The Governor's Secret Life

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Golan Cipel has accused Jim McGreevey (r) of sexual harassment

His heart was in a constant, turbulent riot ... Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For a while these reveries provided an outlet ... They were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that about his great American faker, Jay Gatsby. Another faker, New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, last week finally smashed the rock upon which his world was founded: "I began to question what an acceptable reality really meant for me," he said at one of the most extraordinary news conferences — at turns lyrical, philosophical and evasive — in U.S. political history. "Were there realities from which I was running?" And then his answer: "My truth is that I am a gay American." That thunderclap was quickly followed by two more: McGreevey said that he had had an extramarital affair with a man and that he will resign Nov. 15. McGreevey neglected to mention that he unburdened himself because he expected the man to sue him for sexual harassment.

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So ends the career of an ambitious New Democrat, a man who slaughtered his Republican opponent in 2001 and had long ago set an eye on Washington. But if this is a story of one man's dashed hopes — a man whose parents called him "our lad of great expectations"--it is also the story of a state's. McGreevey never fulfilled the promise he made in his inaugural address to "change the way Trenton does business." Actually, if you add up all the scandals involving McGreevey and the men and women of his inner circle, you could say he did change the way the persistently corrupt capital operates: he made it worse.

And yet the scandal that got him, the one that led to his sudden fall, was tangled up with homosexuality. For gay Americans, the Governor's words recalled the blistering shame and crushing fear that can accompany an adolescent's realization that he is gay. "I often felt ambivalent about myself," said McGreevey, who turned 47 this month. He compensated by being a good Catholic kid, a member of a pious high school group called the God Squad, according to the New York Times. He toiled fiercely — to transfer from Catholic University to Columbia; to become an assemblyman, mayor and state senator; and finally — after two grinding campaigns — to take the oath as Governor. "Plan your work; work your plan," his father — a former Marine drill sergeant — had taught him.

Many Americans, particularly those who have suffered in the closet, sympathized. "I don't know how anyone could watch the Governor and not feel sad," says Matt Foreman of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "What this situation represents is why people don't come out — because coming out can bring everything that you've worked for down around your head."

But is that what brought it all down? Many gay politicians serve openly today, from Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona to Oregon Supreme Court Justice Rives Kistler. And countless straight politicians could tell McGreevey that a career can perish even when your secret passions are heterosexual. Just ask former Governor Paul Patton of Kentucky, who had to abandon plans for a 2004 Senate race after he was accused of misusing his office to help a woman with whom he had had an affair. Or Jack Ryan, the millionaire who was running for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois this year until tawdry allegations from his divorce papers hit the airwaves. Or Robert Livingston, who was to be Speaker of the House in 1998 but resigned his seat because of alleged adulteries.

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