The Making of a Gay American

Photo: Eugene Richards

I ’ve never been much for self-revelation. In two decades of public life, I always approached the limelight with extreme caution. Not that I kept my personal life off-limits; rather, the personal life I put on display was a blend of fact and fiction. I invented overlapping narratives about who I was, and contrived backstories that played better not just in the ballot box but in my own mind. And then, to the best of my ability, I tried to be the man in those stories.

In this way I’m not at all unique. Inauthenticity is endemic in American politics today. The political backrooms where I spent much of my career were just as benighted as my personal life, equally crowded with shadowy strangers and compromises, truths I hoped to deny. I lived not in one closet but in many.

Ironically, 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. The true me, my spiritual core, slipped further and further from reach.

There were moments when the ripping misery of this life became too great, moments when I thought about “becoming gay” and all that that entails. One of these moments came after I lost my first race for governor to Christine Todd Whitman in 1997. I thought to myself: You’re at a fork in the road. You could give this up and be yourself. This is your last chance.

But I felt compelled to keep running for governor. I’d lost by a mere 27,000 votes. My political potential was enormous. I think I decided that my ambition would give me more pleasure than integration, than true love. Coming to this realization made me feel not suicidal, exactly, but morose. It’s hard to describe how it feels to surrender your soul to your ambition.

Among other things, I was anxious about marrying Dina. I had met her at a campaign event—she was an uncommonly beautiful 31-year-old blonde in a red double-breasted suit. When the event was over I walked her out to her car and kissed her. I’m still not sure what made me do it. Loneliness, I suppose. Maybe she just seemed like the perfect politician’s wife; it might have been that self-serving. Our romantic life was troubled from the start, but I loved her deeply as a friend and companion. And I did believe I was offering her some things she truly coveted: the stability of marriage, the prospect of a loving family, a chance to share a life of public service, political excitement in spades.

In November 1999, I won reelection as mayor of Woodbridge by a landslide. And the following February, on Valentine’s Day, I slid an engagement ring on Dina’s finger. All the while, I never stopped campaigning for governor.

Three weeks after I proposed to Dina, I went to Israel as part of a delegation of 750 elected officials, politicians, and cultural leaders organized by the United Jewish Federation of MetroWest. The trip, called Mission 2000, was billed as a chance for us to open our eyes to Israel’s significance in world affairs.

One afternoon, we took a bus trip to a local arts center in Rishon Lezion, a rather featureless city just outside Tel Aviv. We were greeted there by the mayor, but it was his 32-year-old communications director, a former Israeli naval officer, who caught my eye. That’s too casual a way to put it. My attraction to him was immediate and intense, and apparently reciprocated. Our eyes met over and over before we were introduced. “This is Golan Cipel,” said the mayor. “He is familiar with New Jersey—for a number of years he worked at the Israeli Embassy in Manhattan.”

We shook hands for a long time. “I followed your campaign very closely,” Golan said. “Twenty-seven thousand votes is a very narrow margin.” He went on to describe my strengths among various constituencies. I was startled by his knowledge of my campaign.

At lunch I made sure to sit next to him. “Democrats take Jews for granted. It’s a powerful constituency. You have to develop relationships with them,” he said. “You got a good percentage of the overall Jewish vote. But if you’d gotten even a small number of Orthodox votes, and all of the Reform Jews, you would be governor today.”

He had smart ideas about my campaign, but I was only half-listening. Watching this handsome man talk—and show an interest in my political standing—totally mesmerized me. Nobody commits to memory the demographic standings of a politician halfway around the world as an academic exercise. I was flattered beyond anything I’d ever experienced before.

I assumed he was straight, but what was happening at this lunch if not flirting? I flirted back, a bit shamelessly. I can’t say I ever had a more electrifying first meeting—so dangerously carried out in a room full of politicians who could ruin us both.

Impulsively, I invited him to join my campaign, and he accepted with equal enthusiasm.

