From the Chicago Tribune:
When the stories broke six weeks ago about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wearing blackface in the 1980s, it was pretty clear how the controversy would end: with Northam deferring to outrage and resigning. A host of presidential candidates called for their fellow Democrat to step down, and his muddled account and show of remorse didn’t look like a winning formula. But the governor upended the usual script by staying put, vowing to make a priority of racial progress, and hoping he could weather the storm.
Shortly after the revelations about Northam, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by two women. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., urged him to resign, as did former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Fairfax, however, counterattacked, comparing his treatment to past lynchings of African-Americans, and called for an investigation of the charges. And don’t forget Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, who acknowledged wearing blackface in 1980.
How to look at these February events now? Well, the national furor has waned and the three men remain in office. Opinion polls suggest that Virginians — black voters included — don’t want them to resign. Their continued presences keeps Democrats from having to surrender the governor’s office to the Republican House speaker.
The three cases, of course, aren’t identical. Wearing blackface, as both Northam and Herring admit doing, is a far less serious offense than sexually assaulting women, which Fairfax denies doing. The behavior of Northam and Herring suggests that in their younger days they were blind to the ugly history of blackface. But their records in public life don’t suggest they are bigoted or indifferent to the concerns of African-Americans. As for Fairfax, Virginians may reasonably want more than the word of accusers before demanding an officeholder’s head.
The initial uproar in each case had a legitimate basis. Racial insults and sexual assault are understood and taken far more seriously today than they were in the past, and the refusal to pass over such transgressions is a healthy change.
But changing sentiments carry the risk of overreaction. Three thoughts: Not every alleged offender is guilty. Some offenses are less deserving of stern punishment than others. The punishment must fit the crime.
All of which leaves us with three takeaways:
We don’t pretend to know the hearts and minds of voters in the Commonwealth. But evidently they don’t want revenge. They want fairness and justice.
A skeptic would say Democratic wrath faded because the three cases confronted the party with a collision of identity politics. Cribbing from Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger’s synthesis, “if the Democrats threw a black man over the side for sexual abuse, they couldn’t protect two white guys for racial violations. Sex and race have separate progressive constituencies, so the Democrats would have to appease both camps.”
Or maybe — in the two blackface cases, neither of which involves an alleged crime — Americans are coming to view youthful behavior is less important than later conduct. George W. Bush explained his years of heavy drinking by acknowledging that, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.”
We wouldn’t apply a blanket statute of limitations on the mistakes of youth. That would be a dangerous absolute.
Perhaps that’s the point. The outrage industry, which does operate by absolutes (and which, yes, gets bountiful attention from journalists), typically flies into action without thinking through the specifics of each case.
That, too, can be dangerous. Which all of us should remember the next time disclosure of a decades-old offense tempts a rush to judgment.