The 21-year-old-scandal about sex and perjury gave a survival roadmap to Virginia’s executive officers.
The retrospectives of President Bill Clinton’s scandal involving White House intern Monica Lewinsky have faded out in recent months — February’s 20-year anniversary of Clinton’s Senate acquittal on impeachment charges marked the capstone on what had been a 13-month ordeal in 1998 and early 1999.
Another anniversary passed just this week— the two-month anniversary of the triple-warhead bombshell that rocked Richmond, kicked off by Governor Ralph Northam’s racially insensitive medical school yearbook. And as the New York Times recently mused, those scandals may have already run their course:
In the space of a week in early February, the public was stunned by revelations about each of the three highest statewide elected officials, all Democrats: the racist photo in the governor’s yearbook; accusations of sexual assault against the lieutenant governor; and the attorney general’s appearance in blackface at a party in college. Protesters and news crews swarmed the Statehouse. Calls for resignations came from fellow Virginia Democrats, Republicans and even 2020 presidential candidates.
And then? “It just went poof,” said Natalie Draper, a librarian sitting in the back of a coffeehouse last week in Richmond. “It’s like it never happened.”
(The most lingering scandal is the pending sexual assault allegation again Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. The near-term ramifications there are more legal than political, and the ongoing investigation may yet hold repercussions, so it’s a bit of a different beast.)
Few would have predicted this during Northam’s cringe-inducing press conference explaining the now-famous yearbook page. (That’s the one where the Governor’s political instincts allowed him to consider moonwalking behind the podium to justify his use of blackface in impersonating early-1980s Michael Jackson. How unfortunate for all who like political comedy that his wife was there to dissuade him.)
If the scandal itself wasn’t enough to sink him, one could reasonably assume, surely he would say something stupid enough to force his resignation.
Then Northam did something smart for a change: He shut up.
And the voters moved on, despite loud exhortations in the days immediately after the scandal broke. In Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring’s cases, voters seemed averse to judging the men based on thirty-year-old idiocy. (In Fairfax’s case, voters seem content to wait for an investigation without leaping to conclusions and narratives — though that means he is far from out of the woods.)
With voters moving on, the news cycles moved on, too.
Moving on moves us back to President Clinton, and the unseasonably warm winter of 1997–98. When the world was introduced to Monica Lewinsky in January of that year, Clinton pollster Dick Morris famously tested voter reactions to determining exactly how damaging the scandal would be. Morris’s results suggested a sex scandal was survivable; a perjury scandal was not.
Clinton himself didn’t make any admission for seven months. In the meantime, the scandal was a ratings bonanza. MSNBC and Fox News, relatively recent entrants into the 24-hour cable news game at the time, eagerly joined CNN in reporting on lurid specifics about cigars and a blue dress. When they had nothing new to report, they analyzed what they had already reported; then they analyzed the analysis.
By the time Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr released his report on the charges, the scandal had been publicly positioned as a matter of the President covering up an extramarital affair for the better part of a year — and while the country tuned in for the gossip, they weren’t really worried about a sex scandal. After all, Clinton’s womanizing had been a settled question since his 1992 primary campaign.
Clinton simply waited out the controversy, let outrage fade, and went along with his business. There was certainly a cost. (Alternate history buffs can ask if a scandal-free Clinton would have been more helpful to Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.) But that cost was not his office.
Today, in the former capital of the Confederacy, a Virginia governor (whose political instincts are nowhere near as refined as Clinton’s) sits in his office, the calls for his resignation now quiet. Across the Potomac River, the White House is home to a President who was caught on tape bragging about treating women like garbage a few short weeks before winning his election. Both occupy those offices for the same reason Clinton finished his term: A public with so many demands on its attention span simply cannot care about “minor” scandals. Northam and Herring may have worn blackface at college parties, but remember the movie Soul Man hit theaters a few years after they left campus. Donald Trump’s hot mic repartee may have been disgusting and gross, but bragging about sexual prowess and attractiveness has a home on barstools across America as well — and usually, the braggart is viewed as an unreliable narrator at best.
Weaved into this is the pronounced “red team/blue team” dynamic of modern politics — one that rewards perfect loyalty to imperfect leaders who have a matching party designation. This creates blinders that make universal outrage nearly impossible, and driving someone from office requires a sustained, universal outrage. Otherwise, the public will grow weary, accept the flaws of their imperfect leaders, and move on to the next outrage.
Like Clinton, Northam and Herring survived their scandal because they were patient enough to let the public get tired of it. Their history with blackface has faded into white noise.