By Frank Blechman
Here in Virginia, we have the only governor in the country who is also a physician. Yet, in the current virus pandemic, he has not been a major spokesman. National media has not sought out Ralph Northam. Further, while the policies of Virginia have been better than some other states at addressing the challenges of the virus, in some ways we have done worse. By almost every measure, our governor has been “just another guy” confounded by the complexities of the situation, struggling to keep up with events, yielding to other experts on most questions, leading on few.
Why has he not been able to establish more personal authority to make our Commonwealth’s responses to this pandemic coherent, effective, transparent, and explainable?
Why has our Governor’s knowledge and experience not given him more credibility? Why has he not been able to establish more personal authority to make our Commonwealth’s responses to this pandemic coherent, effective, transparent, and explainable?
I view Governor Northam’s limited role in this crisis as a shortcoming, but an understandable one.
First, when Ralph Northam became governor, he gave up his medical practice and his business. He was signaling us and himself that he was no longer a doctor running a clinic or treating individual patients. I believe that he reasoned that he now had to be somebody else other than the person he had trained to be most of his adult life. As governor, he had to work with a much larger team of professional specialists, legislators, local officials, advocates, the media, administrators, and critics. He had to promote outcomes affecting millions of people, not a handful. He saw his role as a coach and a manager more than a player on the field. That suited him. He liked the idea that he was not only the opposite of the egotistical President Donald Trump, but also the antidote to his ebullient predecessor Terry McAuliffe.
And then the “blackface” scandal broke. After initial disastrous public appearances, friends and counselors alike told him to lie low. Work behind the scenes. Let others take the spotlight. Don’t make yourself a target. For more than a year, he vanished from public view. His wife and his cabinet secretaries made appearances at events. He emerged from time to time, most notably at the Fort Monroe commemorations marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of African slavery in Virginia.
2020 might have been the year of his revival. He was more visible during the early part of the General Assembly session. Yet for most Virginians, the Governor was still an ill- defined character; a generally affable guy from the Eastern Shore and … what? There wasn’t much more.
So, Ralph Northam was unprepared to take center stage, even when the challenge at hand was medical, and when his background and expertise gave him a platform from which to lead. As a pediatric neurologist, he knew what it took to help distressed families understand the medical dilemmas in which their children were immersed. He knew what it takes to help those families understand the decisions ahead; to make those decisions; to deal with the consequences. Often, he had worked with families through terrible decisions, with uncertain outcomes and sometimes dreadful ends.
He has been calm, occasional decisive, but not particularly effective putting the human challenges he has faced on display. He has not helped us make the decisions we have to make about how we live our everyday lives.
Yet we see none of this in his performance during the pandemic. He has been calm, occasionally decisive, but not particularly effective putting the human challenges he has faced on display. He has not helped us make the decisions we have to make about how we live our everyday lives.
Governor Northam has another 19 months in office. The last six months will be dominated by the candidates and campaign to succeed him. We can only hope that he finds his footing soon.