Jim McGreevey did not enter politics for the money; of that we can be certain after Channel 2 News (in New York) last night showed viewers the interior of the Woodbridge condo McGreevey continued to call home even after being elected New Jersey’s governor in 2001 (until a mold problem at the official residence outside Princeton was resolved). The tour guide was none other than Golan Cipel, the Israeli national whose purported affair with the Governor–and subsequent threats of exposure–prompted McGreevey to resign his office in August 2004. Cipel made some very rough charges last night in contradicting the account of their relationship offered by McGreevey in his recently published memoir, The Confession.
We called the Confession a “spiritual autobiography” in a post last week because that’s the genre to which McGreevey and ghostwriter David France turned in structuring the work. It also belongs to the subgenre of “conversion narrative,” the most venerable of American literary traditions. Critics of the market-driven tendency of celebrities like McGreevey to publish accounts of their spiritual conversion before its fruits are fully manifest overlook the tradition’s source in the near-spontaneous quality of oral conversion narratives offered in Protestant churches of colonial times (in places like McGreevey’s hometown of Woodbridge along with more familiar New England locales).
Something much more important is also overlooked: works of spiritual autobiography including those presented as narratives of conversion or “recovery” offer no guarantee of the author/subject’s virtue or truthfulness. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), one of the greatest books ever written by an American, William James explained that the power of conversion narratives resides in the degree to which their authenticity can readily be verified over the course of a subsequent lifetime. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, truly did live by the light of his conversion experience as did so many of the other subjects James studied. At the same time there is no shortage of fraudulent conversion narratives crafted by figures in a jam or otherwise seeking to evade responsibility for previous misdeeds. Yet this is not a tradition one dishonors lightly; Americans are a forgiving people but don’t care to be taken for a ride by those in who they’ve invested sympathetic interest.
Perhaps the best that might be said of The Confession is that it reveals an individual in the process of becoming honest. McGreevey lived in denial of his homosexuality for forty-seven long years, but his recovery–as he sees it–is not from the effects of shame and guilt over his orientation but from his addiction to “having a public” which served as audience in his perpetual campaign for adulation. McGreevey is, that is, a recovering politician who happens to come from one of the most politically-charged places on earth. In this sense the most revealing observation on his resignation was found in a headline from the Onion: “Homosexual Tearfully Admits to Being Governor of New Jersey.”
This is in fact the most revealing book ever published on politics in the Garden State and surely the only book we’ll ever have in which Sharpe James (long-time Newark mayor and legendarily rugged in-fighter) competes for influence and space with William James (un-credited inspiration for such chapter titles as “What a Divided Self Can Do”). The Confession arrived at a fateful moment in the Garden State’s political history, when the three regional “warlords” of Democratic politics who each played a large role in McGreevey’s ascent find themselves in a state of major flux: George Norcross (South Jersey) is reportedly eyeing a move to South Florida; John A. Lynch Jr. (Central) will be sentenced next month to federal prison for fraud and tax evasion; and Ray Lesniak (North) has undergone his own spiritual conversion which will certainly bear watching since unlike his fellow Bosses (and his protege the former Governor), Lesniak will apparently continue to exert his influence in the rough and tumble of Jersey politics.
McGreevey’s observations on Lesniak and Lynch are especially fascinating; the two had a bitter falling out prompted largely by McGreevey’s own volatile conduct while Governor in the wake of the now-legendary “epiphany” that inspired him to cut Lynch off from access to guberatorial power (greater in Jersey than any other state) despite his having risen from the obscurity of Woodbridge’s mayoralty to the Statehouse via Lynch’s constant intercession. Lynch is a brilliant guy, a Holy Cross graduate that blended a mastery of old-school ward politics with a visionary gift for urban planning and redevelopment. During the decade I lived in New Brunswick, Lynch’s hometown and laboratory, I never doubted for a moment there was more to be learned about American cities by following him around for a day than could be had from a lifetime of urban studies seminars at Rutgers; let’s just say he was not the kind of political leader one casually hung around with.
I would rather read Lynch’s (unwritten) autobiography than McGreevey’s but the book before us is compelling in its provisional fashion. McGreevey does accept responsibility for his actions especially those that clearly devastated his second wife (his first wife moved back to her native
McGreevey now worships in an Episcopalian faith community, the same tradition that elevated Gene Robinson–an openly gay priest–to Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. In an April 2006 New Yorker article on the looming schism in his church, Robinson observed that his harshest critics failed to understand “homosexuality is something that I am; it’s not something that I do.” Such battles over identity politics are of course integral to the endless culture wars of religion on which I have nothing useful to add. Except this: most culture warriors may not be lucky enough to reside in New Jersey but other venues offer their own opportunities for personal reflection grounded in real places, real experiences, and an honest accounting of the human heart and its longings for love, commitment and community. Perhaps we should all write our own Confession before rushing headlong into the fray.