Here’s a story that almost went awry. A month or so ago, with everyone from Oprah to New York magazine promising an inside look at former Governor Jim McGreevey’s memoirs, “The Confession,” I had an idea. With McGreevey waxing poetic about his struggles with his sexual identity and the pain of living a closeted life in Drumthwacket, what were the struggles for ordinary people who happened to be gay living in Princeton?
Were their lives as miserable as McGreevey’s? Was the Princeton community as much of a prison as Drumthwacket apparently was for McGreevey? And if you had a gay friend thinking of moving into town and he or she wondered what the social climate was here, would you send them a copy of McGreevey’s book or this issue of U.S. 1 to help them get acquainted?
Not a bad idea, I thought, and the idea had a certain amount of legs every time the editorial staff and I met to ponder the contents of upcoming issues. (And I guess it didn’t hurt, to paraphrase the New York Lottery commercial, that I owned the team.) Eventually we pulled together the pieces, which begin on page 41 of this issue.
But there was one story missing: A review of the book that got the ball rolling. So I finally grabbed a copy of McGreevey’s book off the shelf and read it. And that’s when the story went awry, or at least this piece of it. McGreevey’s “Confession” is only in a small way about his repressed homosexuality and adulterous behavior.
Much more prominent, more graphic, and more unsettling are McGreevey’s first hand observations about backroom politics in New Jersey. If you could turn back the clock and make McGreevey a happily married man, and then excise every reference to sex from this 353-page book, you would still be left with about 300 pages of political memoirs that would evoke that long standing comparison between creating legislation and making sausage — you really don’t want to know how it’s done.
Take Golan Cipel, for example. He’s the dashing young Israeli security specialist (or so McGreevey thought at first blush) who stole the governor’s heart and became the governor’s downfall when he tried to extract $50 million, later reduced to $5 million, from the governor in exchange for staying mum about their affair.
Cipel and his attorney are made into mince meat in the backroom run by McGreevey’s people. Cipel brings down the governor but doesn’t get an ounce of further satisfaction. At the end of the book, Cipel is back in Israel (insisting he is not gay) and relegated to be a minor footnote in history, like an assassin who only wounded his target.
Compare Cipel to a New Jersey insider like John Lynch of New Brunswick. McGreevey’s book calls him “the smartest man in the state,” who “orchestrated the resurgence of New Brunswick” and “championed the principles of smart growth and urban revitalization.” But, McGreevey continues, “as years went by we all watched as Lynch developed a taste for the financial gain those around him enjoyed. After his service in the senate Lynch built a consulting company that worked to help developers win government approval for their projects.”
McGreevey’s book went to the publisher this past spring. In September Lynch pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion and corruption. He now faces up to three years in prison.
Or take Charles Kushner, described by McGreevey as “a terrific fellow and one of the state’s wealthiest developers.” The governor was impressed by Kushner’s faith: “He prayed every day using the Orthodox practice called ‘davening,’ in which he bowed ritualistically while reciting Jewish liturgical text. He observed the Sabbath strictly.”
By the end of “The Confession,” Kushner is embroiled in a bitter dispute with his brother and sister over allegedly illegal political contributions. Kushner hatches a plot involving a prostitute to entrap and then bribe his sister’s husband. The plot is foiled and this “terrific fellow” is sentenced to two years in prison.
(Don’t feel too sorry for him, however. As the New York Observer, owned by Kushner’s son, Jared, has reported that he spent much of his sentence at a halfway house with weekends at his ocean-front mansion in Long Branch, and “got his sentence further reduced by completing an alcohol abuse program. This raised a few eyebrows among those that knew him, since his drinking problem was news to them.”)
Finally consider Ray Lesniak, the political boss of north Jersey. “When the history of New Jersey politics is finally written, Raymond Lesniak will no doubt emerge as one of our most towering figures,” writes McGreevey. This “warlord” of politics, McGreevey writes, was transformed into a new age evangelical Christian and follower of the 12-step philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous.
When McGreevey is basking in his most arrogant moments as governor, he lambasts Lesniak to the point of tears. But at McGreevey’s lowest moments, as he made his decision to resign, he calls on Lesniak for help. “I hoped he wasn’t holding a grudge.”
Lesniak brings “a new spiritual mien” to McGreevey’s shattered life. When it comes time to confess his double life to his wife, Dina, McGreevey brings Lesniak with him to the private wing at Drumthwacket. “Ray, with his tremendous spiritual footing, helped me prepare for the moment.”
McGreevey’s last action as governor is to close a major loophole in the state’s “pay-to-play” system, a loophole that had actually made the system work even more favorably for the party bosses he had courted earlier in his political career. He describes his new-found sense of integrity:
“I’d come to realize that I could no longer make compromises with my own value structure. I’d taken a million ethical shortcuts to climb the ladder, all the time thinking that that was the only way to amass enough power to serve the collective good. But in the end I’d done a great deal of damage. Besides the harm my dishonesty had done to me personally, I’d brought shame to my family and heartache to my supporters throughout the state. I’d cast the government and my party into bedlam.”
At this point, you might think, McGreevey walks away a transformed man. “The Confession” seems to be a rehabilitation story, at the end, having little to do with McGreevey’s sexual orientation and much more to do with his twisted sense of values, which seems to affect politicians and deal-makers throughout the state.
Transformed? Well, maybe not. After he leaves Drumthwacket his new age friend, his virtual spiritual adviser, Ray Lesniak “kindly found a home for me.” McGreevey was to be a legal advocate for Xanadu, a $1.3 billion entertainment and retail center to be built in the Meadowlands. McGreevey as governor had signed the contract giving development rights to the Mills Corp. Mills, in turn, was a client of Lesniak’s firm.
In the book McGreevey insists that his involvement consisted only of developing a workforce training site for the project — “there was no ethical conflict.” But, he adds, “under state law former state employees — but not governors — are barred form working for companies they aided in government for a year. The press thought I should have voluntarily obeyed the same standard.”
The transformed McGreevey’s conclusion: “Perhaps it was poor judgment for me to be working for Mills Corp. so soon after leaving government.”
Perhaps? At age 47 McGreevey may have finally solved his sexual orientation issues. But he — and political bedfellows — may still have to work on their ethics.