Golan came to New Jersey in early fall 2000, and immediately began directing my campaigning in Jewish strongholds around the state. Watching him work was as exhilarating as it was exhausting. And once or twice, climbing back into the campaign car after an endlessly long day wearing yarmulkes, I kicked off my shoes and spread out on the backseat, resting my feet across his knees. He didn’t seem to mind. With my eyes closed, I could allow myself to pretend I had it all: the governorship, the family, the male lover—and the final piece of the puzzle, love.

I craved love. For years sex had been all that was available to me. From the time in high school when I made up my mind to behave in public as though I were straight, I nonetheless carried on sexually with men. I visited bookstores in New York and New Jersey and had sex in the small booths there until I became too famous to risk discovery. I lurked around parkway rest stops, exchanging false names and intimacies with strangers. But there never was an emotional meaning to these trysts, even the few that were repeat engagements.

The only place where I had ever found any real pleasure in these encounters was in Washington, during my law-school years. At the juncture of Sixth and I Streets, just around the corner from Judiciary Square, there was an abandoned synagogue and a narrow alley leading to the long-forgotten gardens in back. Every night, rain or shine, this hidden pocket of Washington filled with men just like me—almost all of them wearing business suits and, on most of their left hands, proof that they’d made the same compromises I had. We were the power brokers and backroom operatives and future leaders of America. We just happened to be gay.

I felt as though I’d come upon a sanctuary—it was a churchlike, almost spiritual place. Moonlight squinted through the stained-glass windows into our garden, catching an inviting eye or a face stretched in ecstasy. I looked forward to my visits there, sometimes two or three a week. I quickly learned whom to approach and whose advance to wait for, when to move quickly, which posture said “no thanks” and which said “please.” One evening, as I stood on one of the metal platforms back there, a word came to me: liberated. Standing there in full sight of this group of men, I’d finally found a way to show who I was. I am finally free, I told myself. When of course I was just in a bigger cage.

How do you live with such shame? How do you accommodate your own revulsion with whom you have become? You do it by splitting in two. You rescue part of yourself, the half that stands for tradition and values and America, the part that looks like the family you came from, the part that is acceptably true. And you walk away from the other half the way you would abandon something spoiled. You take less and less responsibility for the abandoned half, until it seems to take on a life of its own—to become something you merely observe. And when you’re on the other side, in the shrubbery or behind the synagogue, you no longer recognize your decent self. Years later I realized I’d become both Gene and Phineas from A Separate Peace: the soul and the body, the person who tumbled from the tree and the person who made him fall.

On November 6, 2001, I won the election for governor of New Jersey by fourteen points. I remember thanking my supporters at the Hilton and letting the state troopers drive me over to Dina’s hospital room so I could give her the news myself. By this point we were expecting a child, and it was turning out to be a difficult pregnancy. Dina had gone into preterm labor—five days before the election, twelve weeks before her due date—and was ordered into bed for the duration. I went to her side Election Night, as I would every night for the next month, until our precious daughter Jacqueline was born by emergency C-section on December 7, still premature but healthy.

The home McGreevey shares with his partner, Mark O'Donnell, in Plainfield, New Jersey.Photo: Eugene Richards

An intense and inevitable thing happens after you win a big election. The jostling for power is wild. Republicans had controlled the governor’s mansion for sixteen of the past twenty years, and now we were overwhelmed by pressure to bring Democrats and their supporters in from the cold.

All my financial contributors were vying for payback as well. My goal had been to raise $40 million for the campaign, which, unless you’re a Clinton or a Bush, is an obscene amount to pull out of pockets. You can’t take large sums of money from people without making them specific and personal promises in return. People weren’t shy about saying what they expected for their “investments”—board appointments to the Sports Authority or the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, for example, which were coveted not just for their prestige but because they offered control over tremendously potent economic engines, with discretionary budgets in the tens of millions. The plum was the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; directors there controlled a multi-billion-dollar budget. I tried to stay as naïve about this horse trading as possible. But I allowed my staff to intimate things to donors. This is the daredevil’s dance every politician faces.

Some appointments drew quick criticism. Republicans were all over my decision to appoint Charlie Kushner, who with his family and business had donated more than $1 million to my campaigns, to the board of the Port Authority. They complained it was political payback, but that was wrong. Kushner refused my appointment three times before finally accepting.

