The Virginia governor joins the annals of bizarre political news conferences.
It was no easy feat. But on Saturday, Ralph Northam staked a claim in the annals of most surreal political news conferences, presiding over a 40-minute extravaganza that would do Mark Sanford and Jim McGreevey proud. Or something like that.
In a bid to salvage his job, the Democratic governor of Virginia denied he was one of the men dressed up as a Klansman or in blackface in a picture on his medical school yearbook page — after admitting the night before he was, in fact, in the photo.
But that was just the start. Here are six of the strangest moments of the presser.
Northam said he “vividly” remembers dressing up in blackface to imitate Michael Jackson at a talent show in 1984 and that this memory solidified his belief that he wasn’t photographed in his yearbook dressed in blackface or in a Klan outfit. But when asked by a reporter, he couldn’t remember the artist’s name and relied on his wife, Pam, to whisper his name.
Northam said he only realized the Michael Jackson blackface was offensive during a conversation about blackface with a young campaign staffer.
“I have a very close friend who was my assistant during the campaign. He really did a good job of communicating to me why that’s so offensive. And it was actually during that conversation, I said, ‘You know, Seth, I put some shoe polish on my face; I competed in a dance contest dressed up as Michael Jackson.’ And I said, ‘I assume you probably would think that’s offensive.’ He said, ‘I would.’ And I said, ‘You know what, Seth, I appreciate you being open with me. I apologize for what I’ve done in the past. And I can promise you I’ll never do that again in the future.’”
ON SECOND THOUGHT
Northam said he jumped the gun Friday when he admitted in writing he was in the KKK-blackface photo, which he said he believes was mistakenly placed on his yearbook page without his knowledge.
“I didn’t study it as well as I should. The first comment I made to the individual that showed it to me, I said this can’t be me.”
Why didn’t he say that from the start?
“I dressed up in a … what’s his name, the singer? Michael Jackson. Excuse me. That’s why I have Pam with me,” he said.
SHOE POLISH & MOONWALKS
In explaining how he used shoe polish to don blackface, Northam wondered if other people at the news conference had used the same technique.
“I used just a little bit of shoe polish to put on my cheeks and the reason I used a very little bit because — I don’t know if anyone’s ever tried that — you cannot get shoe polish off,” he said. “But it was a dance contest. I had always liked Michael Jackson. I actually won the contest because I had learned to do the ‘moonwalk.’”
THE MYSTERY OF ‘COONMAN’
In a different yearbook at Virginia Military Institute, Northam was nicknamed “Coonman.” Why? He wasn’t quite sure, he said.
“My main nickname in high school and in college was ‘Goose’ because when my voice was changing, I would change an octave. There were two individuals, as best as I can recollect, at VMI — they were a year ahead of me. They called me ‘Coonman’. I don’t know their motives or intent. I know who they are. That was the extent of that. And it ended up in the yearbook. And I regret that.”
“My word is important to me and my first intention … was to reach out and apologize. As you might imagine and understand, there are a lot of people that are hurt by this and I wanted to reach out to them. After I did that last night, I sat and looked at the picture. Today, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to classmates. My roommate and I are convinced that is not my picture.”
A reporter asked Northam if he could still do the moonwalk. After pausing with a “Ummm,” Northam sounded as if he were ready to answer the question before his wife, Pam, stopped him.
“My wife says, ‘Inappropriate circumstances,’” he said.
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