A Speech Notable for Its Banality, Vanity and Hypocrisy

by William L. Respess

“A hypocrite is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.”
Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965), former governor of Illinois and twice unsuccessful democratic candidate for president against Dwight Eisenhower.

I assume most persons aware of the turbulent year that the Virginia Military Institute just transited have also informed themselves of the content of Governor Northam’s speech delivered on the evening of November 15 just past. As an alumnus (class 0f 1961), I expected it likely to be as memorable as his now famous (perhaps “notorious is a better descriptor) letter of October 19, 2020, in which he and a cohort of other Virginia Democrat politicians flayed VMI, his alma mater, with the accusation of “our deep concern about the clear and appalling culture of ongoing structural racism” at the Institute. Burdened with that expectation, I thought reading it would propel me into a state of high dudgeon. It didn’t. Instead, I found the speech to be flaccid and unmemorable.

The speech did not advance the theme of the 2020 letter by continuing to chastise VMI and its corps of cadets. The Governor did take a subdued victory lap as politicians are prone to do. But had I read the speech without knowledge of the tumult the earlier letter had provoked, I would not have given it a second thought.

Yet the speech actually did strike a chord.  It had nothing of substance to say. Where the Governor’s speech writer wanted to inspire, banality resulted. Where the voice of experience was to be heard, vanity spoke louder. Where the Governor wanted to announce “mission accomplished!”, the audience got egregious hypocrisy instead.

Banality. Toward the middle of his speech, Northam wandered into the weeds to discuss the business climate in Virginia. Perhaps this was taken from another speech, one to a Chamber of Commerce group or a Kiwanis club where this information would be welcome.[1]  But this speech was directed to the Corps of Cadets, and the state of the economy of Virginia was surely not foremost on their minds.

There is a universal truth about military academies. They grant degrees and one of the most precious commodities is the time available to pursue demanding curricula. VMI is no different. From reveille to dinner a cadet’s day is highly regimented. Attending classes fills the morning and early afternoon hours. Military training and engagement in training for demanding intercollegiate sports take up the late afternoon. For the lower three classes,  especially “Rats,”  it is only the evening hours between dinner and taps that concentrated studying can occur. This time, is therefore, essential for academic preparation.

The evening of November 15th was such a time to have engaged in studying, and the Corps was not clamoring to hear from the Governor, particularly a speech like the one he gave.[2] But give the Governor his due and assume that he felt the message to be vital to the interests of VMI and even his administration. He could have picked a day when a ceremonial rite, such as a parade day, was scheduled.

As it was, the end of semester was near and final examinations loomed. Recently the independent school newspaper, the Cadet, reported the astonishing figure that 28% of the Rat Class was failing. As a former cadet, the Governor should have known the importance of evenings for study. If he has become tone deaf to this need, the Superintendent, also an alumnus, should have reminded him. The Corps deserved better.

Vanity. For those who didn’t read his speech, the Governor, apparently in an attempt to bond with the Corps, reminded them that he was a graduate of VMI. He  described at length his four years at the Institute and aspects of his subsequent career as a physician. But don’t look for modesty in his recollections.  He proudly informed the Corps of his outstanding achievements as a NCO and officer in the Corps. He also dropped into his discourse that he was president of the Honor Court and informed his audience of his “stellar”[3] success academically. His achievements after VMI also were expansively revealed, professional and familial. His cavalier summoning of the Corps to an evening speech as described above was also likely motivated by vanity. In effect he was saying, “I have something so important to say that you must listen to it and at my convenience.” VMI and the Corps deserved better.

Hypocrisy. Hypocrisy does not always announce itself in the words used to express it. Context is usually required to see it. Northam is, of course, a politician. With respect to his speech, the metaphorical redwood tree in Adlai Steven’s quote above is VMI, its history, traditions, and the respect in which it is held by the public. The stump is what remains of these after the savaging of VMI by the Governor in the 2020 letter. The metaphorical speech is that of November 15.

