sympathy for Northam, they could no longer see him governing effectively. They called for his resignation.

Such calls had been raining down all evening, but the one from the Black Caucus was especially significant, given the nature of the crisis. Aides and advisers went home that night thinking that Northam would have no choice but to step down the next day.

Northam shifted from his office in the Patrick Henry Building on Capitol Square to the nearby Executive Mansion, and, according to one adviser, spent almost the entire night calling former classmates and checking with people back home. No one there believed he was in the picture.

First lady Pam Northam was particularly insistent that the governor should slow things down and defend himself, several people said.

Saturday morning, Northam told advisers that he was now confident that he wasn’t in the picture, and he wasn’t going to step down.

What’s more, Northam wanted to hold a news conference and take any and all questions the media could throw at him. Some advisers thought this was a bad idea, but they could not dissuade him, according to two people familiar with the situation.

They pressed him on what he would say and whether he was ready to handle a grilling on live national television.

And a new fact would have to be addressed. Northam said that while the yearbook photo was not him, he had in fact darkened his face at another event in 1984 — a dance contest while he was in Army medical school in San Antonio.

He would later tell the news media that he didn’t fully understand the painful legacy of blackface until a conversation with an African American aide just two years ago, when Northam was 57.

By the time of the afternoon news conference in the formal central hall of the Executive Mansion, Northam had had little sleep, according to one person. Upstairs, the Northams held hands with the Rev. Kelvin Jones — their pastor from First Baptist Church in Capeville, who is African American — and prayed.

“I was praying for his strength and for the Lord to wrap his arms around him and his family, and be there for him,” Jones said later.

What followed was a rambling news conference full of cringe-inducing moments.

As dozens of reporters kept pushing for answers about his flip-flop on the picture, communications director Ofirah Yheskel began trying to wrap things up. But Northam kept taking questions — including one about whether he still knew how to moonwalk.

Pam Northam, standing grimly beside him, put out her hand as Northam seemed about to demonstrate and cautioned against it.

His impulse to dance gave the impression that he didn’t appreciate the severity of the situation, and it was skewered by late-night comedians.

Afterward came an outpouring of renewed calls for the governor to resign. Some of Northam’s allies blamed his handlers for allowing it to go forward. “There will be a case study in bad political crisis management in this,” said a close associate of Northam’s who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.

A few advisers urged the governor to think about how much he was willing to endure and how difficult it would be for the state if he remained in office.

But he also began to get a trickle of calls of support.

Sunday morning, the Northams traveled to the Eastern Shore and attended church with Jones. The couple received hugs from members of the congregation, Jones said later.

“When the world has beat you up, you ought to always be able to go home and get love,” he said in an interview. “We prayed for him. . . . We just had a celebratory worship service. I think he was truly touched by it. I think he was lifted by it. Because he realized that there are still some true friends in the world.”

While I voted for Northam, given that his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, was running on a Trumpist platform, I honestly paid little attention to him during the campaign or during his governorship before now. This report makes him out to be a real-life version of Eugene Gatling, the fictional governor from the 1980s sitcom Benson. It’s really shocking in this day and age for someone to rise to the governorship of a major state without being a professional politician (or a celebrity or billionaire) but it really seems that Northam is just an earnest guy without the experience or natural instincts to deal with this sort of attention. But that’s all the more reason to hire top-drawer communications staff and lean heavily on their advice.

Still, the picture here is of a man befuddled by a long-ago yearbook picture and who can’t understand why, after decades of honorable conduct, people won’t just believe him when he says he meant no harm. There weren’t a lot of black students at VMI in the late 1970s (he graduated in 1980). The fact that there were multiple racially cringe-worthy pictures in the 1984 yearbook at the root of this controversy leads me to believe there were few if any at the tiny, fledgling medical school from which he graduated in 1984. But there’s nothing from his time in the Army or his later career to indicate that he’s racist, certainly not by the standards of a 59-year old white man raised in privilege in the South.