At the same time, I was trying to staff my administration. Golan made it plain that he wanted a significant portfolio in Trenton. Several times a day he demanded meetings to discuss his future. I found his insistence both boyishly charming and unbelievably churlish. My staff saw only the churlish side. He moved himself into the transition office, bragging that he had a “personal relationship” with me that gave him unassailable insights into my likes and dislikes. He demanded to look at office-assignment charts and even redrafted my inaugural speech, all without my authority. Finally, when I’d had enough, I went to his apartment to talk to him about diplomacy and office politics. It was a fastidious place, with a fluffy cat I was surprised to learn he’d named Jimmy.

“Gole,” I said. “You’ve got to learn to be part of the team.”

“My only team is you,” he said.

As the transition efforts progressed, I found myself increasingly relying on his advice and candor. His main interest was fighting terrorism; he was consumed by the subject. One night he made me drive with him to the foot of the George Washington Bridge to watch the police screening large trucks there in a method he considered inadequate.

“Any one of those parked trucks could blow up the bridge,” he said. Nothing about my education so far had prepared me to think that way. But Golan had grown up under the threat of terror. Talking to him, I realized that New Jersey needed an office of counterterrorism to think about security and anticipate trouble.

On our private security stakeouts around the state, something else was happening. A tension was growing between us that excited me. He talked about girlfriends and I talked about Dina, but there was a thick subtext to our conversations that was about the two of us.

On December 10 or 11, after I rebuffed several requests for meetings, Golan reached me on my cell phone, upset that I’d been out of touch. I invited him over to the condo for a late dinner, to assure him that he had a future in the administration. He arrived in a suit and tie, dressed impeccably as always. With Dina still in the hospital with our newborn, I was left to my own devices for dinner. I think we ate cold cereal.

He was politely appreciative. We sat at the dining-room table talking and half- watching the cable news, our shared addiction. I don’t know at what point it occurred to me that something more was about to happen. But I know how it started. I stretched out on the couch and placed my legs over his knees, as I’d done previously in the car. I then leaned forward and hugged him, and kissed his neck. His response was immediate and loving.

It was wrong to do. I wasn’t an ordinary citizen anymore. There were state troopers parked outside. My wife was in the hospital. And he was my employee. But I took Golan by the hand and led him upstairs to my bed. He kissed me. It was the first time in my life that a kiss meant what it was supposed to mean—it sent me through the roof. I pulled him to the bed and we made love like I’d always dreamed: a boastful, passionate, whispering, masculine kind of love. When he was gone, I realized that this might all explode on me one day, but I just didn’t care. I felt invincible then.

My circumstances made having an affair excruciatingly difficult, but not impossible. I visited Dina and Jacqueline every day in the hospital, and my heart ached to have our baby home, but until they returned I spent as much free time as I could with Golan. I loved our time together, whether talking politics over cups of tea or trying to remember whose T-shirt was whose at the end of the bed.

When Dina finally got home, our condo became a scrum of familial activity. But, knowing how much work I had ahead of me, the crowds at the condo paid little attention to me.

Once, after an exhausting day in the transition office, I made secret plans with Golan to see him later, at his apartment. The state troopers, now my constant companions, dropped me at the condo and parked around back. When I was sure they couldn’t see me, I pulled on my running clothes and slipped out the front. Golan’s apartment complex was roughly half a mile away, but difficult to get to on foot. I ran along the sidewalk for a while, then below a railroad underpass before returning to the sidewalk and ducking into his building.

He greeted me in his briefs. “Did anybody see you?” he asked, closing the door quickly. We kissed, hard.

I was totally in love with this man. He loved everything I loved. Politics never bored him. He loved strategy and demographic analyses. He loved power, philosophy, justice. He never stopped thinking about these things, and that’s what gave his life purpose and joy. I think Golan expected me to end up in the White House. Maybe that’s what he loved about me—my potential to bring him to Washington. If he was using me as the engine driving his own ambition, I didn’t mind. I liked seeing myself reflected in his eyes.

