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Jim McGreevey's Second Act

There are some questions identity politics can't answer.

12:00 AM, Sep 29, 2006 • By LOUIS WITTIG
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FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR Jim McGreevey might have sensed that something was wrong. Sitting in front of the cameras on The Oprah Winfrey Show, he did not look at ease.

McGreevey, you might remember, resigned from office two years ago after it came out he'd been cheating on his wife. With an Israeli man named Golan Cipel. Who, with no relevant credentials, McGreevey had put on the state payroll as a homeland security advisor. Who had become embittered, and threatened to sue McGreevey for sexual harassment.

In his resignation speech, McGreevey proudly declared, "I am a gay American," thus jumping for the life raft of identity politics. Confronted with his own corruption, McGreevey changed the subject. His individual culpability was submerged beneath a group's struggle for social recognition. He wasn't, he implied, just a man who had humiliated his wife (by cheating on her, and marrying her in the first place) and abused the public trust. He was also a member of a marginalized group, just yearning to be himself. Amazingly, he salvaged some semblance of respectability.

Now McGreevey is back: in bookstores, on Larry King Live, on newsstands. He's promoting his new memoir The Confession. It's the self-reinvention for which his political ending purposely left the door open.

Excerpts of The Confession published in New York magazine recount McGreevey's downfall. The author is vivid with the sex ("[Golan and I] made love like I'd always dreamed: a boastful, passionate, whispering, masculine kind of love.") He's frank, if not overly self-effacing, with a few revelations. He was so cocksure of his affair that he bragged to reporters about his new homeland security aide. McGreevey began his boastful whisperings with Golan while his wife was still in the hospital, recovering from a difficult pregnancy.

On major decisions though, the picture is fuzzy. He doesn't really know why he married Dina in the first place. In fact, Dina is strangely absent from the story. McGreevey writes he doesn't think she knew he was gay. When he tells her he had to resign, we learn that she wasn't that mad.

McGreevey's overarching apologia is simple. He knew he was gay since he was a kid, and he hated himself for it. He wanted to come out of the closet, but didn't want to ruin his political career. He was so desperate for love after years of denying himself that he fell head over heels for Golan. In the process, mistakes were made. McGreevey never explicitly makes the connection, but the narrative intent is clear: Society forced him to pretend he wasn't gay. He did what he eventually did because he'd played it straight too long. As a repressed minority, he was a victim of society.

MCGREEVEY WRITES that he could never leave the closet because he could never work in politics as an openly gay man. In passing, he mentions that his chief of staff was an openly gay man.

Of course, being merely a governor's chief of staff wouldn't have been enough for McGreevey. In 1997, after losing his first gubernatorial contest, he considered ditching politics and coming out. Instead he "decided that my ambition would give me more pleasure . . . than true love." During his second gubernatorial campaign, he had his staff explicitly promise favors to big donors in order to secure office. Even his affair with Golan was tinged with relentless political yearning. Jim eventually came to think Golan was just using him to get closer to power. "If he was using me as an engine of his own ambition," he writes, "I didn't mind. I liked seeing myself reflected in his eyes."

After he resigned, McGreevey went to a treatment facility in Arizona. His problem? A "need to be in the center of the universe, to make people love him," a source close to him told the New York Post, unnecessarily.

REHAB was probably the sort of experience McGreevey was hoping to discuss on Oprah. It would be a set-piece Oprah moment: catharsis and nurturing, respectful questions about feelings. Oprah had other ideas. She wanted to know about Dina. She asked how he got her to stand next to him at his resignation, smiling supportively.

McGreevey tried to talk the talk--a patois of self-help vocabulary and Dr. Phil attitude. He said how when you tell your wife you've been cheating on her with a man, you have to own it. He tried to steer the conversation toward his feeling that God wants everyone to be themselves.

Oprah persisted. She asked him to read The Confession passage where he described sex with Golan as wonderful and authentic. He looked reluctant. Then she asked, "When you made love to your wife, what was that like?"

Identity politics takes people and lumps them--and all their varied actions, feelings, and motivations--into a big group, which it labels "gay" or "minority" or "underprivileged," and it tells a uniform story of grievance about them all. For rhetorical and political purposes the individual disappears. But not literally. When people are examined individually there are a lot of questions that the group identity doesn't answer. "I am a homosexual," is not a satisfying response to "Did you deceive your wife?" It is possible to gloss over these questions in a speech or a memoir. You cannot avoid answering to Oprah.

McGreevey had a choice: admit his relationship with his wife was just a physical lie and he the liar. Or say it was real, in which case he might not be as gay as he seems, and his identity-politics mea culpa might be a sham.

By talk show standards it was an eternity. McGreevey looked down at his lap, then up at the ceiling.

"It was," he sputtered, "special."

Louis Wittig is a media writer in New York.