Virginia's trans-Republican governor — Glenn Youngkin presents as a smiling, problem-solving centrist but identifies as a growling, conservative culture warrior — is preparing for his Norma Desmond moment.
"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my closeup," Gloria Swanson, as the washed-up, psycho film siren, says in her final, mad-as-a-hatter moment in the noir classic, "Sunset Boulevard."
This coming Thursday night, Youngkin — whose presumed presidential candidacy isn't catching on in Virginia or nationally, according to fresh polling — is scheduled to appear live on CNN, one of the mainstream news outlets he usually ducks for the right-wing, uncritical echo chamber of Fox News. If that's not a surprise, get this: Youngkin will discuss with, and take questions from, a studio audience on — these are CNN's words — the "battle over education."
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This is the issue on which the outside world is being told Youngkin eked out a narrow victory in 2021, whining about subjects that clearly unnerve him: boys becoming girls; girls becoming boys; enslaved Black people brutalized as little more than farm animals or sexual toys, and teachers — ideally, as partners to parents — doing their jobs by trying to help students make sense of these irrefutable, too-long-ignored realities.
Perhaps Jake Tapper, host of the forthcoming broadcast, and those selected for the audience are coming up with questions for Youngkin, for whom spontaneous and unrehearsed moments — particularly with the press — are a rarity. Herewith some suggestions, recognizing that many of the message-disciplined governor's answers could be evasions:
1.) Was Jillian Balow — Youngkin's handpicked and highly controversial school superintendent who resigned this week — pushed or did she jump? He wouldn't say the other day in Louisa. Can Youngkin artfully dodge this issue when, potentially, the whole world is watching?
Was it three strikes and she's out? Balow caused headaches advocating for Youngkin a fact-challenged, anti-woke history curriculum; making apples-and-oranges comparisons to support his claims that academic performance fully collapsed during the pandemic and shorting local schools more than $200 million in state aid because of an accounting error.
And why did Youngkin, in acknowledging her departure, hint that Balow would continue as a consultant to the administration? Will she be paid? And why shouldn't such compensation, given that she's seen Youngkinworld — warts and all — from the inside for more than a year, be viewed as hush money?
2.) Why shouldn't parents — particularly those less affluent than the multimillionaire governor or for whom tuition assistance is out of reach — view as a Youngkin indictment of public education his decision to send his four children to private schools? Or is this nothing more than freedom of choice, which Youngkin said he favors for all school parents?
Youngkin, too, was graduated from a Virginia prep school before attending prestigious Rice University on an athletic scholarship, among the few ways low-income kids, especially those of color, can get a college education. Does Youngkin's basketball scholarship make him something of an affirmative-action baby?
What assurance have taxpayers that Youngkin — in pushing for charter schools; that is, privately run public schools — won't put first the education companies that make money operating, or providing materials and technology to, these alternative schools? The investment giant Youngkin led bought in 2018 one such firm started in 2010 at his alma mater, Rice.
3.) If, as a Republican, Youngkin truly believes a GOP credo that includes safeguarding individual freedom, why is he insisting on regulations, the rollout of which has been delayed because of public opposition, that erect obstacles to transgender public school kids being themselves?
And why does the Youngkin administration even consider trans students a problem? It is estimated that of 1.2 million kids enrolled in Virginia public schools, only 4,000 are transgender. Cruelty rather than accommodation seems to be Youngkin's priority.
Is singling out this minority an effort by a presumed national candidate to play to the fears of a Republican base that includes large numbers of religious, social and cultural conservatives — Youngkin, among them — who have a disproportionate say in the nominating process and for whom LGBTQ rights are an aberration?
4.) What's more important: banning from the classroom supposedly menacing books or the truly deadly menace of firearms?
After a 6-year-old first-grade student shot with a pistol his teacher in their Newport News school — the gun had been legally purchased by his parent — Youngkin, mindful of the third rail in the GOP that is firearms rights, had little to say about strengthening classroom safety beyond putting more cops on campus.
But Youngkin, as titular head of a state party that is lopsidedly white, happily harps on racially laden school controversies, particularly in heavily Democratic, multi-hued Northern Virginia. His latest craze, a la Ron DeSantis: Again meddling in local schools — contrary to Virginia practice — this time, disparaging Advanced Placement classes in Black history.
5.) How far is Youngkin prepared to go to reverse at state colleges and universities what he describes as a dangerous lurch to the left? Will he again use the budget as a weapon, as he attempted last year with the University of Virginia, squeezing it to create a conservative think-tank?
The schools are independently run by political appointees selected on a staggered basis to prevent a single governor from controlling their oversight boards. That's not stopping Youngkin from picking as trustees conservative disrupters, such as UVA alumnus Bert Ellis. His qualifications for the school's board include more than his fat wallet.
Ellis' pointed criticism of student protests during the George Floyd summer of 2020 nearly cost him his appointment, though Democratic lawmakers ultimately confirmed him.
Come Thursday night, Virginia may not learn much more about its transmogrifying governor. But Youngkin apparently is interested in an audience beyond his state's borders. Or as Norma Desmond — primped, powdered and playing to the camera — put it, "Those wonderful people out there in the dark."
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis at 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond; 89.1 FM in Roanoke; and WHRV, 89.5 FM in Norfolk.