By Mark Eaton
Last week, on Oct. 28, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.) said, according to The Washington Post:
“Speaker Pelosi’s husband had a break-in last night in the house and he was assaulted. There’s no room for violence anywhere, but we’re going to send her back to be with him in California.”
Youngkin’s statement about last week’s brutal home invasion and attack on Paul Pelosi, who was severely injured, reminded me of what my father would tell me on the numerous occasions when I said something inappropriate: “Mark, it would have cost you nothing not to say that.”
The governor’s reaction illustrates what troubles the nation’s politics: even a horrible event involving someone indirectly connected to politics – in this case Paul Pelosi – presents an opportunity for a partisan attack. It would have cost Youngkin nothing to end the second sentence after the word “anywhere,” except the possibility of an appeal to the more extreme elements of his base.
The sorry/not sorry statement reflects the political identity Youngkin has adopted as someone who is both ultra conservative and not extreme. His attempt to appeal to these different elements of the Republican party seems to have triggered a political reflex reaction. And, his response to the assault on Paul Pelosi was to attempt to score a political point in a context that made such an attempt cringe-worthy.
Lawyers talk about an exception overwhelming a general proposition or rule. In this instance, the exception, the clause beginning “but” in the second sentence, obscures the condemnation of violence that precedes it. The internal calculation must have been that the gains he would realize from using this occasion to express his distaste for Speaker Pelosi, would outweigh any losses he would sustain from people who would deem his condemnation of violence to be inauthentic or inappropriate.
Youngkin’s statement is also notable for what it does not contain: any expression of sympathy or compassion for Paul Pelosi or his family. Instead, he states the facts of the assault in the first sentence and jumps from a condemnation of violence to a political boast and prediction in the second sentence. According to The Washington Post, a spokesperson said later that Youngkin wishes Paul Pelosi “a full recovery and is keeping the Pelosi family in his prayers.”
The governor made statement about the attack on Pelosi at a campaign event for a Republican candidate. The setting suggests that he may have been trying to energize the most militant Republicans. Microphones and crowds can do strange to things to politicians, and particularly to those who are trying to face two directions at once.
And, who among us has not said something acutely embarrassing that we wished we could have taken back later? Even if an expression of empathy or regret would antagonize his far right-leaning base, he would be well-served by personally clarifying his statement, not through an aide or spokesperson, to express basic human compassion for Paul Pelosi and his family.
The governor’s statement recalls a story about advice given by late Senator Everett Dirksen to late Senator Howard Baker, who had just finished giving a very long speech: “Howard, occasionally you might enjoy the luxury of an unexpressed thought.”
He might have been thinking about his distaste, or his base’s distaste, for Speaker Pelosi, but Senator Dirksen and others might ask, “Why did he select this context in which to express it?”
The advantages of not saying absolutely everything that enters your mind are many, but they may not be immediately apparent. Youngkin’s statement shows that those advantages can include avoiding embarrassment and avoiding raising doubts about your decency and compassion.
Our governor is a significant political figure. Let’s hope that in the future he learns to distinguish between a horrible misfortune that happens to a family member of a Democratic party leader and a political opportunity.
In the words of the social philosopher Forrest Gump, “And that’s all I have to say about that.”
The writer is a former lawyer, member of the Alexandria School Board from 1997 to 2006, and English teacher from 2007 to 2021 at T.C. Williams High School, now Alexandria City High School. He can be reached at aboutalexandria@gmail. com and free subscriptions to his newsletter are available at https://aboutalexandria. substack.com/.