ON FRIDAY night, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam apologized and begged forgiveness for “the decision I made to appear as I did” in a racist photograph from his 1984 medical school yearbook. On Saturday afternoon, the governor, a Democrat, emphatically denied he is depicted in the photo, which shows a person in blackface and another figure in Ku Klux Klan robes. We don’t know which of his statements is true. We do know this: Not only are the governor’s racial attitudes from the past in grave doubt. So is his credibility in the present.
Mr. Northam has been admired by Democrats and Republicans alike in Richmond. His decade in public life, preceded by 15 years as a pediatric neurologist, has been unblemished by scandal, dishonesty or excessive partisanship; Republicans in Virginia’s legislature once tried to recruit him to switch parties.
But, at a bare minimum, he now has admitted to contemporaneous, all-too-casual racism. In 1984, the same year the outrageous photograph was published, he says he appeared in blackface as part of his Michael Jackson costume for a dance competition in San Antonio, which he says he won owing to his talent at moonwalking. In attempting to express contrition now for that ostensibly lesser offense, Mr. Northam only fueled skepticism about his sudden protestations of innocence regarding the photograph.
Last month, in an on-the-record conversation, Mr. Northam told us that his views had changed radically since his youth on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. We took that to mean he’d moved from the right to the center-left — Mr. Northam, who had voted for George W. Bush for president, is a moderate Democrat. In retrospect, maybe he was talking about an evolution from someone who could find amusing that incendiary, hateful photo — or appearing in blackface at a dance contest — to a leader who won support and respect in part for his opposition to bigotry.
Even if there has been such an evolution, it could not expiate the fact of the photo if it turns out that Mr. Northam is indeed one of the figures in it or if he chose it for his yearbook page. It also does not explain his decision never to reveal or explain his own journey. That apparent sin of omission, along with Virginia’s history of intolerance and racial hatred, has fed the tsunami of demands for his resignation, including from longtime allies who feel betrayed.
We endorsed Mr. Northam in the 2017 gubernatorial election on the strength of his moderate, forward-looking record and platform. Given that record, it was reasonable for him to ask a little more time to try to prove his case. But it strains credulity that a politician of his agility and experience would admit to something so damning from his past, as he did Friday night, if — as he claimed Saturday — he had no actual recollection that it was in his past. Virginians deserve a governor who has leveled with them not just about his vision but also about his past.