Terry McAuliffe, Glenn Youngkin
Then Democratic gubernatorial candidate former Governor Terry McAuliffe, left, gestures as Republican challenger, Glenn Youngkin, listens during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, Thursday, September 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Three weeks after Glenn Youngkin won Virginia’s gubernatorial election, the Fairfax County public school administration resolved a controversy that the Republican businessman milked for all he could. Two books that had been temporarily pulled from its high school libraries, and reviewed for inappropriate sexually explicit content, were deemed age-appropriate and returned to the shelves.

The governor-elect didn’t comment. Why should he? The controversy had already served his purposes. Calling further attention to it would only expose the lie that derailed his opponent’s campaign.

The single biggest mistake Democratic nominee and former Governor Terry McAuliffe made was his comment during the September 28th debate, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

As I wrote here before the election, right after the debate, McAuliffe’s lead began to evaporate in the Real Clear Politics poll average. (RCP’s final average was only 0.2 percentage points off the mark.) A postelection focus group analysis from Third Way didn’t rest the entire outcome on McAuliffe’s gaffe, but found that “people remembered the quote about parents and schools from McAuliffe, and it bothered them. It said something about Terry and how he’d run the schools to them … it clearly burned in and resonated with them.”

But what prompted McAuliffe to say it in the first place? Youngkin’s reference to the Fairfax County book controversy:

What we’ve seen over the course of the last 20 months is our school systems refusing to engage with parents. In fact, in Fairfax County this past week we watched parents so upset because there was such sexually explicit material in the library—they had never seen—it was shocking. And in fact, you [turning to McAuliffe] vetoed the bill that would have informed parents that they were there.

Youngkin’s insinuation that the Fairfax County school system was refusing to engage with parents was false. One day after concerns about the two books— Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe—were raised by audience members at a school board meeting, school officials removed them from library shelves. Then they set up two ad hoc committees, which included parents as well as students and school staff, to review the books and determine if the removal should be permanent.

On top of that, Youngkin was wrong to claim that the bill McAuliffe vetoed when he was governor had any relevance to the Fairfax situation.

Back in 2013, a Virginia parent was upset that her son—also attending a Fairfax County high school—was assigned to read Beloved by Toni Morrison because, as reported at the time by The Washington Post, the book “depicts scenes of bestiality, gang rape and an infant’s gruesome murder.” She successfully lobbied the Virginia legislature to pass a bill that would require school systems to “notify the parent of any student whose teacher reasonably expects to provide instructional material that includes sexually explicit content” and give the parent the ability to opt their child out of any assignment involving such material. McAuliffe did veto the so-called Beloved Bill, but it was a bill about classroom assignments, not library books. Even if McAuliffe had signed the bill, there would have been no requirement for schools to notify parents about any library book with sexually explicit content.

But while Youngkin was factually challenged, McAuliffe botched the fact check.

McAuliffe began his rebuttal in condescending fashion: “This shows how clueless Glenn Youngkin is. He doesn’t understand what the laws were, because he’s never been involved here in helping Virginia.” But then McAuliffe failed to explain the vetoed bill. McAuliffe, disjointedly, said, “The parents had the right to veto bills—veto books, Glenn, not to be knowledgeable about it. Also, take them off the shelves. And I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decisions.”

That was all wrong. In the vetoed bill, parents couldn’t “veto books,” they could only opt out of assigned readings. And there was no provision giving parents authority to take books off shelves, in the classroom or the library. Then he stumbled into the fateful gaffe.

In other words, McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” for absolutely no reason.

What McAuliffe should have done was an actual fact check. He should have explained that Fairfax County was responding to a parental complaint and had a process to review the matter that would incorporate parental input. He should have drawn a distinction between collective parental input—which is commonplace and welcomed by democratically elected school boards—and individual parents micromanaging classroom assignments—which is fundamentally impractical.

And he should have chastised Youngkin for driving a wedge between parents and school officials, instead of making his own ham-fisted comment that sounded like school officials and parents were opposing battalions in a culture war.

The resolution in Fairfax, just before Thanksgiving, underscores the point. The review committees—which, again, included parents—unanimously concluded that the allegations leveled against the books, including that they depicted pedophilia, were unfounded. Lawn Boy was deemed to be “an uplifting and humanizing depiction of navigating through setbacks with resiliency to reach goals and will resonate with students.” Similarly, Gender Queer was determined to be “a well-written, scientifically based narrative of one person’s journey with gender identity that contains information and perspective that is not widely represented.”

Public school libraries aren’t the same as public libraries. Not every book gets in, and content does matter. Decisions have to be made regarding what’s age-appropriate, and there’s a place for parental input. But a few loud voices at a school board meeting is not the beginning and the end of parental input.

As reported by The Washington Post, in Fairfax County, the initial complaint about the library books was backed by “a crowd of about two dozen attendees [that] chanted the ‘Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel,’ which asks the saint’s help in defending Christians from the devil.” Their behavior was so disruptive that the board had to recess the meeting twice. Despite the obvious pressure tactic, school officials quickly agreed to a review, but did so through a formal process that allowed for calm deliberation, and came to a thoughtful conclusion.

The resolution fell a tad short of pleasing the initial complainants. The mother who led the removal effort recently posted on Twitter, “These intellectually-dishonest Commie librarians & LGBTQ activists are in favor of #PornInSchools,” adding the hashtag, “#ResignFairfaXXX.” But no democratically run institution pleases everybody. One parent’s ire does not prove, as Youngkin falsely claimed, that “our school systems [are] refusing to engage with parents.”

Youngkin’s dishonesty worked. McAuliffe was caught flat-footed. The trajectory of the race was irrevocably altered.

This is a cautionary tale for Democrats. Republicans are eager to replicate the Youngkin model, and portray a culture war being waged against parents with imperious Democrats on the opposing side. Democrats can turn the tables and show that Republicans are the ones trying to sow division. But it requires getting the facts straight.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.