I finally settled on an ambiguous title for Golan: special counselor to the governor—part scheduler, part policy strategist, part consigliere. I was pleased at the notion that I’d found a way to meet Golan’s expectations while keeping suspicions to a minimum. But of course neither was the case.

On February 14, 2002, I slipped up. I was sitting with the editorial board of the Bergen Record at their offices in Hackensack, reviewing details of the budget. Commenting on my plan to modernize the Department of Motor Vehicles, which was still issuing easy-to-counterfeit paper driver’s licenses, I said, “After the attacks, this became an urgent goal for New Jersey. We will not skimp on security. We actually brought on a security adviser from the Israeli Defense Forces, probably the best in the world.”

Why did I bring up Golan in this context? It was hubris. I’d won office by a landslide, and then quickly squeezed $3 billion out of one budget and $5 billion out of another. I’d done all that while managing a love affair under everybody’s noses. Twice Golan and I had managed to spend whole nights together—once in Philadelphia, where we’d gone for the Army-Navy game and a Jewish event, and another time for a meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee in Washington, D.C., where we had the nerve to tell the state troopers we would share a double-occupancy room “to save taxpayers’ money.” We made love on the floor that night, fearing the troopers would hear a squeak from the beds.

Given how dramatic those first few months had been for me, I suppose I felt like bragging a little. Look at me, I was saying. I’m so smart I’ve got an Israeli doing security, even though offering security insights was only one informal part of his job.

Little did I know how badly it would play. The next day our switchboard was burning with calls from reporters, demanding Golan’s background and credentials, his immigration status, and his Israeli military records. On February 21, the Bergen Record published a story about Golan. I read it in a cold sweat.

Rather than calling him a naval officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, they called him a “sailor.” Somehow they found he had written a collection of poems in high school, so he was also “a poet.” But the worst line was this: “Democrats close to the administration say McGreevey and Cipel have struck up a close friendship and frequently travel together.” I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into this article’s innuendo or too little.

That confusion ended when my mother called me. “Jimmy, they’re saying you’re both gay,” she said in disbelief.

I’d been in office for just five weeks, and already my secret life was in jeopardy.

At home in Plainfield.Photo: Eugene Richards

After the Record story, things between Golan and me never returned to normal. In April, Dina and I finally moved into the governor’s mansion, Drumthwacket, creating an even larger barrier to the secret affair. Now I lived behind a remotely powered gate in a building surrounded by state troopers and domestic staff. I was miserable.

At my encouragement, Golan moved from Woodbridge to Princeton to be nearby. He found a townhouse he liked in the West Windsor community but was apprehensive about taking on the expense. I inspected the property with him and offered to co-sign the mortgage if he needed. Clearly I was courting discovery more actively now.

I was glad to have him so close, but it was never like Woodbridge. In our fishbowl existence, I managed to visit him there only once. It seemed like a mistake. He hadn’t yet hung any curtains on the back of the house, whose windows looked into the woods.

“This is insane,” I told him. “The state troopers are sitting in the parking lot.”

Golan was as cautious as I was. We locked ourselves in his bedroom, fearful refugees from our own lives.

We even started curtailing our official interactions, to quell talk among the staff. But our affair continued, in a fashion. It was crazy. We knew that reporters were increasingly curious about what appeared to be a “special relationship.” The Gannett chain had sent reporters to Israel; Golan’s childhood friends were asked about his history with men and women.

Golan couldn’t stand the pressure. His calls to me became frantic. For him, I think, being known as gay would have been worse than death. The idea of people digging through his personal life paralyzed him with fear.

Of course, I have to admit that there’s a chance Golan isn’t gay. I have thought about this often. Though he claimed he’d never had sex with a man before, I didn’t believe him. Since our secret became public, he has denied having a homosexual identity. I don’t believe that. But it’s possible that our shared attraction did tempt him to cross the aisle, just as my love for my first wife, Kari, and later for Dina had carried me into heterosexual romance. Still, he never expressed any conflict or regret about our time together.

