Nohe: Playing the Waiting Game

By Kristina Nohe

Toddlers in a candy store have a longer attention span than just about anyone involved in politics.  Case in point: it was only about three months ago that just about every politician in Virginia was calling for Gov. Northam to resign over the revelation that he had posted pictures in his yearbook of presumably himself and another person dressed in blackface and a Klan robe.  When challenged on it, the governor did a Moonwalk between apologetically taking responsibility, to saying it wasn’t him, then spinning into the admission that he could not remember if that was him but he did know that he had used blackface to win a dance contest around the same time.  Watching his wife tell him that it was not appropriate to show off his dance moves as he judged the space available behind the podium at his press conference will forever be one of the most awkward moments in modern Virginia politics.

The initial uproar was deafening as politicians tripped over each other in a race to see who could condemn the behavior the loudest, who could call for resignation the quickest, who could plant themselves on the right side of history the most firmly.  There they stood on what looked like solid ground waiting for their reward, but, like a child standing on the beach as the waves yawn back and forth over their feet, the ground where they stood began to disappear until they were forced to step back.

Three months later, there is still righteous indignation, but even more now, it’s just regular-old-resignation-to-the-situation.  The governor is not leaving — so most of the politicians who “could not abide by his behavior,” who could not “allow this shame to come upon the Old Dominion,” who were not willing to look the other way, are doing exactly that.  They are appearing with the governor again and separating what they would do personally from what they must do politically. Excuses abound and blinders are being passed out like cake at a birthday party, because they must eat the cake and celebrate the good that they are doing even if they know the frosting has a racist aftertaste.  In being willing to move on, they have taught all future politicians an unforgettable lesson: simply wait it out, no matter what.

It may well be that Gov. Northam’s greatest accomplishment will be the playbook he wrote for how to survive what was once a devastating scandal: simply wait. Wait for those calling for your resignation to need something. Wait for someone else to do something stupid. Wait for people to lose interest.  Just wait. You will still be the elected official, the party leader, the nominee — so just wait.

This is an extremely dangerous precedent to set, because the first wait will be the longest, but it will get shorter and shorter because our attention is getting more and more distracted.  How long before we simply jump from outrage over the indefensible to defense of the outrageous? How long before the only time to call out racism or association with known racists is when it isn’t one of ours?  How long before those blinders turn into a blindfold?

The good news is that there is a simple solution: don’t look away and don’t accept this behavior.  Continue to call out racism and racist behavior. Don’t ever accept it. Be willing to wait longer than the politician hoping to withstand the controversy through sheer obstinance.  Never retire to the fuzzy gray area of excuses about time or degree of horribleness or ignorance. Have principles, stand by them, and demand that others do as well. It really is that simple.

Virginia has had a complicated relationship with race.  We were both the capital of the Confederacy and the first state post-Reconstruction to elected an African American governor.  We were the home of Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple who stood against anti-miscegenation laws, and also the state into which crowds of men marched less than two years ago with torches shouting “blood and soil.”  We have seen entire campaigns built on the preservation or destruction of statues to fallen leaders of the Lost Cause. Virginia may want to convince itself that we’ve moved beyond race and that there is nowhere to look but the future, but that’s because those blinders will block out a lot ugly if we wear them just right.

If we do not want to let the practice of “Wait and Withstand” to become canon in Virginia politics, we must stand against it where ever we find it.  Stand against it even if it is our elected leaders. Stand against it even if it our party leaders. Stand against it even if it is our nominees. Simply be willing to stand against it longer than they are willing to stand with it.  We cannot become complacent, and we can not move even an inch towards accepting what we know is unacceptable. We must do this even if it costs us, because it will cost us so much more if we slip on the blinders and join the herd marching backwards towards acceptance.

And before anyone opines that we could never get that distracted, ask yourself this, “What was the governor’s nickname in his VIM yearbook?”  Did you have to look it up? Had you already gotten distracted? It turns out that it doesn’t take that much waiting before people start to forget.

Kristina Nohe is a political activist, adoption advocate, and homeschooling mom who is proud to be from Prince William County but does not suffer fools lightly or quietly.