Goodbye, Mr. McGreevey

Goodbye, Mr. McGreevey

How Jim McGreevey perfected the art of swimming in the mainstream.


At a time when gay marriages are legal, Queer Eyes rove reality TV and metrosexuals co-opt gay style, Jim McGreevey’s story seems curiously anachronistic and cinematic, a Far From Heaven-era fable of Freudian repression and sublimation. For forty-seven years the New Jersey governor clung to the straight and narrow road, mostly. The son of a nurse and Marine drill instructor turned salesman, he attended Catholic St. Joseph’s high school. While other students grew their hair long, smoked pot and questioned the Vietnam War, McGreevey wore ties, cut his hair short, kept his head down and, according to his former teacher, earned straight A’s by dint of hard work alone. He went on to Columbia University, where he graduated in three years with a degree in political science. From there he launched a career that friends and foes alike described as Clinton-esque long before it became known that he had slept with a government employee: a Georgetown law degree, a masters from Harvard, county prosecutor by 25, executive director of the New Jersey Parole Board by 28, state assemblyman by 32, then mayor of Woodbridge, the New Jersey State Senate and finally the governor’s office.

Throughout this exceptional rise, from working-class kid to oft-touted future Democratic presidential candidate, Jim McGreevey now says he “felt ambivalent about myself, in fact confused.” He harbored what he called “a certain sense that separated me from others.” Taking cues from his resonant and seemingly intimate coming-out speech–one that we know now to have been packed with focus-group-tested phrases supplied by the Human Rights Campaign–the media have taken to describing McGreevey’s “double life” in tones both lurid and sympathetic. It is a powerful but not wholly accurate metaphor. For by all accounts, for most of his years, Jim McGreevey led a singular life, one consumed by his political ambitions.

Profiles of McGreevey from throughout his career depict him as a workaholic, driven, charming and schmoozy but eerily hollow in both personal life and political philosophy. He only listened to CBS News Radio. He had to be dragged to movies. He worked fourteen hours a day, wore identical white starched shirts and slept in his office. When his first marriage ended in divorce he quipped that “the undecided voter” is the only significant other in my life.

There is, of course, another life to which Jim McGreevey could have aspired, had he the courage or imagination. New York City in the late 1970s, still in the rush of gay liberation but before the AIDS crisis, was ripe with possibilities both personal and political (if not exactly electoral) for men like him. And yet, of all the memories that gay men could recount of those days, his are surely the most pitiable: “All I did in college, literally, was just work. Columbia was a blur of studying.” During the late 1980s, while AIDS struck thousands of gay men and the FDA dragged its feet, McGreevey was working as a lobbyist for Merck Pharmaceuticals. He might have acted up then, but he did not. As the early 1990s culture wars saw waves of vicious right-wing assaults on gays and lesbians–and Congressmen like Barney Frank and Gerry Studds spoke out as openly gay men–Mr. McGreevey, then a local politician with far less at stake, had another opportunity to wed the personal and political, but he did not. Not during the Texas sodomy case, the Massachusetts gay marriage decision, President Bush’s call for a federal marriage amendment or even New Jersey’s own recent debate over domestic partnership benefits did McGreevey choose to step forward. Instead, the moment chose him. He was forced by scandal and threat, the palpable sense of relief that suffused his declaration shadowed by sexual harassment charges and ethical questions.

“In this, the forty-seventh year of my life, it is arguably too late to have this discussion,” McGreevey said. Anyone who has come out of the closet can’t help but recognize this poignant statement; for whether one comes out at 47 or 17, it is in a sense always too late. One has already dissembled, missed something, pretended through the first kiss or prom or marriage, realized too late that it might have been otherwise. Such melancholic attachments to unlived lives haunt gay people, McGreevey perhaps more so than most. And yet, I can’t help but bristle at all the compassion showered upon him from gay leaders and pundits. For it was not just homosexuality that separated McGreevey from others; it was power. And apparently, it never occurred to Jim McGreevey–despite abundant examples to the contrary–that the two could coincide.

Who knows whether any of the allegations of sexual harassment or worse posed by Golan Cipel are true? Maybe, as McGreevey swears is the case, the affair was entirely consensual. The details will undoubtedly emerge in the weeks ahead, but let’s assume the best. In that case McGreevey gave his lover a lucrative and sensitive government job for which he was clearly underqualified–a serious lapse of judgment. Though one ought to note, one certainly no more malign and corrupt than giving lucrative and sensitive multibillion-dollar contracts to one’s top campaign contributors and former employers. But such is the American political landscape where sex is scandal and money is business as usual.

Could Jim McGreevey have been governor had he come out decades ago? Would he have wanted to? If he had simply had a gay affair, could he still have a political future? These are the sort of impossible questions being bandied about the pundit class. Those on the gay left have another: What might he have done–or at least simply stood for–with his power and influence? We will never know the answers to any of these questions. For it is all a confused jumble now: the guilt over ethical violations, the sense of shame and disgust attached to homosexuality, the pity and sympathy that go to his wives and children. But a few things are clear. When McGreevey sought to act on his long-held, long-repressed desires, he couldn’t do so as merely a man, but only through the long-desired office of governor of New Jersey. To get there, Jim McGreevey perfected the art of swimming in the mainstream–and now the mainstream has passed him by.

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