Elizabeth Warren is apologizing for listing herself as an American Indian on a Texas State Bar form. That happened in 1986.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has admitted that he dressed up in blackface during a college party. That was in 1980.
Herring had called for the resignation of the governor, Ralph Northam, who apologized for a blackface photo on his yearbook page and for doing a blackface impersonation of Michael Jackson. That was in 1984.
Meanwhile, the state’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, is denying that he once sexually assaulted a woman in an encounter that began with consensual kissing. That was in 2004.
That controversy carries echoes of the fierce debate over Brett Kavanaugh, who denied accusations of sexual misconduct by Christine Blasey Ford. That was said to have happened in 1982. (And in a twist of fate, Fairfax and his accuser, Vanessa Tyson, have hired the same law firms used by Kavanaugh and Ford.)
How on earth did we reach the point where American politics is consumed by allegations and admissions from decades ago?
Is there no statute of limitations, politically speaking, for mistakes that officeholders made, or are accused of making, when they were in high school, college or graduate school?
Are apologies for youthful stupidity or insensitivity all to be dismissed in today’s cutthroat political environment?
And how does anyone justify the selective outrage in which most Democrats and most Republicans pounce on each other when ancient allegations surface, but grow reticent or silent when similar charges are made against one of their own?
Donald Trump went through a version of this in the campaign. The “Access Hollywood” tape on which he talked about grabbing women was recorded in 2005. The Stormy Daniels allegation involved a brief affair in 2006. (Of course, Trump’s involvement in a hush money payment to Daniels, and allegedly to Karen McDougal, took place during the 2016 campaign.)
None of this is to minimize the importance of the allegations, especially those as serious as sexual assault. Of course candidates and elected officials have to be held accountable for their past.
In Kavanaugh’s case, part of the national debate, beyond whether he or Ford was telling the truth, had to do with the fairness of excavating something that may have happened when he was a high school student at Georgetown Prep. The same went for accusations that he drank too much beer. Should that have outweighed the 35-year legal and judicial career he had built since then?
The Fairfax case is slightly different because he acknowledges the sexual encounter with Tyson when he was 25, but insists it was consensual, even as she describes a traumatic and humiliating experience of forced oral sex. And Tyson, unlike Ford, has identified two people who she told about the allegation a year ago.
And it’s certainly fair to observe that most Democrats, who demanded that women like Ford should be believed, are not embracing Tyson en masse.
For a white person to dress up in blackface, even in the early 1980s, is “despicable,” as Northam says, even as he denies (after initially admitting) that he posed for a med school yearbook photo in either blackface or KKK garb.
But again, does that outweigh his long career in Virginia politics, which includes no accusations of racism? With The Washington Post and Richmond Times-Dispatch urging his resignation, would Northam have been better off just asking forgiveness for his offensive behavior at age 25? (Herring, the attorney general, was 19 when he used blackface to mimic a rapper.)
By the way, a report yesterday said state Senate majority leader Tommy Norment oversaw a Virginia Military Institute yearbook filled with racial slurs and blackface, back in 1968.
Warren should never have listed herself as Native American on college applications or legal forms, given that she was relying on mythical family tales. But does that invalidate her subsequent career as a consumer advocate and senator?
Inevitably, these controversies lead us to current behavior.
Warren blew it with her DNA test designed to show she had a tiny fraction of Indian blood, for which she’s since apologized.
Fairfax stepped in it by quickly condemning Tyson’s allegations as a smear, only issuing a statement saying she should be treated with respect after what he called her “painful” statement about crying and gagging.
Northam held a train-wreck news conference and changed his story, while Herring denounced the governor over something he had done himself.
For better or worse, we now live in an age of zero tolerance for any past mistake or indiscretion, no matter how many decades ago. And people who are weighing a run for public office or a high-level appointment have to consider that their career could end up in flames.