Ralph Northam (D) takes the oath of office as Virginia’s governor on Saturday in Richmond. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

You might have blotted it out of your memory, but President Trump’s inaugural address was a dark, mean-spirited precursor to a dark, mean-spirited presidency. Normal inaugural addresses sound an optimistic note, urge unity and set out some positive goals. Virginia’s new Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, won’t electrify many Virginians. He did, however, deliver an entirely appropriate and positive speech on Saturday after being sworn in.

He acknowledged the state’s complex history after a race in which his opponent ran on dog whistles about sanctuary cities and Confederate statues:

In a church on a hill 15 blocks from here, Virginia’s first elected governor helped launch the American Revolution when he cried, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” But at the bottom of that same hill, one of the country’s largest slave-trading markets was coming to life. A place where Virginians would sell men, women and children for profit. Our history is complex in Virginia. It includes good things, and bad.

After praising his predecessor, he turned to the subject of public service. And recounting some of his experience growing up on the Eastern Shore, he implored his state:

It can be hard to find our way in a time when there’s so much shouting, when nasty, shallow tweets take the place of honest debate, and when scoring political points gets in the way of dealing with real problems. If you’ve felt that way, I want you to listen to me right now: We are bigger than this. We all have a moral compass deep in our hearts. And it’s time to summon it again, because we have a lot of work to do.

In normal times, that might seem an ordinary sentiment. But these days, in light of the most divisive, angry president in our lifetime, it was a refreshing and even surprising palate-cleanser. Northam made his pitch for Medicaid expansion and then continued: “The way ahead starts with access to quality health care and public education for every Virginian, no matter whom they are or where they live. It depends on smart interventions in the case of addiction or mental health challenges and a focused economic development strategy that connects the right people with the right skills and the right jobs.” While Medicaid expansion is a contentious issue, he urged bipartisanship and civility:

The path to progress is marked by honest give-and-take among people who truly want to make life better for those around them. …

When we make decisions, we’ll apply this test. Does this action do the most good for the most Virginians? Have we been transparent with the public about what we are doing and why we are doing it? And finally, is there a better way forward that we haven’t yet considered?

The guiding principle of this administration will be simple: We will work together to make our Commonwealth work better for all Virginians, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

Again, this is utterly ordinary rhetoric, but it’s something we could not imagine Trump uttering. If one believes that leadership and character matter, then regardless of the policy outcomes that Northam arrives at, Virginia will be in much better hands than the federal government currently is. The give-and-take of regular politics will go on, deals will be made and some solutions may be reached. But in the meantime, Virginians won’t be humiliated daily by their governor, pitted against one another and implored to look for scapegoats, and they won’t see their democratic institutions savaged by their chief executive. Ah, normalcy and decency. How good those things sound these days.