Truthiness: An interpretive dance

For Jim McGreevey, the truth was always whatever he could get away with. That is, until he appointed a former lover to a high level position who later tried to blackmail him. To preempt that circus–and some say other swirling scandals in his administration–McGreevey held a press conference declaring both his homosexuality and his resignation.

Now with the release of “The Confession,” McGreevey uses his memoir as a sort of public confessional booth, hoping to be absolved of his sins if he achieves the proper level of atonement.

The memoir certainly seems to have more transparency than most memoirs of people in power, but then again, McGreevey is not now in power, nor likely to be so again. Although his final speech focused on his declaration of being gay, his resignation had less to do with his breaking the bonds of his marriage and more to do with his appointment of a lover to a position he was unqualified for. Also there was the small matter of all the other scandals that would continue to bubble to the surface during his administration.

For McGreevey, it was integral that he get his truthiness–a term reintroduced into popular usage by Stephen Colbert–out as soon as possible. Mr. Colbert announced last year on The Colbert Report that “we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their hearts.” And McGreevey is clearly on the side of truthiness. He says in his memoir that many of his early memories are “spotty,” as are myriad political decisions that might have been related to corruption scandals during his tenure. “In place of hard facts are sharply detailed feelings,” he writes, “moments of elation and pride; large doses of hope; ultimately discouragement, pain, and a soulracking fear.”

And so in August of 2004, when he resigned from the governorship, McGreevey declared: “My truth is that I am a gay American.” The chances were slim that he could retain the governorship no matter how he approached this dilemma. But his approach shifted the debate away from the scandal, or the fact that his official date or resignation, November 15, precluded the chance of a special election.

In today’s world, the best public relations move to counter the mounting scandal was for McGreevey to proclaim his homosexuality before anyone else could. And just as the rest of his life was handled like a political campaign, his memoir shows how his team handled this situation. As one of his advisors told him: “Hold a press conference and tell the truth. And suddenly the tawdry affair with our political appointee makes sense. You were a man in the closet, and now you’re free.”

The idea of authenticity and truth are a large component of McGreevey’s memoirs, prompting Oprah to declare: “I really do think what former governor McGreevey has done in being so open about his sexual activities is going to be a watershed moment. It is going to be as important to the culture as Demi Moore going on the cover of Vanity Fair with her pregnant belly.”

The American public hates a hypocrite, and by coming out with such detailed accounting of his sexual choices, McGreevey is feeding into the public’s desire for truth and honesty. But the subtle trick of fame is that there is no way to crosscheck the private recountings of public figures. And so what resembles the truth is often enough to appease a hungry crowd.

From the beginning it is clear that McGreevey’s book is more about “his truth” than the objective account of the situation. And his truth and the shame that he felt about his immoral actions was always intrinsically wrapped up in other people’s opinions of him. He was always concerned with “having a public.” Even as a child, McGreevey wanted his parish priest to realize that “my performance was not just conscientious but downright godly.”

All celebrity memoirs allow the public figure to get his version of the story out to the public. “His truth” may have some holes in it–there are many things that a celebrity may not want or have to reveal–but a memoir can be a powerful political tool–the stretched premise that Hillary Clinton learned the whole story about Monika Lewinsky on the same day as the American populace is an integral part of “Living History” and her continued political career.

But Mrs. Clinton, with the chances of a very successful political career, didn’t have to convince the public of her account of what happened when she learned that her husband did not not have sex with that woman so much as get past the topic to focus matters more important to her future career.

As McGreevey will likely never run for office again, his sole objective is to resuscitate his public persona, which is clear from the memoir, is a very important goal for him. As such, he has much more to gain from forthrightness, or the appearance of it, in his memoir.

And he does divulge some rather detailed accounts of his private life–among them anonymous trysts in rest stops, Time Square, and public pools.

But this type of full confession is very much contrary to how McGreevey has lived his life to date. From an early age, McGreevey shaped his entire life toward this goal of public life, refraining from using any drugs or overindulging in alcohol. Though he could not abstain from sexual transgressions contrary to his public persona, he was able to curb his misbehaviors when he came closer to his goal of celebrity. Both of his wives tired of his relentless campaign life, and he notes in the book that his second wife “accused me in legal papers of courting her, and ultimately marrying her, for purely political reasons.”

And though McGreevey points to his coming out as the proudest moment of his life, he told Oprah on Tuesday that “had Golan not happened, I don’t think I would have ever had the courage to come out of the closet.” Without the pressure of Cipel demanding money from him, McGreevey may never have decided to make his life more “authentic,” because he had no evidence that he could not continue to get away with his deception. And there was no reason to come out, since “I knew even then that I could not be a gay governor of New Jersey.”

Yet despite his forced hand in this situation, McGreevey would like credit for coming out before he was outed: “Resigning was the single most important thing I have ever done. Not only was I truthful and integrated for the first time in my life, but I rejected a political solution to my troubles and took the more painful route: penance and atonement, the way to grace.”

Towards the end of the book, McGreevey acknowledges “My addiction is to being central in the world, to being accepted and adored in the way that celebrities are adored.”4 He claims that undergoing a twelve-step program, reacquainting with his God, and various therapists have rid him of this addiction, but the publishing of his memoir may prove otherwise.

Just as when his wives helped make him the picture of heterosexual happiness, McGreevey’s life partner, Australian financial adviser Mark O’Donnell, and their well appointed New Jersey mansion make excellent accessories on this tour. Chances are that McGreevey is truly in love with this man, but either way, with O’Donnell he can present a more positive image of how a healthy gay lifestyle has improved his morals.

Also, now that he’s out of office, he’s free to denounce all bad decisions he made as governor, never mind that it’s a bit easier to speak truth to power when there’s no chance anyone will allow you an opportunity to breed corruption again.

Though luckily for McGreevey, the most unusual about the corruption in the governor’s office during McGreevey’s tenure is that he admitted to it. And although Cipel is once again running an interference campaign to discredit McGreevey’s story, he may be the only person in New Jersey with less credibility on this matter.

For a man who spent his entire life positioning himself for a life in the public eye, McGreevey’s grievous miscalculation in hiring his foreign lover to a homeland security position seems an uncharacteristic misstep, but depending on how the public decides to interpret “his truth,” it may yet be the best thing he ever did for his image.

Meghan Keane is a Phillips Fellow and a writer living in New York.

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