I’m less convinced than I was a few days ago that his poor handling of the controversy requires his resignation. While we expect our top-level politicians to be good at politics, there’s something refreshing about an honorable man just following his instincts. The rambling “let them ask questions until they run out” press conference is like something out of “The West Wing,” but without the glib politician with clever scriptwriters. I rather feel sorry for the guy.

Yet, as Steven Taylor and others have noted, it’s going to be next to impossible for him to actually govern now that essentially every Democratic leader of significance has called for his resignation. I don’t see how he turns that around.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ben Wolf says:

    This isn’t an explanation, it’s a description.

    An explanation would be that Virginia is a reactionary state full of “professionals in good standing” who prefer milquetoast-right candidates and can’t tie their shoes without guidance.

    An explanation would be that socialist-islamist-atheists-trans-men hatched a secret plot to elect Northam, then conduct a rite so Karl Marx could posses his body and make everybody get gay married.

    An explanation is the Democratic Party chose to throw its weight behind Northam in the primary because he could get lots of big donations and Perriello couldn’t, and was just the kind of bro who would shower megacorps with cash because Democrats like that.

    Feel free to come up with one of your own.

  2. Michele says:

    Thanks for your well-reasoned opinion. You’ve hit the nail on the head about Ralph Northam. He’s more like an earnest boy scout than a slick politician and, by all accounts, lives by a personal code of ethics that includes honesty, integrity, and responsibility above all.

    He was in politics for only 12 years before he was elected Governor. As I’ve heard him explains it, as a pediatric neurologist he knew firsthand how our dysfunctional health care system afffected the lives of his patients & their families who couldn’t afford insurance. He explains how his local state senator wasn’t responsive to his concerns on this issue so he decided to run for state senate himself to help fix it. (Is it any surprise that securing Medicaid expansion is one of his greatest achievements?)

    As a man of science & reason who has a calm, soothing demeanor (as you would expect from a children’s doctor), he came to be respected & also well-liked by those on both sides of the aisle.
    To this day, his best friend in the General Assembly is a Republican Senator.

    My friends and I first met him during the Democratic primary in 2017 and describe him as the “unpolitician.” He’s friendly, modest, likable, down-to-earth, and sincere. There’s no hint of ego. You could say that in every way he is the polar opposite of Donald Trump. We considered him (& still do) to be a breath of fresh air. And as public education activists, we were pleased with his long-standing record of support for public education (having attended public schools himself), so we were inspired to work on his campaign locally, mostly through canvassing door-to-door and phone banking.

    I don’t claim to know him personally, but I have met him on three occasions at campaign events in my county, including a two-hour townhall meeting devoted solely to the topic of public education that was arranged by one of my friends who was a middle school social studies teacher. I had the opportunity to ask several questions and met him afterwards. He even accepted my gift of a book on Finnish education, a country considered to have one of the best education systems in the world & which does not rely on standardized testing, a topic of great interest to parents like myself who are concerned with our children being overtested.

    During the town hall meeting, someone asked him if he would consider appointing a teacher as his Secretary of Education, i.e., someone who really understands the problems and challenges at the ground level. He said absolutely he would consider it.

    And guess what? After Ralph Northam won, my friend decided to apply for the job of Secretary of Education. I’m told that Governor-elect Northam received dozens of applications from highly qualified candidates, narrowing his choices down to a 1/2 dozen or so for interviews, many of whom held PhD’s from prestigious schools & with a long list of credentials. Perhaps he also interviewed some who were politically connected. He also interviewed my friend, the middle school social studies teacher.

    Instead of presenting Governor-elect Northam with 2-3 references which is standard, my friend – a very popular teacher who has won numerous community awards – presented him with almost 100. They came from administrators, teachers, parents (including one from myself), and even young students from his school & community.

    And guess who is his Secretary of Education today? My friend, Mr. Atif Qarni.

    When he was under great pressure to choose a big name or someone politically connected for Secretary of Education (e.g., Governor McAuliffe chose Senator Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton); instead, Ralph Northam kept his promise and not only considered a teacher for the position but actually chose one. It’s rumored that his deciding factor was the recommendations of everyday people like myself who are actually part of the public school system.

