Bad Ideas: Conclusion ~ Unpacking Gov. Northam story point-by-point and putting it to bed

by faithgibson on February 14, 2019

How to Ruin a Democracy for Fun and Profit: An Intergenerational Passion Play in Three Acts

The Cast of Characters:


The GOP’s politically-based anti-abortion strategy used as a partisan wedge issue

The anti-abortion, right-wing newspaper First In Freedom Daily and its official policy to solicit “hot tips” from its readers

A 35-year-old yearbook photo from Eastern Virginia Medical School first published the First in Freedom Daily as a hot tip from one of its readers

The irrational and undemocratic policy of “zero tolerance” as applied to partisan politics, the workplace, public schools and other areas of public life

What was behind the demand by Democratic politicians for Gov. Northam to resign only hours after the yearbook photo was published

The American institution of slavery and its shameful legacy — bitter racial divide, segregation, Jim Crow laws, prejudice and institutionalized injustice


ACT I ~ GOP Politics of 1971 Meets the 2020 Presidential Election 

Act One tracks the intertwining of 3 issues: (1) the GOP’s long term anti-abortion strategy; (2) opposition research by a right-wing North Carolina online newspaper; (3) the infamous photo from Eastern Virginia Medical School’s 1984 yearbook.

@@ #1 @@

The demand by Democrats that Democratic Gov. Northam resign is a manufactured political scandal. Its origins lie in GOP strategies first developed in 1971,  when President Nixon was gearing up to run for a second term. At that time, Nixon’s senior advisor and speechwriter, Pat Buchananinformed him that abortion has become “a rising issue and a gut issue for Catholics“.

Mr. Buchanan went on to say that Nixon’s chances for re-election would be dramatically improved if:

“the President should publicly take his stand against abortion, as offensive to his own moral principles.”  

Nixon and Buchanan both knew that Nixon was had always supported abortion as a regulated procedure performed legally by medical professionals. In fact, Nixon signed Title X in 1969, which was the nation’s only dedicated source of federal funding for family planning and legal abortion services for low-income families.

In spite of his personal support for safe legal abortions, a week later, Nixon publicly stated that he was opposed abortion on moral principles. Like a small snowball rolling down hill, anti-abortion became the GOP’s biggest and most effective political tools for convincing Catholics and conservative Christians to switch parties and reliably vote the Republican ticket.    

@@ #2 @@

Right-wing news service “First In Freedom Daily” and its encouragement of snitches

 Let’s start where our story started and examine the original motives and methods.

The first action in this disturbing story begins with a fiercely anti-abortion North Carolina right-wing online news service — First In Freedom Daily. The FIFD also engaged in systemized muckraking as a matter of policy. It urges its readers to dig up “hot tips” for their newspaper.

The GOP’s political strategy of opposing abortion was kicked into high gear by an abortion bill pending before the Virginia State Legislature. The First In Freedom Daily falsely portrayed this law on its website with a headline that read: 

Democrats in Virginia Propose Law Allowing Abortions Mere Seconds Before Birth”. 

This is an example of fake news at its worst.

But from a political strategy, digging up on Virginia’s Democratic governor would give Republicans an opportunity to exert political power over the state’s Democratic legislature.

First In Freedom Daily’s solicitation of ‘hot tips’ paid off when one its readers got a copy the Eastern Virginia Medical School’s 1984 yearbook and the found a 35-year-old photo of two medical school students, one dressed in blackface and the  other in a KKK costume. The caption beneath the picture identified 25-year-old med student Ralph and unnamed friend.

Other yearbook photos for EVMS’s 1984 class included students dressed up in drag and other costumes, wrestling and clowning around and engaging in outrageous behavior generally categorized as “college boys going wild”.

While the yearbook doesn’t say the students in these photos had been drinking, it safe to assume that a communal loss of inhibitions AND good judgement is a predictable side effect of consuming large quantities of alcoholic beverages.

It would be better if college students didn’t drink, but history has already proven that abolition doesn’t work. 

Unfortunately, thoughtful reflections on fundamental fairness did not deter the staff of the First in Freedom Daily in their promotion of the GOP’s anti-abortion strategies.

Instead of second thoughts, the F.I.F. targeted the respected and popular Democratic governor of Virginia, where an objectionable abortion bill was working it way through their state legislature.

It was ridiculously easy sabotage Northam’s career — just slip this controversial photo into the relentless 24-hour cycle of cable news and sit back while the story was picked up by mainstream news outlets. Then GOP operatives used the offensive photo to fan a wisp of smoke into a conflagration of outrage by people only too willing to shot first and ask questions later, if at all. Then our partisan political system used the outrage this provoked to justify its acts of character assignation and public humiliation. 