One afternoon in May, after a meeting at Drumthwacket, Golan stayed behind in the rather uncomfortable library on the first floor as the other state officials left. Dina was upstairs with Jacqueline. I looped through the kitchen and dismissed the cook and building manager, returning to the library with two cups of tea. Behind the library was a more intimate study, a small room lined with historic books and oil paintings.

Golan was frustrated. He felt that I was freezing him out of my inner circle. It had been weeks since we’d seen each other.

“Of course, I want to be with you—selfishly,” I told him. “But my time is fully regulated now. The scheduling process is brutal.”

I closed the blinds. We kissed. There was a feeling of doom, as if we both knew this was the end. The thought made me crazy.

“I love you, Golan,” I said. “You make me so happy. I’ve never, you know … ”

He looked so sad just then; I knew he understood.

“I could leave all this behind. I could leave the governor’s office and the career in politics. I would. I would leave it all for you if you told me we’d be together forever.”

He seemed shocked. “Do you mean that?” he asked.

I did mean it. But looking into his eyes I could see that life ever after was not a possibility. He was not willing to walk into the sunlight with me if it meant walking out of politics. He was like me that way—desperately wanting two things that could never fit together.

“Yes,” I answered.

He didn’t reply.

Although we never said a word about it, we both knew this was the end of our affair.

Over the course of the summer, the press scrutiny grew more intense and Golan and I grew further apart. Under mounting pressure, I called him to a meeting at my statehouse office to ask him to leave. I knew politics meant the world to him. He’d come halfway around the world to see how far his political talents would take him in America and I was cutting it all short. I apologized in a million different ways.

“Gole,” I said, “it’s about the government, it isn’t about individuals. You did nothing wrong. But you can’t stay. It isn’t tenable.”

“You said you’d give it all up for me,” he threw back at me.

“Golan, I said I’d give it all up if you were with me. If we’re together as two individuals in love, that makes sense. But I’m not surrendering government for the sake of your job.”

In August, he finally agreed to resign. But almost immediately he began demanding his job back. He found me on my cell phone at all hours, interrupting everything from daybreak trips to the gym to late-night dinners with Drumthwacket staffers. He felt tricked into quitting, he said. I sometimes thought his desperate sadness was about losing me, about losing our love. But that was just self-flattery. I think he hated losing access to power.

It was after one of these calls that Dina confronted me. She had been putting Jacqueline to bed while I stood in the doorway, watching the two of them and listening to my former lover on the phone.

I had no reason to believe that Dina suspected my affair with Golan, or even the fact that I was gay. She probably already knew I didn’t love her anymore, not in the way a man loves his wife. Lately, what drove us forward had been little more than the momentum of a public life.

After we were safely out of Jacqueline’s earshot, she turned and glared at me.

“This whole thing is ridiculous,” she said.

I knew exactly what she meant. “What thing?” I asked anyway.

She walked back toward me, in the darkened hallway, until we were close enough for her to study my face. “Are you gay?”

I said nothing.

I don’t remember how I spent the early-morning hours of Friday, July 23, 2004. What I do remember is the expression of my chief of staff, Jamie Fox, when I arrived at the office. He looked like he’d just gotten news of a nuclear accident.

“We have a bit of a problem,” Jamie said. “Michael DeCotiis is on his way over.” Michael was our general counsel.

“What is it, Jamie?”

He looked at me brokenheartedly. “Michael got a call from a lawyer representing Golan. He’s suing for sexual assault and harassment, unless you pay $50 million.”

It was the other shoe I’d been waiting for. Golan would go public, on fantastically trumped-up charges, or try to extort a fortune from me to keep him quiet. Either way, since he could no longer be a part of my administration, apparently he’d decided to burn it to the ground.

In the weeks that followed, my friend and lawyer Bill Lawler had a series of bizarre meetings with Golan’s attorney, an entertainment lawyer named Allen Lowy.

Lowy hinted that Golan had claimed I sexually assaulted him in the back of a van on the way to Washington, D.C., before an audience of three state troopers—a ridiculous lie. I had never committed any sexual assault or harassment. This was only a love affair I never should have allowed myself, in a world that wouldn’t understand it, with a man who was betraying me.

