Volume 5, Number 39 | Sept. 28 – Oct. 4, 2006
McGreevey Faces Gay New York
Ethics, political calculation, second marriage, coming out key at New School-Times panel
The September 26 event came one week after McGreevey’s appearance on “Oprah” and the release of his memoir “The Confession.”
Healy, who sat with McGreevey on the New School’s Tishman Auditorium stage and questioned him for more than half of the evening, led off by pursuing some political dimensions of the former governor’s resignation that remain controversial more than two years later.
In the memoir and the public discussion that has followed its release, McGreevey has emphasized that his resignation was prompted first and foremost by the fact of his having hired Golan Cipel, the man with whom he maintains he had an affair while in office, for a top advisory role that he at one point told reporters involved the state’s homeland security. McGreevey met Cipel while on a trip to Israel, and the younger man followed him back to New Jersey to work on his second, and successful, run for governor in 2001. In Israel once again since McGreevey’s resignation, Cipel has steadfastly denied the affair, charging instead that he was sexually harassed by his former boss.
Healy asked McGreevey why his resignation speech did not make specific reference to Cipel or the fact that he worked for his gubernatorial administration. Instead, the then-governor stated, “I am also here today because shamefully I engaged in an adult consensual affair with another man, which violates my bonds of matrimony. It was wrong. It was foolish. It was inexcusable.”
In response to Healy’s question, the former governor said simply that he had not been specific “on the advice of counsel.” Since the time of his resignation, McGreevey has maintained that Cipel was attempting to extort $50 million from him; at one point Tuesday evening he pegged the prospect of litigation from his former employee at that time at “50-50.”
Still, his silence on the issue during the resignation speech left lingering two key issues—whether he had appropriately owned up to the corruption at the core of his decision to leave office and more broadly whether his explanation at that time squares with what he says today.
McGreevey’s August 2004 speech made only glancing reference to a more sinister truth behind his gay affair, saying, “I realize the fact of this affair and my own sexuality if kept secret leaves me and most important, the governor’s office, vulnerable to rumors, false allegations, and threats of disclosure.” He went on to say, “It makes little difference that as governor I am gay… Given the circumstances surrounding the affair and its likely impact on my family and my ability to govern, I have decided the right course of action is to resign.”
Those words, in total, leave open to interpretation whether McGreevey was motivated by having broken his marriage vows or by the threat that his former lover could compromise his effectiveness in office. At no point in that speech, however, did New Jersey’s governor acknowledge an error of judgment or lapsed ethical standards in giving his lover a top job in state government.
In fact, the vague rationale he presented in his speech apparently had consequences for how New Jersey residents remember his decision to leave office. As reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, a Monmouth University poll conducted last month found that 77 percent of Garden State respondents recalled that McGreevey resigned because he is gay—despite his clear statement two years ago to the contrary. Thirteen percent couldn’t remember why he quit, and less than 10 percent mentioned any problem with “ethics.”
There were as well broader ethics issues facing the governor when he left office, which Healy also asked about. McGreevey’s chief financial supporter, Charles Kushner, was in time convicted of tax fraud, illegal campaign donations, and threatening a witness, and David D’Amiano, a key money man, was found guilty of blackmailing someone hoping to win influence with the governor. Investigation into that second case unearthed a tape recording that suggested, but did not prove, that McGreevey may have had knowledge of D’Amiano’s activities.
Asked about this bigger pattern of corruption—Healy characterized McGreevey as “head of one of the most heavily investigated administrations in New Jersey”—the former governor insisted, “We were found totally appropriate. Nobody in the government, no one in the government was ever charged, indicted, or convicted. No one, no cabinet member.”
As a way of dismissing law enforcement investigations into his associates as a motive for his resignation, McGreevey jokingly referred to the Cipel matter—which he had not spelled out when he resigned—as sufficient cause for his departure, saying, “As if putting your lover on the payroll isn’t bad enough in New Jersey.” The line drew an appreciative laugh from the audience.
Beyond questions about the ethics of his administration, Healy probed McGreevey at several points about the conclusion that some critics have come to that he has used his admission that he is a “gay American” and the healing that resulted from coming out as means of obscuring more troubling questions. At one point, the former governor said, “Patrick, we can discuss this all night. That’s not why I wrote the book. This was painful.”
In fact, McGreevey spent considerable time Tuesday evening talking about his “recovery” during the past two years, a process informed by insights from the Twelve Steps and friends he has in Alcoholics Anonymous. His statements these days are full of slogans familiar to anyone in AA or with friends or family in recovery—“making amends,” “my Higher Power,” and “You’re as sick as your secrets.”
But, according to McGreevey, secrets are not the domain simply of closeted gay men. The “political class”—as he several times described his former colleagues—thrives on secrets, or “artifice” as he termed them, and that made it all the more imperative that he stay in the closet. Voters, McGreevey argued, are “way out front” of politicians on accepting gay people in public life.
“What happens is that you have to go through this gauntlet of county chairmen and county committees and people in the political class are very specific,” he said. “They want to make sure you’re the right candidate.”
Still, when asked by an audience member to cite instances—“specific conversations”—where his political associates showed their hostility to gays openly participating in the process, McGreevey did not respond directly.
And, he also said that he made the “threshold decision” about not coming out at 12 or 13—he recalled laying in a pup tent on a Boy Scout camping weekend and overhearing older boys saying, “McGreevey’s a fag, he’s a homo, he’s queer.” Politics, he explained, merely “confirmed” a decision to remain silent made decades before.
After confronting questions about his ethics and his unwillingness for so long to acknowledge his homosexuality, McGreevey seemed to have the greatest difficulty in explaining his relationship to his second wife, Dina, whom he married just 13 months shy of his election as governor. In response to questions from Healy and the audience, he alternately said, “I did not believe in my heart that I was gay” and “I always felt as though I was gay.” Asked bluntly whether he judged that he could not win election as a “bachelor governor,” McGreevey said, “I wanted love,” later elaborating that he found “passion” and “intimacy” with his second wife.
One audience member reminded him that the notion of making amends found in the Twelve Steps warns against doing so when it would do harm to another, and asked McGreevey whether his book would have that effect on Dina. The former governor insisted that the damage was done at the time his scandal came to a head and that the former couple is now in a “period of transition.”
“She has been supportive. She has been nurturing,” McGreevey said of his ex-wife.
If the former governor was subdued in talking about his second marriage, he was quite nearly in stump speech mode when challenged about his claim to be a proud gay man today. Explaining that he was not in that place two years ago, McGreevey, referring to the hypothetical of his having come out while governor without coercion, bellowed, “Damn it, of course I would like to have done that.” Instead, while in office he hid out at “the top of the food chain,” as a heterosexual, married, white man in power.
“Now I can’t get married,” he said, and then to great applause added, “I am actually more pissed off about that. My gay friends have sort of accepted that because they never had it. I had it falsely. And now I know what I don’t have.”
“I’m a convert,” McGreevey said. “As a convert, you’re crazy and I am convert. I am a convert to self-acceptance.”
The Tuesday evening event was sponsored by The Times, the Milano School of Management and Urban Policy at the New School, the New York City chapter of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association, and Out Professionals.