It must be noted that these actions were never based on any personal beef with the Gov. Northam; there were simply as a tool to gain a partisan advantage by appealing to the GOP “base”. 

@@ #3 @@

 The Infamous Photo:

Proof of an Unforgivable Crime?

Much Ado about Nothing?

A Lesson in Democracy for Everyone? 


The vast majority of American agree that black-face is demeaning and offensive, that the KKK trafficked in unforgivable sins for more than a century and it’s policies remain an affront to a civilized society to this very day.

Now examine the “crime scene“.

Whether picture in question is Gov. Northam himself as a 25-year-old med student or of another unnamed EVMS student has either not been established or is not public knowledge at this time.

Nonetheless, a photograph of two med student dressed up in blackface and a KKK costume is obviously offensive and insulting by contemporary stands. It also is evidence of poor judgement by everyone involved judgment:

  • The Eastern Virginia Medical school’s staff, who authorized its publication in the yearbook,
  • Officials of the educational institution who officially tolerated such intolerance
  • The young men in the picture

The photo in questions was similar to dozens of other pictures of EVMS students displaying bad judgement in a variety of ways.  We must also note that the staff of the medical school approved the contents of the 1984 yearbook – blackface/KKK photo and all — before its publication and the administration of EVMS did not object. 

While this is all very troubling, we are still talking about an old photo from a dusty college yearbook dug up by right-wing operatives who gleefully used it for their own partisan purposes. 

During the 35 years prior to its politicalization, this picture sat between the dusty pages of a college yearbook, causing no direct harm or injury to anyone, and  would have remained there in perpetuity if not for ‘opposition’ research instigated by right-wing GOP operatives.

But the real issue here is proportionality, or in this case, the disproportional response, one that never looked at other and even more compelling facts before judging Gov. Northam to be guilty of an unforgivable crime.

In fact, the Virginia governor has an excellent record of public service as a pediatrician and politician during the three-plus decades since his graduation from EVMS.  As judged by his accomplishment, he is a respected and successful person.  An yet that can’t be the end of the issue, not a country that lives in the shadow of  a past history of black slavery and its contemporary consequences — the deep wound we call the racial divide.

Our country was forged by a war of independence fought to rid itself of oppressive British colonialism. Since winning our Independence, we have been a country that devoted itself to democracy — the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, with equal justice for all. And yet collectively, we still haven’t decided if the slogan “Black Lives Matter” is a question or a statement.  Do “black lives matter”?

Putting the photo and surrounding events in perspective: I lived in a segregated southern state for two decades — 1957 to 1976. I saw systemised cruelty, irrational hatred, and crippling poverty up close and very personal. It made me sick-to-my-stomach back then, and still brings tears to my eyes today. This was an inexcusable crime against humanity that will forever be a stain on our democracy!

But Gov. Northam himself did NOT personally commit any of those crimes. Assuming the photo actually is of him, he is quite obviously guilty of being really stupid as a 25-year old college student at the Eastern Virginia Medical School

If the People of Virginia want to recall Gov. Northam, they can petition their State Legislature to do so. In the meantime, we must collectively eschew McCarthyism, “zero-tolerance” policies (also a really bad idea) and a trigger-happy, “shot-from-the-hip” style based on attempts to achieve a partisan advantage.

It is extremely unhelpful and unfair idea that poor judgments of medical students should be judged retrospectively decades later based on the assumption that every 25-year old medical student is a “mature adult” who is personally experienced in the ways of the world

Hint: My 25 year-old grandson is currently a freshman in medical school. He is a good students, smart, gets great grades, lots of friends, has been given added responsibilities by his professors — an all round wonderful young man who makes his grandmother proud.

However, he is just that — a young man, without the depth of experience with the complex larger world and in particular, the political ideas that apply to Gov. Northam that he will develop over the next decade or two of his life.

My eldest grandson and his little brother clowning around in the school’s anatomy lab

I would hate to have some random act that he did as a student — a photo, comment in the school paper, etc., that did not itself violate the rules of his college — would be used to summarily end his career 35 years later.




I invite all patriotic Americans to the higher ground of civic virtue, justice and compassion, which rejects  any “jump to judgement”, replacing it instead with fact-finding and deliberation.  

To paraphrase a famous silent motion pictures actress Mae West, who remarked on more than one occasion: “sometime a banana is just a banana”.

It’s also true that sometimes an old photograph is just an old photograph

Click here for ACT II: Politicians and public spokesmen who should have known better but instead created a firestorm in a cracked teapot

  • Why a policy of ‘mountain-out-of-a-molehill’ is bad for democracy
  • Why ‘zero tolerance’ is not only a failed policy but downright dangerous to civil a society

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