McGreevey: Much Further Out of the Closet


Sept. 18, 2006 — -- Steamy gay tell-all, or fodder for political historians? Americans can debate that to their hearts' content Tuesday, when former New Jersey governor James McGreevey goes on "Oprah" to talk about the straight-gay double life he said he led since he was a boy. The show was pretaped, and Oprah had audience members sign pledges to keep mum. But McGreevery's "Oprah" appearance may signal a new level of political confession in a nation that bares more of its soul all the time, and it might help sell books too.

"The McGreevey story is a tale of personal destruction that unfortunately played out in an extremely public stage," Robert A. Mintz, a lawyer who knew McGreevey during New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean's administration, told ABC News.

This Oprah appearance is carefully timed to the release of McGreevey's detail-laden memoir, "The Confession," which recounts years of furtive gay encounters at truck stops and in curtained rooms, and of the emotional liberation gained at the cost of greatly compromised responsibility in high public office.

Former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey stunned the nation in a 2004 televised press conference. Appearing ashen-faced with his wife at his side, he declared, "My truth is I am a gay American." He said he'd had a long-running affair with an Israeli national, Golan Cipel, a poet and public relations specialist he'd hired as New Jersey's homeland security adviser. Cipel's apparent lack of credentials had raised many eyebrows.

Cipel, said McGreevey's advisers, had blackmailed the governor, which precipitated his resignation.

McGreevey now says his first encounter with Cipel, which occurred while McGreevey's wife was recovering from the birth of their first child, "was the first time in my life that a kiss meant what it was supposed to mean" and that "but for Golan, I would never have confronted my own truth."

But with enough he-said/he-said to keep the tabloids busy for weeks, the story now includes Cipel, who soon returned to Israel, telling reporters that he never kissed McGreevey, much less sustained a two-year affair with him. He said that McGreevey sexually harassed him.

McGreevey's book lays out many details to the contrary, woven together with accounts of his sometimes controversial political and executive actions as governor.

Critics of the former governor's political record include gay activists, who, while they support what one calls McGreevey's "journey to self-discovery," don't hesitate to criticize some of his actions as governor.

"I don't think he resigned because he was gay, but because he did some crummy things as governor," said Steven Goldstein, who heads Garden State Equality, a gay rights organization in New Jersey.

"But he's saying, 'I want to be forgiven,' and we're supporting his wanting to be accepted as a member of the gay community, as we would any of the 30 million gay Americans," Goldstein told ABC News.

Adding that he'd read the excerpts released so far, Goldstein said, "I'm gay, and I blushed like everyone else, but I expect there's more to the book than that."

In addition to the merely salacious elements of this story -- and there are many -- McGreevey offers observations about psychological pressures and feints of American politics, apparently hoping to draw a convincing parallel between sexual and political deceptions.

"Inauthenticity is endemic in American politics today," wrote McGreevey, in excerpts released by publishers. "The political backrooms where I spent much of my career were just as benighted as my personal life, equally crowded with shadowy strangers and compromises, truths I hoped to deny. I lived not in one closet, but many."

"Ironically," McGreevey continued, "the dividing experience of my sexuality helped me thrive in that environment. ... I kept a steel wall around my moral and sexual instincts. This gave me a tremendous advantage in politics, if not my soul."

Worries that politics is riven by inauthenticity are nothing new, and some commentators and former McGreevey colleagues say the importance of McGreevey's "Confession" may be more personal than universal.

"McGreevey allowed his deeply personal conflicts to cloud his duties as a public official to the peril of the people he was elected to serve," said Mintz, adding that he believes "most of the voters in New Jersey have turned the page on that chapter in our state's history and would prefer to move on."

"McGreevey handled the situation about as well as he could, given his position," said Tom Nelson of the Philadelphia chapter of the Gay Married Men's Association.

Nelson, who runs Gamma support groups, told ABC News that McGreevey's coming out again now in so visible a way will make more Americans aware of a reality more common and painful than they realize.

"Most married gay men tend to stay married -- at first," said Nelson, who estimates that at least four out of five sooner or later end their marriages.

Goldstein, who also works with Gamma, said the publicity around McGreevey's new revelations may do a little good if it "gets more people talking, and [straight] people need to talk more to the gay people in their lives."

McGreevey's publishers have said he book "names names."

Just how much political chicanery the lawyers may allow McGreevey to reveal won't be evident till late Tuesday.

The excerpts already released make it clear that McGreevey received considerable freedom in revealing personal details.

The counterattacks between McGreevey and his publishers, and Cipel and his lawyers, have not run out of steam, with each side calling the other liars and hurling imprecations about "deceitful ambition" and "special places reserved in hell."