The passion of Jim McGreevey

"The Confession" charts the New Jersey governor's path from Nixon-loving Catholic boy to Democratic player to proud "gay American." But his attempt at repentance amounts to little more than an egomaniac's memoir.

Published September 29, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

As long as we're trafficking in confessions, let me begin with one of my own. Some years ago, I was a closeted homosexual. I was also -- and this is the embarrassing part -- YMCA Youth Governor of New Jersey, an "office" I campaigned for with cheerful determination and ruthlessness in rank high school gymnasiums up and down the turnpike. I admit that as I signed a stack of student-authored bills into "law" -- most of which legalized drugs or prostitution -- I dreamed that I might one day do this for real. I had it all planned: the Ivy league, law school, a judicial clerkship, elected office, even a political wife in the mold of Hillary Clinton, a safely sexless fantasy who at the time was peddling her disastrous healthcare plan through Congress. The first part worked out fine, but I was far too lazy to get into law school and much too faggy to deceive anyone for long, and so ended my fledgling career as a closeted homosexual politician.

Of course wide gulfs separate a swishy high school senior from a 47-year-old, twice-married sitting governor, but I mention this all to say that Jim McGreevey's story is not entirely alien to me. I understand how a child who "grappled with [his] own identity," who "felt ambivalent about [himself]" and "confused" might take refuge in the biggest charade of all -- American electoral politics. I know how the abstract comfort of civic duty can seem like an easy substitute for the nervy pains and pleasures of gay life. And in other, more mundane ways McGreevey's story rings familiar. He grew up in the working-class Irish and Italian Catholic town of Carteret where my parents owned a dry cleaners; it's entirely possible that I pressed the 30 identical white starched shirts that were his uniform and mask. I spent nights at the Woodbridge Mall choking down the petty, casual homophobia of the citizens of the city of which he was once mayor. I am, in other words, predisposed to be a sympathetic listener. But in "The Confession," his heavily hyped, putatively tell-all memoir, Jim McGreevey comes off as so fake, so unctuous and so thoroughly unlikable that by the time he writes that "on November 7, 2001, I won the election for governor of New Jersey by fourteen points," I could scarcely believe it was true.

I am apparently not alone in this response. Despite advance excerpts that ran in the New York Times and New York magazine (home of ghost writer David France) and an appearance on "Oprah" that contributed to strong first-week sales, McGreevey's confession has been greeted with either indifference or derision. Indeed the only quarter in which "The Confession" has been well received is among the leaders of gay rights organizations, many of whom are thanked in the acknowledgments for "making me understand my own struggles in a larger context." These groups are so desperate to star-fuck anyone lightly lavender that the largest of them, the Human Rights Campaign, recently bestowed its Visibility Award to 'N Sync's Lance Bass and his partner Reichen Lehmkuhl. That he is still disliked, except by those marginal and needy enough to embrace him, will surely displease the governor. As he tells us early and often, nothing satisfied him more than identifying "the people who were most prone to dislike me" and making it "my business to win them over." He adds, "I'd always preferred to bring my detractors close." And so here he aims to please a disgruntled public with a mixture of self-exposure, conspicuous contrition, tepid dish and newly realized wisdoms about homosexuality or ethics.

He fails on all these counts. "The Confession" is peppered with short quotes and allusions to Spinoza, Stravinsky, Maya Angelou, Armistead Maupin, Allen Ginsberg, Kant, Dostoevski, Seneca and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl to whose ordeal McGreevey outrageously compares his own. Each is meant to augment some sort of introspective observation turned object lesson. "If any good comes from sharing my story, I hope I can inspire others to open their doors and reveal whatever is hidden there so that their own true beauty shines through," McGreevey writes with false modesty. The premise that one would take instruction or inspiration from a man who rose to the top of the crookedest state in the union and then gave his lover a $110,000 a year job advising on matters of homeland security, for which he was clearly unqualified, is an insult to the reader.

All the more so because one gets the sense that, despite the self-flagellation and abundant apologies to his ex-wives, former colleagues and supporters, McGreevey is not all that repentant. His chapter titles "How These Things Happen," "Becoming a Born Leader," "How One Lives in Shame" and "What a Divided Self Can Do" smack of resilient pride more than examined humility. Early in the book he recounts a childhood game: Local boys would catch frogs, drown them in tar and then stomp on their dried corpses, releasing what must have been a very satisfying "pop." McGreevey helped catch the victims but says, "I don't think I joined in the stomping party, that day or thereafter." Though this anecdote is intended to demonstrate the need for an appreciation of "the value of life," it also functions as a recurring trope throughout the book. Jimmy McGreevey watches; he is in the mix, but always somewhat apart from the "scene of the crime."