“The governor is running for reelection, and this is life-and-death for him,” Lowy said to Bill. “The governor needs to pay my client for the damages he has suffered. And although we think we will get $50 million, we’ll take five.”

When Bill pressed for evidence of these charges, Lowy walked out of the meeting.

But Lowy wouldn’t take no for an answer. He wasn’t dissuaded by my lack of money, either, demanding that I reach out to my legendary fund-raising network to meet Golan’s demands.

From the first moments of this crisis, we considered going to federal law enforcement. But I was reluctant. I knew it would stop the extortion campaign, but once an official complaint was made, my heterosexual pretense was over. My story would land in the pantheon of messy love affairs—an entanglement so ill-fated that we needed cops to break it up.

With every passing day I felt my grip on Trenton growing more tenuous. It had begun to occur to me that I might not make it through this. No matter what happened, I knew I owed Dina an explanation. A couple of weeks after Golan threatened to sue, I sat down to talk to her in an elegant living room in the private wing which we rarely used. I took Dina’s hand. “I hadn’t planned this,” I told her. “It was broken off years ago. But he never let go. I want you to know how sorry I am. I beg you to forgive me.”

She was silent.

“We have talked this over a million ways, Dina. I may have to resign as governor.”

On her face she wore an inscrutable mask. When she finally spoke, she said with no trace of bitterness, “Where are we going to live?”

The world of artifice I’d created for myself was tumbling down, and the oncoming trauma was already excruciating. “I can’t keep doing what I’m doing,” I told my close friend Curtis Bashaw, whom I admired both for his considerable knowledge of state politics and for his ability to live an open and integrated life with his partner, Will. What I meant was, I couldn’t go on posing as straight. “I suppose I could stay with Dina. I love and respect her, I really do. But I don’t want to fix it.”

“Do you think you might be gay?” he asked.

After spending a week admitting to my lawyers, to my wife, that I had had a gay affair, this was the first time I’d been asked about my sexual orientation.

“Yes,” I said without hesitation. And then I started to cry in a way I had never cried in my life. Not sobbing, not angry—free.

Curtis hugged me.

“That’s it!” he shouted. “The truth will set you free. Tell it to everybody. Hold a press conference. 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.”

I closed the blinds. We kissed. “I could leave all this behind,” I told Golan. “The governor’s office, the career in politics. I would leave it all if you told me we’d betogether forever.” He seemed shocked. “Do you mean that?” he asked.

He dialed Jamie and handed me the phone.

“I’m coming out,” I told Jamie.

“I’m coming right over,” he said.

By the time my old friend State Senator Ray Lesniak arrived at Drumthwacket that afternoon, Jamie, Curtis, and I had become a kind of support group in the governor’s mansion.

“I’m coming out,” I told Ray. “I’m a gay American.”

He looked at the three of us, not knowing what to say. I doubt Ray had ever knowingly been alone in a room of gay men before. (Jamie, my chief of staff, was also openly gay.) When Michael DeCotiis pushed through the door, Ray flung his hands in the air. “Guess what, Michael,” he joked. “I’m gay, too!”

When we recovered from a long laugh, I saw my plan laid out before me. I wanted to hold a press conference in two days, on Friday, August 13, 2004, to confess my infidelity and tell my truth.

That night, I had to tell my parents. I knew it would crush my father that my political career was taking this unexpected blow. But what I dreaded most was my mother’s disappointment over my violation of my marriage vows.

It went better than it might have. My father’s first response was, “You make a choice, Jim—Coke or Pepsi. You were married twice, you have two wonderful daughters. Why don’t you try to make that work? Why don’t you make the regular choice?”

“Dad, I’ve known my whole life. This is who I am.”

“You will always be my son,” he said, shaking my hand stiffly.

My mother, whose love for me has proved tremendously resilient, mostly kept her thoughts to herself. But when we parted, she took me into her arms and gave me a long and tender hug. “We will always love you, no matter what you do,” she said.

Back in the car, I called Curtis with a report, but his news took precedence. “We have to push up the press conference from Friday to tomorrow,” he said. “Somebody in Golan’s camp leaked the news. ABC is getting a story ready. We’ve got to keep out in front of this thing.”

