What Did McGreevey Prove?

Posted: Aug 15, 2004 12:00 AM

In the matter of the resignation of Governor McGreevey, the impulse is to say: Let it alone ? it is a private act. But that is the thoughtless, even cowardly way of disposing of the event, because it is tied in so many ways to public questions that need thought and exploration.

Perhaps preeminent of the questions being raised: Would he have had to resign if his affair had been with a woman rather than with another man? What looms in memory, of course, is Bill Clinton. But the augustness of his office had the effect of sheltering him. And the people who were central in the movement to depose him concentrated not on the sexual affair, but on the means taken to conceal it.

And of course the affair was heterosexual. Moreover, Ms. Lewinsky was at no time put in a high-level position in the administration. Several of the governor's critics emphasized the abuse of office in the naming of the lover to a high post in the homeland security program. Add to this that the lover, as a foreign citizen, couldn't be processed by the normal security routine, which left the State of New Jersey in the piquant situation of being the employer of a homeland security agent who was not himself permitted to be briefed on security matters.

Perhaps most would agree that the crowning difficulty was that the lover suddenly demanded $5 million. That was either blackmail or extortion, and it put the governor in the unenviable position of having to do something to emasculate the lover. The classic means of doing this to a blackmailer is to reveal yourself what the blackmailer holds over you, leaving him without any weapons at all, and as legitimate quarry of those in charge of enforcing the anti-blackmail laws. That responsibility is with the executive branch, headed up by the governor, raising the complication of a governor enforcing laws against a blackmailer whose target is the governor.

So Governor McGreevey on several fronts was in a tight situation. But what is it that finally moved him to act?

If he is to be believed, what moved him to resign was his infidelity. The words sounded like a thunderclap over Mount Sinai. But yes, that is what he said, that he was resigning because he had violated "my bonds of matrimony." "Violating bonds of matrimony" is found, in the yellow pages of tortdom, under Crimes of Yesteryear. The governor had been divorced, and the fact that the causes of this divorce were not mentioned in copious reports on his life and retirement serves to remind us how far we have traveled from the days when infidelity was actually grounds for divorce. In fact it was for a long period the only grounds for divorce, if the other spouse didn't want divorce. Winthrop Rockefeller, desiring to divorce a woman who wished to stay married, had to go all the way to Arkansas to find a state that would allow him to conclude the divorce. Even then, the terms were pretty rough: You had to become a bona fide resident of Arkansas, which took two years. Mr. Rockefeller decided to put that investment in Arkansas to good use, and so ran for governor of Arkansas.

James McGreevey said about his first wife only that she decided to go back to live, with their daughter, in British Columbia. Her removal left him free to marry again, which he did, siring another daughter.

But although the governor said nothing about abandoning conjugal life with his wife, he did say that in fact he was "a gay American." As such, he was forced to impose "an acceptable reality onto myself." But at this point he left his rapt listeners in confusion, saying that he had to concede that there were perhaps realities "from which" he was "running." He went on then to acclaim America as "the greatest nation, with a tradition of civil liberties ? the greatest tradition of civil liberties in the world.?

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So where has he left us? How is our thinking clarified? What is it that has been, if not proved, at least hinted at? Barney Frank, the gay Congressman, said that it's okay for a mere congressman to be gay, but not quite time for a governor to be gay, because his authority is too concentrated. Another observer said there was a single critical element in the governor's career, namely his having hired the lover, giving him $110,000 a year. There had, we learned, been rumors about the lover and his lofty salary, but that's all they were ? until the governor said that, in effect, the weight of what he done was no longer bearable.

But his focus, not on abuse of office, not on the gender of his lover, not on the lover's extortionate demands, but on the marriage bond was electrifying. Perhaps his major legacy.