The long-awaited results of investigations into Gov. Ralph Northam’s college yearbook scandal dropped this week with a thud.
Investigations — one initiated by the school — answered no questions about whether Mr. Northam was pictured in the racist photo that showed up on his Eastern Virginia Medical School page.
They answered no questions about who else might have been in the photo.
Assuming that Mr. Northam was not depicted, the investigations answered no questions about how the photo might have made it onto his page. An honest mistake? Deliberate interference?
What they did do was raise questions about EVMS staff who had noticed the photo long before it hit the news as a political scandal — but who chose to say nothing.
Those questions can more easily be answered — and in the staff’s defense.
You’ll remember the controversy: A conservative website revealed that Mr. Northam’s 1984 yearbook page contained a photo of one person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume — hideous, odious imagery.
Mr. Northam initially took responsibility and apologized for the picture.
Then he recanted, saying that, on second thought, he was neither of the people in the photo.
He added that he had worn blackface once — when he was portraying Michael Jackson in a dance contest.
This stumbling approach to damage control became part of the controversy, along with continuing questions about the identities of the people in the picture.
Mr. Northam said he wanted the truth. EVMS said the same.
The school hired McGuireWoods, legal heavy hitters. Alston and Bird, a law firm from Atlanta, looked into allegations on behalf of the governor.
Neither could find conclusive evidence that Mr. Northam either did or did not appear in the photo.
Instead, what emerged was the revelation that EVMS staff had spotted the controversial photo; some knew of it prior to Mr. Northam’s campaign for lieutenant governor in 2013. Current President Richard V. Homan and former President Harry T. Lester were among those who were alerted.
Both decided not to announce the presence of the photo to the world and instead let events take their course.
Some people have criticized them for that. But what else should they have done?
If they had publicly called attention to the photo, they would have been denounced by some as trying to torpedo Mr. Northam’s political career.
If they had leaked the photo to an outside entity and that action had been discovered, they would have been criticized for trying to influence politics — and for clandestine behavior as well.
If they had quietly let Mr. Northam know about the photo and that action had been discovered, they would have been accused of protecting and aiding him by warning him about a potentially damaging time bomb.
But they are being criticized anyway by those who say their inaction also served as a form of protecting the governor.
In fact, there were no good options.
Standing aside and letting nature take its course seems as reasonable as anything else they might have done. And anything else they might have done also would have garnered criticism.
EVMS expects to pay $300,000 to McGuireWoods for its services. Surely, the college had better use for that money — scholarships, for instance. But public opinion demanded that they make the effort — even though we should have known how difficult it would be to reconstruct a clear narrative about events that took place 35 years ago.
Meanwhile, the controversy that inspired all this appears to be subsiding with a whimper instead of going out with a bang. With no conclusive resolution as to the origin of the photo or the identities of those pictured, we are left with little recourse but to accept the resulting ambiguity.
It’s an unsatisfying finale — but it might be the best we’ll ever get.