McGreevey’s Closet

Ever since powerful Ohio congressman Wayne Hayes’ downfall in the early ’70s for putting his mistress, Elizabeth Ray, on the congressional payroll as a “secretary” (even though she couldn’t type), it’s been a cardinal rule of political survival that elected officials should never pay their paramour from the public coffers. But that’s what Jim McGreevey did — and his ringing declaration, “I am a gay American,” was a carefully crafted piece of political prestidigitation designed to distract public attention from his feckless flouting of basic ethical principles.

New Jersey is a state that lost hundreds of its citizens in the attack on the Twin Towers — which one used to see from a wide swath of the Jersey coastline. In the post-9/11 climate of security hysteria in the Garden State, it was pure political folly for McGreevey to have anointed his completely unqualified 33-year-old boy toy, Golan Cipel — the governor’s male Elizabeth Ray — as the state’s anti-terrorism czar, at a salary of $110,000 a year (two and a half times the salary of the average Jerseyan). It was a thumbing of the nose at New Jersey voters.

And when Cipel’s lack of any credentials for the job was revealed and excoriated by the press (egged on by a then-Republican-controlled state Senate) — because, as an Israeli citizen, he couldn’t get the FBI security clearance the job required for information-sharing with federal Homeland Security authorities — why, McGreevey simply transferred Cipel to another job in the governor’s entourage at the same inflated salary and allowed Cipel to keep his coveted office just a few feet from the governor’s. All this was scandalously immoral — not because of the “consensual sexual relationship,” but because the governor stuck his hand in New Jersey taxpayers’ pockets to put his boyfriend on the public tit, betraying the fiduciary responsibilities that came with his oath of office.

Why was McGreevey so reckless? Because being in the closet as a gay person is a culturally induced mental disease — a form of schizophrenia whose left-brain/right-brain imperatives compartmentalize one’s identity and judgment, frequently fatally wounding the latter. For a public figure like McGreevey, the effort required to live a clandestine emotional/sexual life involves a strangulation of one’s fundamental identity as a person that is all-consuming. It is psychologically, emotionally and mentally exhausting, all the more so if one is in high political office, in which image is all-determinant. It leads to cracked judgments — particularly about persons, since one’s ability to see others clearly is spavined by emotional chaos, and by the need to manipulate others as well as one’s most profound self in order to successfully live the lie.

When McGreevey was a boy, this was a land in which same-sex attraction was considered a sickness. Gay people were routinely dragged off to mental hospitals and tortured, hooked up to jumper cables in an effort to electroshock them out of their gayness. Being gay — the word had no visibility then, in McGreevey’s pre-Stonewall youth — was condemned by the Catholic Church in which he was raised as the nadir of immorality (as it still is). The macho codes of his strict, Marine Corps father were reinforced by those of the echt working-class small town of Carteret, where the McGreeveys lived. In those days, there were no positive points of reference for gay youth like McGreevey who knew from their earliest days that they were different. An adolescent had to have heroic powers of resistance to the suffocating pressures to be “normal” (to which McGreevey referred in the only authentic part of his resignation statement) in order to vanquish, alone, the self-hate taught by such a cultural context.

Like many closeted people, McGreevey sublimated his same-sex emotional needs in ambition, an ambition that came to dominate his adult life — reinforcing his closet door even as, over the course of his passage through adulthood, the open cultural space for which gay people had begun at last to fight became ever larger. The conflict between that ambition and the brave new world on the other side of the door took its toll. In the wake of McGreevey’s press conference, my old friend Barney Frank, the gay Massachusetts congressman, put it this way: “There was a period in my life when I was clinically depressed, on drugs, seeing a psychiatrist,” Barney said of his life as a closeted politician. “I wasn’t functional. You can be a dysfunctional member of Congress, but not a dysfunctional governor. In Congress, there are 434 other people. You can’t put a governorship on autopilot.”

McGreevey’s ambition and closet-dysfunctional judgment led him to jump into bed politically with a gaggle of scum, on whom rained a hail of subpoenas — like his chief fund-raiser, the now-indicted real estate developer Charlie Kushner (who this week pleaded guilty to violating election laws, tax evasion and witness retaliation - he blackmailed his own brother-in-law by videotaping him with prostitutes in order to frustrate the prosecution of Kushner’s corrupt business dealings). Closet life at McGreevey’s political level is expensive. When McGreevey became smitten with Cipel in Israel, it was to the wealthy Kushner he turned, both to sponsor Cipel for a visa and to put his paramour on a Kushner payroll. After public pressure forced Cipel’s eviction from supping at the public trough, it was again to Kushner that McGreevey turned. Cipel first went on the payroll of the PR firm that represented Kushner and his businesses. When Cipel proved incapable of keeping that job (he appears to have been a lazy sod), another job was found for him at the lobbying shop that also represented Kushner, this time at a salary increase to $150,000 (and an office just a block from the McGreevey statehouse).

The Kushner-Cipel connection was one scandal too many in the hydra-headed record of McGreevey’s ethical delinquencies, too numerous to list here — it was the cherry on this charlotte russe of Balzacian corruption. Combined with the misuse of public funds to facilitate the governor’s closeted emotional/sexual life, it was the penultimate reason why McGreevey resigned. And resignation is also a classic tactic by a politician trying to avoid prosecution (there have been several news reports that McGreevey may now become himself a target of the federal investigation into Cipel’s alleged extortion — what additional favors did Kushner get as the enabler of the governor’s closet existence?).

As a gay man who spent the first 23 years of life in my closet, I have compassion for the tortures McGreevey suffered in his. And I know the feeling of relief, of wholeness, he now savors at no longer having to live the lie — it was palpable at his press conference. I think McGreevey was so sick of the closet that he subconsciously wanted to be caught — hence his recklessness with Cipel.

However, McGreevey didn’t come out of his own volition — he was dragged out of the closet by a jilted extortionist who embodied the corruption scandals and ethical abuses that have swirled around McGreevey’s tenure as governor. McGreevey should be pitied — but, despite the initial declarations of the leading gay organizations hailing his courage, he is no gay hero. And his unethical conduct cannot be excused by the closet. Even the National Gay and Lesbian Journalists Association has finally issued a warning to the straight and gay press, affirming that “it would be neither fair nor accurate to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between McGreevey’s acknowledgment of his sexual orientation and his decision to resign.” In the latest poll of Sopranoland, only 8 percent of New Jerseyans believe the governor’s gay affair was the real reason for his resignation. Or, as P.T. Barnum put it, you cannot fool all the people all the time.

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