“Do you have a minute to talk about all this?” I’d ask.
Hand goes out, face goes in, head shakes.
The commonwealth has had a rough go of things this week, whiplashing from national darling to dumpster fire when a domino effect of accusations plopped Virginia’s top three Democratic leaders into hot water.
Gov. Ralph Northam is still writhing after the bombshell of a 1984 medical school yearbook page exploded. His photo spread included a picture of two men in costume with beers in their hands — one in blackface, the other in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe.
Amid calls for him to resign, all eyes turned toward his potential successor, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax. And then a college professor in California came forward with a graphic statement alleging that Fairfax had sexually assaulted her during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Fairfax has denied the allegation.
So, if Fairfax steps down, does that mean Attorney General Mark Herring is next in line to be governor?
Oops. After calling for Northam to resign because of his blackface connection, Herring confessed that he, too, wore blackface when he went to a college party dressed as a black rapper.
This mess has everyone in Virginia — birthplace of American slavery, former capital of the Confederacy, longtime racial cauldron — in a twist. Democrats who profess zero tolerance for racism are gut-sick about calling out Northam, a military veteran, pediatric neurologist and Mr. Rogers-looking nice guy.
The Republicans who’d love for the governor to be ousted are usually in the camp that would cut people a lot of slack for college racism they’d rebrand as youthful indiscretion.
And don’t get me started on Fairfax, who misrepresented The Washington Post’s reporting on the sexual assault allegation to try to exonerate himself. Will his accuser, Vanessa Tyson, get the same hero treatment that women and Democrats gave to Christine Blasey Ford when she testified against Brett M. Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings?
And will the Republicans who called Ford a liar and Kavanaugh a victim come to Fairfax’s defense? (Don’t count on it.)
On Thursday afternoon, the Virginian-Pilot broke a story about Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City), who was the editor of the 1968 yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute. The book looks like a minstrel convention — filled with an array of white men in blackface a few months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
Prepare for more disturbing revelations because they are probably coming.
How did Virginia go from prosperous to preposterous so quickly? In November, the state was celebrating Arlington’s selection as one of the two locations for Amazon’s new headquarters. Ka-ching.
Virginia already boasts half of the top 10 richest counties in the nation. And in 2018, the state elected a record number of women to Congress, helping to flip the House for Democrats.
After the pain of a fatal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the state was making history by rethinking history, with an increased effort in the Washington suburbs to reconsider Confederate names on schools and monuments. Voters elected one of the first openly transgender candidates to state office in 2017.
And then, ka-boom! It all exploded in the past week.
Maybe it’s all about men? The same archetypes in different packages keep getting elected — swagger, college, fraternities, power. How about giving women a try?
Oh, wait. There’s Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax), who became a national sensation when she was sworn in with a sleeping baby on her shoulder and nursed on the House floor. A clumsy handling of an abortion discussion, and she was vilified as a baby-hater who advocated infanticide.
Can’t we just hit a reset button on the entire state? Or as my colleague Wesley Lowery asked on Twitter, “Have we tried unplugging Virginia and then plugging it back in again?”
The state slogan, “Virginia is for Lovers” was lampooned. “Virginia is for Losers,” declared the New York Post.
What’s with the blackface?
I went to an Irish pub in Northern Virginia to ask a few white men of a certain age how many times they’d encountered it.
“Never. I’d never come across it,” a 58-year-old Virginia born-and-raised veteran said, after the facepalm. “It’s not right, and I wouldn’t do it. But I never saw it.”
A 62-year-old Guinness man — a repeat facepalmer — said he’d never seen anyone in blackface, either. Even in college.
“It was the 1980s,” he said. Facepalm. “That’s not the 1950s. After the civil rights movement?” Facepalm. “That’s not that long ago.”
No, it’s not that long ago.
Some of the grandest and most sinister parts of the American story have roots in Virginia’s soil. It’s a place where our nation is still reckoning with, honoring and exorcising the ghosts of our country’s past.
There will be facepalms. And that’s okay, as long as Virginia finds a way to move forward.
Read more Petula Dvorak: