With a speech that cut short his disastrous term as New Jersey governor, Jim McGreevey finally inspired some admiration.
The reasons for his resignation - admitting an affair with a man after reportedly being threatened with litigation - are nothing to cheer. McGreevey may very well have been forced into this stunning admission.
But the way McGreevey confronted the situation yesterday was one of the bravest acts I've seen in politics.
He stood there in front of his family and the world and admitted that he had been living a double life.
"My truth is that I am a gay American," McGreevey said.
And that sound you heard was jaws dropping all over New Jersey and beyond.
It's not commendable to deceive the public for the first 21/2 years of your tenure, or to expose the governor's office to, as he said, "rumors, false allegations and threats of disclosure." And we don't know yet whether McGreevey's speech was aimed in some small part at laying legal groundwork for whatever else might be coming. His precise phrasing of "adult consensual affair" sounded as much like a defense as it did an explanation.
Still, McGreevey could have handled this scandal the way so many other politicians do. He could have given a brief statement acknowledging that he had "caused pain" in his marriage and was resigning in the best interests of his family. He could have issued a short press release and disappeared. End of story.
Instead, he laid open his soul and his sexuality on camera. His speech was so personal and revealing, at one point I found myself wishing he would stop. It was as if he were giving us too much information, even for a society and media that crave such intimate details about our leaders and our celebrities.
Talk about Reality TV.
Just as amazing as what he was saying was how long he kept saying it. How fitting that Channel 6 interrupted Oprah to bring us this news conference.
"It makes little difference that, as governor, I am gay," he said. "In fact, having the ability to truthfully set forth my identity might have enabled me to be more forthright in fulfilling and discharging my constitutional obligations."
Here McGreevey was, crashing and burning in his political career, yet displaying the at-long-last empowerment he was feeling for the first time in his life. And you had to at least appreciate the burden that was lifting right before our eyes.
"And this, the 47th year of my life, is arguably too late to have this discussion," he said. "But it is here, and it is now."
How many people watching him, across the nation, have wrestled with saying similar words to a family member or friend, let alone to the media horde?
Does this admission somehow salvage McGreevey's legacy as governor? No way. He has been a poor governor, regardless of his hidden sexuality and his coming out.
From the start, the former mayor of Woodbridge looked like he was in over his head in Trenton. He made dubious appointments in his leadership team. His chief of staff and another top official resigned early on, after allegations surfaced that they had been using their positions on McGreevey's team to leverage billboard deals on the side.
After 10 months in office, he had to explain why he'd taken 272 trips in state police helicopters, including 14 that were not for official business. Then, of course, there was his taxpayer-funded trip to Ireland, which the state Democratic Party paid for later. McGreevey got entangled in so many ethical dilemmas that he finally threw himself on the mercy of an ethicist/advisor appointed to watch over him.
His legislative agenda? Not impressive, gay governor or straight governor. He came into office saddled with huge budget shortfalls that required unpopular cuts and tax increases.
McGreevey couldn't seem to get a break, or to make his own breaks. What should have been his crowning achievement - signing of legislation earlier this week to protect the Highlands watershed - instead was tarnished by a boycott from environmentalists angered that he had cut a deal to allow, potentially, more rapid development in South Jersey.
His term has been marked by ineptitude. Maybe that's why some of us found ourselves rooting for him yesterday, in spite of ourselves.
He talked of a "responsible transition" as the reason for waiting until Nov. 15 to step down. Not coincidentally, that timetable allows Democrats to hold onto the office through next year.
So, for the next three months, New Jersey has a gay governor.
If only he had run that way.
Dave Boyer is a member of the Inquirer Editorial Board
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