The Calls of Conscience: Northam and Political Expediency

Catherine M Wallace

Ralph Northam's failure to resign offers yet further proof that he should do so: he doesn't get it. He does not recognize what his yearbook photo says about him. His lame, day-later assertion that the photo was an editorial mistake—not his intention at all—makes me wonder why, if that were the case, no one at the time challenged him or at least warned him of this devastating slur upon his moral character. The "good ole' boy" image must have fit. Worse yet, in many ways, it must have fit into the moral culture of his medical school and his university. After all, many hands are involved in preparing any yearbook for publication. None of them picked up a phone to call him out on this. White-male privilege indeed.  

            Senator Warner, Senator Kaine, the Virginia Democratic Party, and Speaker Pelosi have demanded Northam's resignation. Where would we be today if Republicans of similar stature had responded with such unanimity against Donald Trump? That might have happened as early as his unprofessional conduct during primary debates. Or if not then, certainly after the "Access Hollywood" tapes, or at whatever point of scandalous dishonesty you might prefer. They feared Trump's "base," we say—which is to say, they were willing to become the Party of Liars and Bigots if that was the cost of winning the White House. They were transparently unwilling to gamble that a majority of Republican voters—the 60 percent who did not vote for Trump—are honest and decent Americans who recognize immorality when it appears on the national stage. Their failure has been akin to the failure of those who allowed Northam's yearbook page to stand. It is, on the whole, the larger failure because it attests to widespread, institutional moral corruption.

          In calling for Northam's resignation, the Democrats have held to a higher standard. The Democrats are willing to offend all of the good-ole-boy voters in Virginia and elsewhere who claim that Northam's yearbook page was just a joke.

            Look where Republican moral cowardice has gotten us. Having failed to draw the line years ago, they are now complicit in all the havoc this impulsive and ignorant man has wreaked upon this nation, our alliances, and our stature in the eyes of the world. They have also steadfastly turned away from honest appraisal of Trump's morally dubious entanglements with Russians, which is to say they are now complicit in his treason too. This feels like a Shakespeare tragedy unfolding through an interminable second act.

            Americans will have the government we deserve—and nothing better. If we have moral standards, then from time to time we will have to prove that we take those standards seriously. Yes, Northam should resign. But so should Trump.

            If Republican leaders want to redeem themselves and their party, if they want to prove their higher loyalty to the well-being of this nation, they will pick up the phone and tell him that.