It is not often that one is witness to a self-immolation, and it is even rarer to watch someone set himself on fire who is completely unaware of what he is doing. Those of us who watched, with horrified fascination, the press conference on Saturday given by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, saw just that. Northam was undertaking a desperate effort to save his political career following two remarkable episodes last week.
The first was Northam’s statements in support of a late-term abortion bill (which mercifully failed in Virginia’s legislature, though a similar one was just passed in New York to ghoulish celebration). Northam explained that the bill would permit a live baby to be delivered, and that it would be kept “comfortable,” but that the mother and two doctors, could then legally decide not to “resuscitate” the child.
This caused an uproar in pro-life circles and confirmed the worst fears of many that champions of abortion are, too often, champions of infanticide. Northam justified this on the grounds that this was a humane way of disposing of a baby suffering from some horrific abnormality or health issue which presumably would endanger its life anyway.
Perhaps Northam thought he was displaying compassion for such a child’s mother, but he appeared clueless to the heartless contempt for a newborn he was actually showing.
Similar cluelessness was displayed by the governor last week when it was discovered that on his page in his medical school yearbook there was what was universally described as a racist picture of two men, one dressed in blackface, in a minstrel-like outfit, next to another dressed in the white robe and pointed hat of a Klansman.
The publication of the picture actually caused a greater uproar than the governor’s infanticide comments, given that in our debased age, it is a greater sin to be a racist than to advocate the murder of a disabled newborn.
Northam called the press conference to announce that he had convinced himself that he was not, as previously thought, either the yearbook man in blackface or the Klansman. Then he set himself on fire, as he reported that at roughly the same time as the publication of the yearbook photo, he had entered and won a dance contest, where he blackened his face with shoe polish, and imitated Michael Jackson doing a moonwalk.
Northam explained that he now realized that it was offensive for him to have done so, but, just as Harvey Weinstein, when confronted by a shameful past of sexual misconduct, vowed to be an advocate for gun control, the governor swore he would now, newly enlightened, work hard to make the lot of African Americans better in Virginia.
To what must have been Northam’s surprise, his public admission of the Michael Jackson blackface episode only amplified the calls for his resignation, so that all he had done was to throw accelerant on his own self-consuming flames.
Amid the lame utterances at his press conference was Northam’s claim that actually he had many more African American friends than most white people. Still, the fact remained that Northam had won his gubernatorial position by painting his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie as a racist because of Gillespie’s association with the purported racist President Donald Trump. Those who know Trump know the charge is false, and know further that Trump’s economic policies have, if anything, dramatically improved job opportunities for African Americans.
It was then, for President Trump’s supporters, a delightful frisson of schadenfreude to watch Northam hoist on his own flaming racist petard.
Democrat practitioners of identity politics could, however, rejoice in the fact that if, as seemed likely, Northam would be forced out by his own party (whose voices appeared to rise in anthem chorus calling for his resignation), his successor would be the second African American elected to statewide office in recent times.
The manner in which his own party ran screeching away from him must have allowed Northam to see that his human value, to them, was just about the same as the unwanted recently-delivered child he explained could be dispensed with.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). Presser was recently appointed as a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado's Boulder Campus for 2018-2019. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.