Rep. King, Gov. Northam underscore what can’t be tolerated in America

U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, insists his recent remarks to a New York Times reporter have been mis-characterized. Whether that is true or not can be judged best by King’s constituents, who know him better than anyone in the national media or, for that matter, in Congress.

But regardless of what King meant, the effect of the Times report was understandable. It outraged many and led to disciplinary action against him in the House of Representatives. It prompted White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders to refer to King’s remarks as “abhorrent.”

According to the Times, King said this during an interview: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”

King maintains he was not lumping the three descriptions into one category. Instead, he was talking about various words used to criticize people of all ideological stripes, then mentioned Western civilization.

Voters in Iowa are qualified best to decide what King meant. It is their verdict that will matter at election time.

But the bottom line, as expressed by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is that any defense of bigotry is “unacceptable in America today.”

Similarly, it is easy to understand why some Virginians may have equal misgivings regarding Gov. Ralph Northam. He has posed a series of questions to Virginians: Is our governor racially insensitive? Is his dishonest? If he is neither, what, exactly, happened in 1984?

Northam made headlines first when he was asked about a proposed change in Virginia’s limits on abortion. If enacted, a bill under consideration in Richmond would allow some abortions during the third trimester of pregnancy. Northam’s comment seemed to suggest parents of a child born alive after a botched abortion should decide whether to let the infant live — though a spokesperson insisted that is not what he meant.

Controversy over that was barely gaining momentum when Northam became embroiled in something else.

Call it Yearbookgate: A page in the 1984 yearbook at the medical school Northam attended featured him. One of the pictures shows two people, one appearing to be a white man in blackface, the other dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.

At first, Northam apologized, but said he wasn’t certain which of the two people was him. Within hours, he was insisting he was not in the picture at all — and had never seen the page.

Clearly, Northam should resign if he is not being truthful — for dishonesty as well as racial insensitivity at a time in his life when he should have been mature enough to avoid that. If he is right, of course, it raises other issues that are, in a way, even more troubling. Why would anyone think including such a picture on Northam’s yearbook page was a good idea?

Why should anyone outside Virginia care, one way or another?

For this reason: Whatever the situation involving the picture, it is one more reminder that race relations remain a challenge in our nation.