The Governor’s 2020 attack on VMI is itself hypocritical. In it the Governor and his fellow travelers announce their determination that VMI has a clear and appalling culture of structural racism. The letter described at some length the perceived sins of VMI. VMI was, nevertheless, informed that it would be investigated by an independent non-partisan third party funded by a $1,000,000 appropriation by the legislature. Since VMI had already been determined by his administration to be structurally racist, why the need for an investigation? Obviously it was intended to lend legitimacy to the Governor’s predetermination of guilt. But that predetermination is widely deemed, certainly among VMI alumni but also others, to be political atonement for accepting the the youthful nickname, “the Coonman,” and the donning of blackface, at least one episode of which was caught on film. The Governor has unconvincingly attempted to explain these away. He doesn’t remember them and the photograph is of some other unknown person, he claims.

The 2020 letter has had concrete effects.  A 100-year-old statue of Stonewall Jackson was removed from the parade ground on the order of the Board of Visitors well before the independent investigation was completed in June of this year. By that time, the spring academic term had ended and VMI barracks were empty. The Corps returned in late summer to begin the fall semester. Just two and one-half months later the Governor convened the Corps to, among other things, express his great pride at being a graduate of VMI and to boast about the changes he and others had wrought to bring VMI into line. He also extolled VMI for its outstanding record for a small school of producing so many graduates who have distinguished themselves militarily, politically and in civilian pursuits.

These irreconcilable remarks lead one to ask how a school with such an appalling culture could produce so many outstanding graduates. And if VMI were as racist as he believed, how could he be proud of graduating from it?

The likely reason is that the Governor wanted to claim victory in his effort to cure VMI of its sullied past before his gubernatorial term ended rather than await an objective review of the effect of the changes he imposed. Alumni, VMI and the Corps deserved better.

Banality, vanity and hypocrisy rolled into one. The scheduling of Northam’s speech was never posted on the Governor’s or VMI’s official calendars. Instead the public learned of it from an article published on November 12th in the Washington Post, which proclaimed the Governor was going into “hostile territory” to confront the Corps. The reporter filing the story, Ian Shapira, has authored many articles about VMI over the last 18 months.  Clearly, he has a source within in the Northam administration who advised him of the pendency of the speech but withheld that news from the press generally. Any question that the Northam administration conspired with Shapira disappeared when he filed another article, one about the speech itself, to which a transcript of it was appended just 15 minutes after the speech was concluded.

So, to borrow a literary trope from Winston Churchill, who famously said at the outset of WWII in 1939, speaking of Russia, “it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The events surrounding the speech can be similarly lumped together as a banality, wrapped in vanity, inside hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy reared its head again because the Governor banned the press and public generally from attending the speech on the pretense it was for a small, private meeting with the Corps and VMI administration. While this was the official line, his staff was spoon feeding its favorite reporter and media outlet, Shapira and the Post, the information needed to permit reporting of the event and shaping its message without the Post overtly having to attend the speech.  Vanity  was a catalyst for the article, the headline of which suggested that the Governor was heroically going into “hostile territory” to confront the Corps when, in fact, he was going to speak to highly disciplined cadets who, unlike the fascist Antifas and their ilk, are always respectful whether they agree with a speaker’s message or not; and Banality was evident because the Governor and his minions thought they could get away with this shameless effort to dupe the media, the public, proud alumni who were excluded from the speech, and the young cadets traveling on the difficult and honorable road to a VMI diploma.

Governor Northam did not become a better man as he matured as a politician post-graduation from VMI, as he would have his constituents believe of him.  Instead he became just another petty tyrant.

[1]  Referring to a European trip to drum up business for Virginia, a specific example reads, “I can’t express to you how excited these companies were about the prospect of doing business in this country.” Exciting, right.

[2]  Reliable sources report that there was only light applause during the speech, except when he granted the traditional amnesty from the consequences of excessive demerits.

[3]  For the uninitiated, cadets earning high academic status are entitle to wear stars on uniforms.