By now most avid political watchers are aware evidence shows multiple elected officials in Virginia, both Democrats and Republicans, participated in some form of racist or inappropriate behavior in their young adult years. Some were revealed through yearbook photos; others as confessions, no doubt in an attempt to ward off future vilification and salvage whatever is left of a political career. Immediately, as if in unison, Republicans took the opportunity to call out what they saw as hypocrisy: Democrats raked Judge Kavanaugh over the coals for his yearbook. Shouldn’t they be held to the same standard?
Holding elected politicians—or any grown adult, really—to the “yearbook standard” is immature, lacking grace, and a sophomoric attempt to equate the behavior of one person three decades ago with their character and behavior now. It’s wrong. Both Democrats and Republicans should refuse to engage in this kind of trivial discourse that not only has the potential to ruin an entire person’s life over mistakes made long ago but can also overshadow far more important policy debates.
Last week, the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, revealed he favored third-trimester abortions in a radio interview that appalled many conservatives, including myself. Within hours, another controversy erupted that usurped that one: A 1984 yearbook from Northam’s medical school was unearthed, depicting him wearing “blackface”—a derogatory costume mocking African-Americans—which most people with an ounce of humanity consider racist at best and abhorrent at worst.
As that story unfolded, an avalanche of revelations followed, both for Virginia Democrats and now Republican elected officials. The attorney general of Virginia, Mark Herring, also admitted that he too wore blackface at a party in college. The Senate majority leader of Virginia, Republican Tommy Norment, apparently edited another yearbook, this time from the Virginia Military Institute in 1968, which “features a host of racist photos and slurs, including blackface.”
Democrats have called for resignations. Republicans have too. On Friday, Virginia Republican Party chairman Jack Wilson released a statement saying “racism has no place in Virginia.” He said Northam should “resign immediately.” When Herring admitted to his own similar behavior in his youth, Wilson wasted no time in calling for him to resign too.
There’s just one problem: Republicans hated it when Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) on the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh by pulling out his yearbook and asking him about “boofing,” “Beach Week Ralph Club,” and beer. They roared to his defense, as did I, and for good reason. To hold a person accountable for what they said and did in a yearbook in their teens or twenties seems as asinine as it does irresponsible. Most people mature as they age and grow out of pranks, stunts, irresponsible and stupid behavior, whether it be drinking irresponsibly or, yes, wearing blackface.
Wearing blackface is horrifying to people of color and they have every right to feel upset. Yet as a society, we must also account for the fact that people can and often do change; that a racist act in one’s past may just be a foolish instance or momentary lack of judgement and not a reflection of their character today.
If we were all held accountable in our forties and fifties for what we did in our youth, many of us would still be looking for a paying job.
Even by that logic, a more reasonable way to approach this was to look at Northam’s behavior after he was called out for the nefarious yearbook photo. What he did three decades ago is irrelevant, but how he handled getting called out on it—with facetious flippancy—does depict a partial portrait of his current character.
Beyond that, when Republicans pounced with a kind of smug schadenfreude and decided now they would hold Democrats to the standard they invented with Kavanaugh, they lost precious ground in the battle they really want to fight about: abortion policy.
Just before the yearbook scandals broke, Northam had voiced what conservatives saw as genuine advocacy of late-term abortion, even infanticide. This is not only appalling for pro-life advocates but it’s widely frowned upon by most Americans. A recent Marist poll found approximately 75 percent of Americans would limit abortion to the first trimester. Continuing to call for Northam’s resignation, or at best clarification, on this policy is not only morally defensible but strategic.
However, vilifying Northam for decades-old biographical quibbles to make a larger political point as opposed to continuing to take him task on an issue that really matters cost conservatives precious ground. In going from the moral mountain top—standing with Americans against late-term abortions—down to the molehill of yearbook photos, conservatives just might have won that battle but lost a much more important war.
Now, because Republicans lashed out at these Democrats for the sins of their youth to get back at them for doing the same thing with Kavanaugh, politics in America going forward will forever be held to the litmus test of the “yearbook standard.” While this may end up succeeding in Northam’s case, there will be no cheering when the tables are turned and the next talented Republican is held to this nonsensical ideal of the idyllic youth. Now, politics in America will be marked by scandals such as these that distract from far more important issues in favor of ensuring both parties are slinging the same mud.