The past week has been a tumultuous one in Washington. We hardly need to recite the list of things that that has roiled our civic conversation, especially since one of them is simply unfit to print.
Here’s the thing: We’ve had a tumultuous year and given who sits in the Oval Office, there’s no reason to think things will change.
If anyone could pry themselves away from the around-the-clock outrage channels on cable television on Saturday, though, they’d have come across something quite remarkable. They’d have heard the new governor of Virginia talk about how we all need to turn down the volume.
Gov. Ralph Northam’s inaugural address will not be remembered as the best in Virginia’s history. It’s hard to top the historical significance of Linwood Holton’s inaugural address in 1970 when he declared “the era of defiance is behind us.” Northam’s inaugural address, though, may be just the one we needed for this particular hour of our history.
Some will focus on the political parts of the speech — his calls for expanding Medicaid and universal background checks for gun buyers: “Gunshots kill more people in Virginia every year than car accidents, but if you walk into the right gun show, it’s easier to get a firearm than it is to rent a car.” There will be time enough on other days to deal with the details of policy. We are more taken with what Northam had to say about the tone of politics today.
Northam talked about growing up on the Eastern Shore and the influence that his parents had on him. That might seem an obligatory reference, until you get to the point he’s making: “Their humble and steady service to the people around them taught me what strength looks like. It taught me that you don’t have to be loud to lead.”
That last line may be the most important thing Northam said. You don’t have to be loud to lead.
It’s worth remembering that even some in Northam’s own party last year wanted a different candidate. They wanted a more outspoken candidate for governor to go on the campaign trail to challenge President Trump and all that he has unleashed. Instead, they got Northam, a soft-spoken doctor who did not always rouse their passions. And yet the perfect antidote to Trump and Trumpism is not more of the same, just from a different direction, but someone like Northam.
Northam devoted much of his address to how he grew up crabbing and fishing on the Chesapeake Bay and was taught to trust his compass if the weather turned bad. That turned into discussion of a moral compass, the honor code of his alma mater at Virginia Military Institute, and, finally, this admonition:
“Virginia and this country need that more than ever these days. It can be hard to find our way in a time when there’s so much shouting, when nasty, shallow tweets take the place of honest debate, and when scoring political points gets in the way of dealing with real problems. If you’ve felt that way, I want you to listen to me right now: We are bigger than this. We all have a moral compass deep in our hearts. And it’s time to summon it again, because we have a lot of work to do.” Northam, unlike certain other politicians, calls upon us in the same way that Abraham Lincoln appealed to “the better angels of our nature.”
Do not look for Northam to be a governor who says a lot. He succeeds Terry McAuliffe, a man with a big personality who loved to hear himself talk. Last week, the pair held a joint event to talk about their shared priorities. This line from the Richmond Times-Dispatch seems both prosaic and prescient: “McAuliffe spoke for nearly 15 minutes, compared with about 4 minutes for Northam.”
When we do hear from Northam, it will likely will not be words, but actions.
The Pledge of Allegiance at his inauguration was delivered by the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts — including some girls wearing hijabs. That stands as a perfect rebuke to a president who has categorically called for “a Muslim ban.”
Feel free to disagree with his policies, but Northam shows he understands how Virginia is changing, and how that is not something to be feared, but to be embraced.
He vowed as governor to visit every county and city — which will mean we’ll have a Democratic governor spending a lot of time in Republican localities. He also presided over the state’s most diverse inaugural parade ever, one that included units that ranged from 30 fiddlers representing the Crooked Road Fiddle Army of Southwest Virginia to folk dancers from Bolivia, China and India. Perhaps most notable was the Soul Squad of Freedom High School in Prince William County, described as “one of the most diverse schools in the state with a 65 percent Hispanic population and a 35 percent African American population, representing 14 different countries; 80 percent of the band speaks multiple languages.”
The band was booked before Trump’s vulgar comments about certain countries he compared to outhouses, but the odds are good that some of those students proudly marching in Virginia’s parade came from those places. Northam said more in the choice of his parade line-up than a whole storm of tweets ever could. Policy-wise, he speaks of “the new Virginia economy.” His inauguration showcased the new Virginia demography.
Northam is also the rare politician to confess a failing. He talked about how, early in his medical career, he diagnosed a boy with severe autism and told the parents there was nothing he could do.
“More than a decade later, a woman approached me in the grocery store,” the new governor said. “She reminded me that I had seen her son years ago, and that she and her family chose not to return for a follow-up. She asked me if I knew why they had not returned, and I confessed to her that I did not, and that I hadn’t really thought much about it. She looked me in the eye and said, ‘Dr. Northam, when you said you couldn’t help us, you took away our hope.’ I can still hear her words to this day. When I told her that I was unable to help her son, I diagnosed the problem correctly. But I missed the opportunity to provide the one thing her family still needed the most: And that was hope. From that moment on, I have recognized the incredible power of hope and my responsibility to preserve it in the people I serve.”
That kind of humility should serve Virginia’s new governor quite well. On day one, he set a good example no matter which side of the aisle we’re on.