    This is the Governor Northam who I know and respect. I have no reason to doubt his honesty and integrity. If he says that he was not in that picture and doesn’t know how it came to appear on his yearbook page, I believe him.

    It is painful to see him misrepresented and portrayed negatively in the media and by national politicians as a racist. Ralph Northam is the kindest most decent politician around and there is zero indication that he has a racist bone in his body. You can ask my friend who works with him almost everyday.

    What is most painful is how, with the exception of a few, Virginia Democrats abandoned him within 24-48 hours, calling for his immediate resignation. As the WaPo article you posted reports, he is hurt by the betrayal & considering finishing his term as an Independent.

    I think he should. He was always a bi-partisan moderate by nature and operating as an Independent may bring him greater freedom to reach across the aisle and pass important legislation for the betterment of the citizens of the Commonwealth. It’s time for the national folks to back off and stop intervening in our affairs. (Good gracious, even the WaPo editorial is calling for his resignation now!) It’s also time for the elected Virginia Democrats to back off and afford him the due process that he deserves to clear his good name.

  3. JKB says:

    But that’s all the more reason to hire top-drawer communications staff and lean heavily on their advice.

    Resignation was never in the best interest of Northam. If his staff was advising it, they weren’t working for him anymore. No personal upside for him to resign other than to end the beatings. If he persists and is ousted, then he never surrendered. If he comes out of it, then it’s in his past. But to resign is cast in stone his reputation.

    Yet, as Steven Taylor and others have noted, it’s going to be next to impossible for him to actually govern now that essentially every Democratic leader of significance has called for his resignation.

    Why can he not govern? Sure, any personally derived initiatives will be a hard sell, but if there is actual objective benefit for the people of the state, will Democrat politicians harm the people with their pettiness? Otherwise, Northam could concentrate on administering the state rather than abusing the populace with vanity legislation.

    Ironically for you, James, is that Northam has taken up to be more like Donald Trump and never give an inch to accusers, and plaintiffs.

  4. I think you may be giving Northam more cover for his bumbled response to all of this than he deserves.

    He was a member of the Virginia Senate from 2008 to 2014, served as Lt. Governor for four years, and has been Governor since 2017. In other words, hardly a political neophyte.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:


    like Donald Trump and never give an inch to accusers, and plaintiffs.

    While I agree with much of what you said, the above is utter horse poo. Trump has clearly paid off his female accusers. Right? I mean, you do admit that much reality, don’t you? And he folded his ‘charity’ because it was corrupt. And he paid a huge fine for money-laundering at his casino which he lost through incompetence. And he folded Trump ties and Trump steaks and Trump airlines. And he paid a 25 million dollar settlement over his fraudulent Trump University.

    The man can’t even fire people, he has to backstab them on Twitter.

    Trump is what we used to call a pussy. Though given what men have been at I think we’d best just call him a scrotum: wrinkled, unattractive and very, very, very vulnerable. Just as Trump is a poor person’s idea of a rich guy, and a stupid person’s idea of a genius, he’s a weakling’s idea of a strong man.

  6. Michele says:

    @JKB: In regard to your statement that Northam, like Trump, isn’t giving an inch to his opponents, that’s not true. He did exactly that by first accepting responsibility for the photo because it appeared on his yearbook page (even though we now know that he didn’t believe he was in it). This is precisely how he got into this mess. He’s polite to a fault; definitely not a Donald Trump characteristic.

  7. Michele says:

    @Michele: Sorry for the typos in my lengthy comment above; I typed it on my iPhone and should have reviewed it beforehand.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: It’s certainly true that he’s been in elected office for over a decade. But State Senate in Virginia is something of a part-time job, especially if you’re maintaining a practice as a pediatric neurologist on the side. And, granting that I don’t pay as much attention to state politics as I should, I couldn’t write two sentences about his stint as Lieutenant Governor without a Google search. And, judging from the Wikipedia entry at least, he ran unopposed or against only token opposition for his Senate and Lt Gov campaigns.

  9. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    Part of the problem is that Virginia in practice is a Blue State, and because of that the Democratic Party will favor people that wait in line instead of the best politicians.