The Second Time Around, It Doesn't Seem So Brave

By the time former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey took the podium to make his spectacular resignation speech a little over two years ago—the one where he declared to a room of at least publicly stunned reporters, aides and family members that he was a “gay American”—he’d already made a mess of New Jersey’s government.

And the way the story goes from there, he moved on to clean up his personal life. Others fixed New Jersey.

The state budget was hopelessly out of balance. His political and ideological allies, frustrated by three years of vacillation on environmental issues, ethics legislation and spending priorities, had turned on him.

And most seriously, his administration was starting to give off the distinct whiff of ethical rot.

The governor had only shortly before been caught on tape uttering the word “Machiavelli” to a constituent. (He professes philosophical leanings toward Kant and the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People in his new book, but in this context Machiavelli was considered—at least by federal prosecutors—to be a code word in an illicit fund-raising scheme.)

And, most spectacularly, at least until the famous “Gay American” speech, Mr. McGreevey’s chief fund-raiser and financial patron, real-estate magnate Charles Kushner, had just been charged with interfering in a federal investigation into campaign-finance violations.

You could well ask whether the public is ready to relive these political failures as though they had all been a journey of personal development for Mr. McGreevey. ReganBooks seemed ready to take the chance when they shipped the former governor’s tell-all, The Confession, to bookstores on Sept. 19.

It’s worked before: Mr. McGreevey’s resignation announcement changed the subject entirely. It was all unprecedented and, at least in a rubbernecking kind of way, impossible to ignore.

Two years later, this tactic has been dressed in hardcover, and the journeys of personal discovery rendered a little—just a little, mind you—more vivid.

The passages in the book that deal with his affair with Golan Cipel—an Israeli national whom Mr. McGreevey appointed as New Jersey’s homeland-security advisor—attracted the intended level of attention from the national media during the publicity campaign for the book over the last week.

The centrality of the juicy stuff in Mr. McGreevey’s narrative is all justified, on his terms: His double existence as a closeted gay man was the very thing that allowed him to achieve his outsized career goals.

“Ironically,” he writes, “the dividing experience of my sexuality helped me thrive in that environment. As I climbed the electoral ladder—from state assemblyman to mayor of Woodbridge and finally to governor of New Jersey—political compromises came easy to me because I’d learned how to keep a part of myself innocent of them. I kept a steel wall around my moral and sexual instincts—protecting them, I thought, from the threats of the real world. This gave me a tremendous advantage in politics, if not in my soul.”

But reading The Confession—even the juicy stuff—is a little bit like sitting through one of Mr. McGreevey’s gubernatorial press conferences. Behind the slick packaging, it’s fairly mundane stuff.

Kissing Mr. Cipel for the first time, we’re told, sent the governor “through the roof.”

The description of his first homosexual experience, transacted at a YMCA, finds him and another man “standing in waist-deep water totally naked. Our excitement carried us even further. And when we were through …. ”

The book is, in fact, so candid as to raise doubts as to whether this could possibly have been the book that Mr. McGreevey—who always saw himself as a genuine policy wonk and a born public servant—actually set out to write.

After all, Mr. McGreevey’s initial attempts to ease his way back into public life after his departure from office were humble and seemingly well-intentioned.

After he left office, several reporters bumped into Mr. McGreevey at a church in Newark. He had shown up, unannounced, to dish out food on a soup line at Christmas, looking very small and—other than the giveaway presence of a recognizable political ally standing next to him—very anonymous.

Some time afterwards, Mr. McGreevey’s associates began talking about how he was planning to use his experience in government to serve some useful public role, perhaps as an anti-poverty advocate or a specialist on education reform.

So how to explain this book? It was always said of Mr. McGreevey in the halls of Trenton that he was the sort of politician who would agree completely and enthusiastically with whoever he had spoken to last.

In this case, one suspects, that person was his buzz-hungry publisher Judith Regan, who was no doubt very clear about her determination to reap a suitable monetary return on the author’s reported six-figure advance.

Beyond that, though, The Confession illustrates another of Mr. McGreevey’s dominant characteristics: an inability to understand how his actions are viewed by others.

It is perhaps fitting that after Mr. McGreevey kicked off his publicity tour for The Confession by talking on Oprah about his torrid affair with Mr. Cipel, the storyline that emerged from it—in The New York Times and elsewhere—was not that he had discovered his true sexual orientation, but that he had admitted, without any obvious remorse, to initiating the tryst as his wife was recovering in the hospital from the Caesarean delivery of their daughter.

In that same vein, Mr. McGreevey somehow expects the public to accept at face value the following passage, excerpted on the back cover:

“History books will all say that I resigned in disgrace. That misses the point entirely. Resigning was the single most important thing I have ever done. I’d rejected a political solution to my troubles and took the more painful route: penance and atonement, the way to grace.”

The problem is that Mr. McGreevey did resign in disgrace—to say so doesn’t miss the point at all. Putting aside everything else, the problem with Mr. Cipel wasn’t that Mr. McGreevey had fallen in love with him, but that he had appointed him—without qualifications or even U.S. citizenship—to a public post as the state’s homeland-security advisor.

And Mr. McGreevey certainly didn’t “reject” a political solution: Mr. Cipel was threatening to go public with news of their affair and his administration was in tatters. Resigning was, in and of itself, a supremely political solution.

Still, the way Mr. McGreevey actually ended his career in politics took some guts. Self-serving though it may have been, his confessional announcement to the world on Aug. 12, 2004, was an uncharacteristically courageous act.

The repeat performance—this book—is not.