I was so tired the next morning, the day of the press conference, that I rolled downstairs in sweatpants and a T-shirt before taking a shower. I was surprised to find the place overrun with political operatives, some of whom I didn’t even know. They shouted over one another, rendering opinions, speculating about the press and the courts. Straw polls were being taken on whether I should resign.

“This is what I want to say,” I interrupted them. “I admit shamefully that I engaged in an adult consensual affair with another man, which violated my bonds of matrimony. It was wrong, it was foolish, it was inexcusable. And for this, I ask the forgiveness and grace of my wife.

“This individual now seeks to exploit me and my family and perhaps the state through financial and legal means which are unethical, wrong, and immoral. Let me be clear, no one is to blame for this situation but me. I must now do what is right to correct the consequences.”

Jamie wiped tears from his eyes. So did Ray.

But the other people in the library, the party stalwarts, had moved to the perimeter of the room, returning cell-phone calls and positioning themselves for their next assignments, which no doubt included handicapping who would take my seat in the next election. As Curtis later remarked, “The light drained out of the room immediately for them. You were dead.”

My core group of supporters still felt I should serve out my term, but not run for reelection. I wasn’t convinced that was penance enough for my transgressions. What I did was not just foolish, but unforgivable. Hiring a lover on state payroll, no matter the gender, was wrong. I needed to take my punishment—and to begin my healing out of the fishbowl of politics. At the last minute, I decided to rewrite the last section of my speech.

We held the press conference that afternoon. Members of my staff were crying uncontrollably as I entered the statehouse, holding Dina by the hand. Accompanying me that day was the last thing in the world she wanted to do, but she was the picture of composure in a crisp blue suit and a guarded smile. We took our place on the dais before a hundred microphones, next to my unhappy parents.

I thought I would be queasy, racing through my resignation in a blur of words. But an easy silence fell on my mind and everything seemed to stand still. It was as if nothing mattered in the world besides this moment.

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. 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.

If my relief at finally coming out made me momentarily ebullient, I soon sank into an agonizing depression. A week before the press conference I had enjoyed a relevance and influence. Now I was trivial and inconsequential.

I felt a need to be doing something. And so during the last days of my administration, in total secrecy, I began drafting an executive order that I knew was going to detonate like an atom bomb. I wanted to take on the “pay-to-play” system of New Jersey politics. No one benefited from pay-to-play more than I did. Under my rule, the party had raised tens of millions from developers and lawyers who then were awarded handsome state contracts in return. The system, though perfectly legal, was morally corrupt and indefensible. 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.

There was no way a politician with a future in New Jersey would strike a meaningful blow to the system. But to borrow George Wallace’s phrase, I was “the lamest lame duck there could be.”

My order prohibited donors from receiving significant state contracts if they had given any money to a winning gubernatorial candidate, the ruling state party, or the ruling county party boss within eighteen months of the contract’s disbursement.

At the end of my political career, I was as integrated on a policy level as I’d become on a personal level. It was my proudest moment.

On November 15, 2004, I left Drumthwacket and the statehouse for good. I tried to imagine what our lives would look like once we’d put this behind us. There would be a divorce and complicated negotiations about raising our daughter. I prayed that Dina would find happiness and maybe even the strength in her heart to stop being angry.

For my future, I forced myself to imagine a career in public service that didn’t involve elected office. I doubt that it’s possible to live as a totally integrated person and succeed in the backrooms of America’s political system. That, more than my sexuality, would prevent a comeback. Nonetheless, I hoped to find a place in public life where I could perform a valuable service, where I could be uncompromised and of use.

Mostly, I allowed myself to picture a life organized in harmony with my heart. I fantasized about being in love, really in love—ordinary, boring, romantic love, the kind that takes you into old age, the kind my parents still have.

James McGreevey now lives in Plainfield, New Jersey, with his partner, financial adviser Mark O’Donnell. He is working as an education-policy consultant.

From The Confession, by James E. McGreevey. Copyright © 2006. Published by arrangement with Regan, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

The Making of a Gay American