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Book provides insights, but isn’t clear on the Northam yearbook photo

Author Margaret Josephine describes the events that show Dr. Ralph Northam’s desperate way of waging a comeback campaign in order to keep his job after racist pictures surfaced on his yearbook page.

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VA., RICHMOND (AP) — A Virginia writer who has written a book with new information about the 2019 scandal and the former governor’s remarkable political survival claims that his investigation into the origins of a racist photo on Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page has ended inconclusively.

Ideally, I would have been able to identify everyone in the photo. In an interview with The Associated Press, Margaret Edds, the author of “What the Eyes Can’t See,” said, “And I gave that my best effort.” The book is set to be released in November.

Edds, like journalists and two groups of law firm investigators before her, came up with no definitive answer about the photo of one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume, but her 296-page book offers a behind-the-scenes look at the turmoil the image sparked. The book explains why Northam chose to stay in office despite intense criticism, how he worked to repair his reputation and how he collaborated with Black leaders to make racial justice a priority for his administration.

AP was provided with a digital review copy of the book by The University of South Carolina Press. The book is based on 14 interviews with Northam. Besides documents and news articles from the time period, “What the Eyes Can’t See” also includes interviews with Pam Northam, Northam’s wife, as well as staffers, consultants, friends, and public officials.

Northam’s longtime political adviser and interviewee, Mark Bergman, said the governor agreed to be part of the book because he wanted it to be the “final word on what his service was about.” Northam, who has been practicing pediatric neurology since leaving office in January, declined to comment through Bergman.

In 2019, while Northam was mired in controversy over comments he made about late-term abortion, the photo surfaced when a conservative political website published it. The photograph was one of four that appeared on Northam’s personal page in the 1984 edition of the Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook.

Northam initially issued an apology for appearing in the photo without identifying himself. Then he changed his story and claimed he wasn’t in the picture. It did not immediately end the widespread calls for his resignation, though. The 73rd governor of Virginia refused to resign, and the pressure to do so subsided when the state’s other two top Democratic officeholders got themselves into scandals.

As a result of the 2019 election cycle, Democrats gained complete control of state government, and Northam went on to preside over a term that was unquestionably transformative. By signing bills legalizing marijuana, abolishing the death penalty, and expanding gun control, Northam would make Virginia a progressive outlier in the South.

Edds claimed that Northam’s decision to have a massive statue of Robert E. Lee, which is owned by the state and is located in Richmond, prompted her to write the book.

“Oh my, what a journey, what a story,” she exclaimed.

Edds assured the governor she could not promise he would enjoy the book because it was not a collaborative effort.

Edds may not have identified the people in the photo, but she did succeed in getting the yearbook editor to talk to her after he had avoided reporters and investigators.

She also documented the mayhem and reactions of prominent Democratic leaders as the news broke. This book analyzes Northam’s reaction to the party’s rejection of him and his efforts to win back the confidence of Democrats. It delves into Northam’s genealogy and his formative years on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, while also weaving in significant moments in Virginia’s history. Northam cites specific examples in which he believes his white privilege aided his professional success.

It’s possible that Northam had the most racially mixed childhood of any Virginia governor, and at first he “didn’t see race,” as Edds put it.

It was a pivotal moment for her when he realized “it’s not that admirable not to see race if you’re not seeing all the underlying systemic racism that affects people’s lives,” she said.

Edds stressed that the book is more than just a “story of personal redemption” for Northam; it also examines the ways in which Black legislators and citizens encouraged and pushed Northam to make positive changes.

Edds, a veteran journalist who spent 34 years in the state (mostly at The Virginian-Pilot), has written several other books on topics such as Virginia history and the civil rights movement.

Northam has used the adage “the eyes can’t see what the brain doesn’t know” to describe his own metamorphosis and is quoted in the book’s title.

On November 8, the book will be released to the public.