So "The Confession" skims across the muck, from frog genocide to hard-drinking nights at Jersey strip clubs to cruisey Atlantic City conventions full of horny young wonks to the notorious back rooms of Jersey's pay-to-play patronage system where unelected party bosses trade endorsements for lucrative state contracts. All along McGreevey casts himself as a voyeur, a bystander, at worst an unwilling participant. He drank only sips of wine on special occasions or shots of vodka when campaigning in Russian neighborhoods. When offered a "snort of cocaine, piled on the tip of a tiny spoon" at an "SNL" cast party, he replied, "I put people in jail for that during the week." He made sure people saw him balling young, female campaign volunteers and oozing out of go-go bars, but only to maintain the facade of his heterosexuality (a ploy he's especially proud of). He remained scrupulously within the letter, if not spirit, of campaign finance laws. And finally, when his political aspirations demanded the kind of money and backing that only corruption can afford, he delegated. Indeed, the list of besmirched former McGreevey allies is long, but he takes care to name names and heap scorn and pity only on those already indicted, like real estate mogul Charles Kushner who hired prostitutes to seduce his brother-in-law and then sent the videotape to his own sister.

Of this wild trip, from Nixon-loving Catholic schoolboy to Democratic kingpin of the Soprano state, McGreevey is sanctimonious in the way that only reformed sinners and former addicts can be. And, of course, since the quickest path to public rehabilitation is to declare you have an addiction, McGreevey now views his life through the fuzzy gauze of the 12-step program. He claims to have been an addict all along; he was hooked, not on drugs, drink, sex or gambling, but simply on "being central in the world, to being accepted and adored in the way that celebrities are adored -- by strangers, in abundance." In other words, he is an egomaniac. He shies away from this word because to use it would call into question his motives for "confessing" in the genre of best-selling autobiography. But once the signal clichis of addiction recovery begin to make their way into the book, McGreevey's halfhearted apologia and barely submerged defiance begin to make sense. How can you be sorry for actions over which you "have no control," for a life you did not quite live? You accept them with serenity.

As for the promised seedy sex scenes -- of blow jobs in adult bookstores, Parkway rest stops and YMCA swimming pools -- they are tame and unrevealing. Mostly McGreevey denigrates these furtive acts as "sinful and unhealthy" and "immoral and ugly," although he does mention finding a "mysterious and soothing" liberation behind a hedgerow of an abandoned Washington synagogue he frequented three times a week during law school. But because gay life did not square with the values of his Catholic upbringing and his outsize political ambitions, he fabricated another "sick-making existence," at first with chaste women who were his beards, then with his first wife, Kari Schutz, with whom he fathered a child. When that union failed, he married Dina Matos, who was in the hospital following the difficult birth of his second child when he took a young Israeli employee named Golan Cipel to his bedroom and made what he calls a "boastful, passionate, whispering, masculine kind of love." (In a recent interview, Cipel claimed that the two never had sex on that or any other occasion.)

This is stomach-turning stuff, not in the least because McGreevey clearly still gets off on how far he was able to push the boundaries of the closet. At the height of his career it spanned the whole state. Openly gay aides (including his chief of staff and his communications director), Republican opponents, radio shock jocks, state troopers assigned to his protection and snoopy newspaper reporters, who cheekily took to describing Cipel as a "sailor" and a "poet" (he was in the Israeli Defense Forces and had written a few verses as a child), all knew or suspected. If he did not deceive them all, he at least beguiled and intimidated them into silence for almost the entirety of his first and only term.

Throughout his account McGreevey forces an analogy between life in the closet and life in politics. But because the inevitable conclusion -- that he was a closeted homosexual because he coveted power -- is both contemptible and predictable, he effects a curious reversal: He took refuge in power because he was a closeted homosexual. "Looking back," he writes, "I wonder if avoiding intimacy wasn't the real reason I worked so many late nights." And, "The harder I worked, the less I thought about sex, or heard the whispers of my heart." Ruminations like these cast his whole political career as a sort of side effect of his internalized homophobia; he is the victim who became prince because, he would have us believe, he had no other choice. By the time the whole plot winds up to its familiar denouement -- Cipel was pressured into resigning after which he concocts a bizarre extortion scheme that ultimately forces the governor to resign -- McGreevey has broken faith with the reader so often that his account of the affair, which Cipel claims was limited to two incidents of sexual harassment, fails to entirely sweep away lingering suspicions that parts of the story remain untold.

"The Confession" hit bookstores as other news about closeted gay men made front-page news. According to a study by the New York City Department of Health, one in 10 men who claim they are heterosexual have had sex with a man in the past year. Though so-called straight men were not in fact the main focus of the study, which examined condom usage among gay-identified men, it was this footnote that exploded onto the tabloids and chilled the blood of would-be Carrie Bradshaws across the city. Add this statistic to Oprah's sisterly warning about men "on the down low," the cautionary tale of "Brokeback Mountain" and now McGreevey's sad sack story, and one has veritable sex panic centered around the tragic but still menacing figure of the late homosexual.

I'm curious why these men have become objects of such intense scrutiny, what it is they are expected to reveal? In some sense it seems that the late or reluctant homosexual figures as a proxy for other, more occluded anxieties: the eternal problem of men who cheat, the burdens of monogamy, the alleged homophobia of black and immigrant communities who have yet to become fully integrated into multicultural liberalism, which, once it has deigned to tolerate homosexuality, demands at least that it be fully known and marked. It is only in this context that I can allow Jim McGreevey a touch of sympathy; his is an impossible story to tell right. I wish, however, that he had at least tried.

By Richard Kim

Richard Kim teaches American studies at Skidmore College and writes and blogs for The Nation magazine.

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