The controversy over Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and his yearbook photo most directly affects people of that state, with its particular history on race relations. But it is also a significant national moment.
The circumstances are as follows:
• On Friday, an ideologically extreme website published a page from Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook. One of the photos shows a person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb.
• Northam first apologized for appearing in the photo, then said Saturday that he wasn’t sure either person was him.
• In either case, the photo appeared on a page meant to represent him. It isn’t clear whether he selected or approved the presentation. It does seem that he could have long since known about the page and could have prepared an unequivocal response.
• Northam already was in the thick of controversy over his comments about a bill that would have removed late-term abortion restrictions in Virginia.
• On Monday, the same website — Big League Politics — ran a story alleging a “Possible Justin Fairfax Sex Assault.” Fairfax is Virginia’s lieutenant governor and would succeed Northam if Northam resigned. He denied the allegation.
• Both situations raise questions about how quickly and with what force people should demand reprisal for inappropriate behavior or allegations thereof. Both call to mind recent examples in which a scenario turned out to be murkier than first reported.
All this means that the Northam matter is a conglomeration of morality, accountability, fact-finding and politics. What could possibly go wrong?
The general feeling has been that Northam should resign. He is resisting. We would add only this: Among people in public service to the nation’s cause, some are exceptional, others terrible, and a majority in between. But none are indispensable.