The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ralph Northam must resign

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), left, with his wife, Pam, speaks at a news conference in Richmond on Saturday following the release of a racist photograph that appeared under his name in his 1984 medical school yearbook. (Steve Helber/AP)

GOV. RALPH NORTHAM (D) can no longer effectively serve the people of Virginia who elected him. His shifting and credulity-shredding explanations for the racist photograph on his medical school yearbook page, and the silence into which he then succumbed for days — after initially promising to do “the hard work” of atonement and apology to restore his standing with Virginians — is simply too much. His decade-long record in public office is admirable; it is equally true that his governorship has been irredeemably wrecked by the self-inflicted, racially callous and clueless mess he has made in recent days.

Having initially admitted and apologized for appearing in the offensive photo, which showed one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb — Mr. Northam performed a head-spinning pivot a day later and denied being either person in that image. His about-face was undercut by simultaneous revelations and acknowledgments — that he wore shoe polish on his face for a dance contest after medical school; that “Coonman” was among his nicknames in college.

He put out word that he was determined to stay in office and clear his name and that he would seek a private investigator to unearth the truth about the yearbook photo, which he said is “not me.” It struck us as reasonable that he should have that chance. But since his artless, tone-deaf news conference Saturday, the governor has gone to ground and been heard from no more. No more light has been shed, no exculpatory information has emerged.

Dana Milbank: The sorry spectacle Democrats find themselves in

Facts do matter, and the ones surrounding the Northam fiasco remain unsettled and unanswered. First and foremost among the questions they raise: How could he possibly have admitted to something as damning as appearing in the photo if he was certain he wasn’t one of the people in it? How did that photo wind up on his page if he didn’t furnish it to the yearbook editors? What do the governor’s now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t statements say about his judgment? The explanations Mr. Northam has proffered are vague and unconvincing. Virginians deserve better. Mr. Northam’s time is up.

From wearing blackface to having inappropriate physical contact, people who serve in public office must meet a higher standard of repentance. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

The man who would succeed him, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, has his own problems: He has been accused of sexual assault by a college professor. That’s a serious matter. But it is not relevant to Mr. Northam’s travails or to his manifest inability at this point to be an effective governor. It cannot justify his remaining in office. Nor can Wednesday’s news that Attorney General Mark R. Herring, also a Democrat, who would become governor if Mr. Fairfax did not or could not, wore blackface to a party as a college student in 1980, according to a statement he issued.

It’s reasonable to guess that other revelations elsewhere, about other public figures with their own histories or photos of offensive, insensitive or racist conduct, may surface in coming days. Each should be judged on its own set of circumstances. In the case of Mr. Northam, the circumstances are decisive; what’s done cannot be undone. He must go.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Ralph Northam’s answers strain credulity

Karen Tumulty: Ralph Northam must resign. And that’s just a start.

Letters: Let’s talk about racism in Virginia

Jennifer Rubin: Object lessons from the uproar over Ralph Northam

Dana Milbank: Ralph Northam is about to moonwalk out of the governor’s mansion