October 06, 2006
The road to authenticity
Posted by: Chris
When I found out former New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey was going to be in Atlanta tonight for an appearance at Outwrite Bookstore, I rearranged my schedule to stay here an extra day to hear what he had to say. I'm not particularly sympathetic to McGreevey, who came out only when he had absolutely no other choice, and when it was actually in his interest to do so. Hardly a profile in courage.
His memoir, "The Confession," doesn't cheat on details the way Mary Cheney did in her recent effort, but all McGreevey's talk about integrity and "authenticity" comes up short, in the book and in person. Self-effacing and a dynamic speaker, McGreevey is at his best describing the turmoil of the closet, his own oversized ego and the ambition that came with it. He pulls few punches there. He also succeeds in describing in vivid detail the toll the closet took on him and his political ambitions — along with the political advantages he took from lessons the closet taught him about compartmentalization and portraying an image, whether "authentic" or not.
Where McGreevey loses his "authenticity" is when he describes the toll his closet took on anyone other than himself, and his double life has quite the body count. As much as he professes to have been changed by his "journey," McGreevey comes across as the same self-absorbed egotist as emerges from his book. Only now, since his most sympathetic audience is likely gays and our friends, we have become his target audience. The very people whose lives he short-changed while in power — through opposing gay marriage and even civil unions — he now milks as his cash cow.
To be sure, McGreevey offers perfunctory apologies to some of those he has wounded along the way: his two wives and two children, his parents, his advisers, his supporters, the people of New Jersey, and on and on. But very little about his actions suggests the remorseful words are "authentic." If McGreevey felt true regret for dragging his wives and families through the mud, for instance, then why do so all over again now with a high-profile book tour? The motive, of course, is financial — to the tune of a half-million-dollar book advance, according to GQ Magazine.
Another group of folks victimized by McGreevey's cowardly path to power, and equally cowardly fall, didn't even make his "apology list." So during the Q&A, I asked him whether it tarnished the image of gays generally when most Americans learn for the first time that so many prominent people are gay only when they are mired in some seedy sex scandal, whether it be McGreevey, or Mark Foley or even George Michael. Shouldn't his apology list include those gay people who have had the courage to risk their own ambition to live openly and authentically, only to be dragged through McGreevey's mud by association?
His answer was nothing if not politically masterful. He rambled a bit about the perils of the closet, then riffed on how society bears responsibility for forcing people into the closet, segue-waying seemlessly into a vignette about a lesbian teen beaten up in her high school for coming out. When he summed up by calling for anti-bullying legislation, half the audience cheered, having completely forgotten the question and McGreevey's near-total evasion of it.
McGreevey is the first to admit that he would likely never have come out if events hadn't forced him to, and even that's not quite right: He only came out when doing so was more advantageous to staying in the closet. Among the most telling passages of "The Confession" is when McGreevey describes the epiphany that led him to come out publicly.
When he finally admitted he was gay to a gay supporter — after avoiding the question during almost two weeks of internal discussions about his extramarital affair — his friend exclaimed, "That's it! That explains everything! Don't you see? The truth will set you free." [Read: The truth is coincidentally advantageous to you!] "This is the truth! Tell it to everbody. Hold a press conference and tell the truth. And suddenly the tawdry affair with your political appointee makes sense. You were a man in the closet, and now you're free. This is huge, Jim. I think the voters will understand."
McGreevey described his friend's reaction as "a preacher's altar call" that reduced him to tears of relief. It was clearly ironic to McGreevey that the truth he had hidden all his life actually benefitted him at this point, he had dug his hole so deep. So he moved forward with his press conference, without regard before or since about the impact it had on anyone but himself.
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