A scandal rocked Virginia’s governor. Here’s what happened next

In 2019, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam faced a scandal involving a racist photograph in his medical school yearbook. But he decided not to resign, and instead focused on reconciliation, becoming one of the most consequential governors in Virginia's history. Margaret Edds' new book, "What the Eyes Can't See," examines Northam's redemption story and Virginia's racial history.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    We are going to shift our focus now to a story of resolve, resilience, and redemption about what happened in February of 2019 when scandal rocked the Virginia capital, nearly devouring the career of then-Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, after a conservative Web site unearthed a racist photograph published in his medical school yearbook some 35 years earlier.

    You will recall that Northam, who denied that he was in the picture, ultimately withstood demands that he resign. He instead committed himself to reconciliation and, in the process, became one of the most consequential governors in Virginia history.

    Longtime Virginia journalist Margaret Edds captures Northam's redemption story with a compelling look at Virginia's racial history in her new book, "What the Eyes Can't See: Ralph Northam, Black Resolve, and a Racial Reckoning in Virginia."

    It's so great to have you here.

    Margaret Edds, Author, "What the Eyes Can't See: Ralph Northam, Black Resolve, and a Racial Reckoning in Virginia": Thank you. So nice to be here.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And I was struck that, in the prologue of the book, you write about the removal last year of that massive Confederate statue of General Robert E. Lee.

    And you note that, as that statue was coming down, Governor Northam was still standing. And you write — quote — "One outcome was as astonishing as the other."

  • Margaret Edds:

    We have had this cancel culture in America, and many politicians have come under fire.

    And most, if not all of them have left office. The governor did not. And why he was different, one, he has real tenacity, a real self-determination. He says: "I'm not a quitter." So that was part of it.

    He also had some unusual luck, because two of the people who would have succeeded him ran into troubles of their own. And then there's something in his personality. I think that he's a pretty approachable person. I think there was goodwill that was left for him, particularly among older Black Virginians, who stood by him.

    Rita Davis, who is his chief counsel, said: "I couldn't have lived in Virginia all these years if I wasn't willing to forgive."

  • Geoff Bennett:

    It's interesting, because, on that point, I covered the Northam story extensively at the time.

    And I remember talking to older Black Virginians in particular. And there was this one woman who said to me, she said: "Young man," referring to the picture, "I have seen worse. I have lived through worse. And I'm not going to judge Ralph Northam based on something he did or did not do 40 years ago. I'm going to judge him based on the man, the governor that he is now. "

  • Margaret Edds:

    There was a lot of anger, and understandable anger, really, in seeing that photograph.

    But someone like a Delores McQuinn, who is a minister in Richmond, a longtime delegate, took a different tack. She told him: Take this lemon. Make lemonade. Make lemon chess bars. Make lemon pie. Do everything you can with it, because you will be able to go into places that I can't go. You can take a message I can't take.

    She saw the opportunity and urged him to stay.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    What does this mean that this reckoning was happening in Virginia?

    The first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia. Richmond used to be the capital of the Confederacy. And yet you had this unfolding in the commonwealth.

  • Margaret Edds:

    The history of Virginia has been so fraught. There have been just so many eras where Black people really were subjugated.

    And so for this to happen in Virginia really said there is an opportunity for our country to be different. There's an opportunity to look at ourselves, to look at our own blind spots, as he did, and to make a different America.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    In one of your interviews, I think Governor Northam made the point that, for a long time, he would say that: Oh, I don't — I don't see race.

    But what he realized was that that was not necessarily a good thing, when it meant that you weren't seeing the systemic racism that can affect people's lives.

  • Margaret Edds:

    A few weeks or months, I think, before the blackface scandal broke, he had been interviewed about a blacksmith on the Eastern Shore that he had grown up with, Mr. Outlaw.

    And he said: He didn't see race. And that's the way I was raised. I don't see race. And I think that's a lesson for all people.

    Well, his young press secretary said to him: You ought to rethink that statement.

    And he didn't really understand why. But after he did all the work that he did to understand what it is to live as a Black American these days, he understood that to see the human person without race, that's good, that's important, but to leave it there, it's not enough, because that allows you to not see all the systems that really discriminate.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    As part of the book, you did your own investigation into exactly who was in that photo in question, and you found no definitive answer, much like the journalists and the law firms that did some investigations before you.

  • Margaret Edds:

    That's right. I looked at that. I hoped that I would find an answer. I didn't.

    I did come to that conclusion in my own mind that he is not the person in the photo. So much was at risk. So much was at stake. If he had been lying about that, at least a couple of other people could have come forward, possibly more than that. And had that happened, not just his political career, but really his entire reputation would have been shattered.

    You have to wonder if he could have even gone back to being a doctor with that kind of mark on his record.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The title of the book, "What the Eyes Can't See," what inspired that?

  • Margaret Edds:

    That comes from the governor. That's what he said a lot. It's from his medical school training. It's what he used to tell students.

    If you don't know about a certain medical condition, it could be staring you right in the face and you won't recognize it. Same true with systemic racism. If you have never experienced it, if you have never lived through it, you can be looking right at it and just not see it.

    And I think that's so true of many Americans.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Margaret Edds, a real pleasure to speak with you. Thanks for coming in.

  • Margaret Edds:

    Thank you so much.

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