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The Nation

McGreevey's Double Life Changed in a Single Day

After soul-searching decisions, the governor of New Jersey reconciled decades of personal turmoil in a six-minute political speech.

August 15, 2004|David Zucchino and Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writers

TRENTON, N.J. — They met four years ago at a performing arts center reception in Rishon Le Zion, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Golan Cipel was Israeli, a slender, boyish man just over 30 who worked as the town's information officer. Jim McGreevey was 12 years older, a smart, ambitious American mayor on a political junket.

At some point, the relationship became sexual. It might have remained an unremarkable liaison if McGreevey had not been elected governor of New Jersey and hired Cipel at taxpayers' expense. The fact that McGreevey also has a wife and two children only served to elevate the affair into a sociological and political spectacle.

When Gov. James E. McGreevy announced his adulterous affair Thursday -- apparently forced to the surface by threats from Cipel -- he did what politicians usually do when confronted with their transgressions. He quit. But what distinguishes McGreevey's case from run-of-the-mill political debacles is that he hadn't merely hid an illicit affair: He had for decades hidden his very being.

His remarkable six-minute resignation speech inside the gold-domed State House was much more than a political mea culpa. It was a revelation of a hidden double-life: the gay lover and the straight husband and politician. As McGreevey put it, he had created "an acceptable reality" for himself. Under threat of exposure, he was forced to reveal that "my truth is that I am a gay American."

But on Friday, Cipel came forward with his own version of the truth, claiming through his lawyer that McGreevey, 47, had made "repeated sexual advances" toward him.

Calling himself "a victim whose oppressor was one of the most powerful politicians in the country," Cipel, 35, said in a statement that when he finally rejected the governor's advances, his administration responded with "nothing short of abuse and intimidation."

After reading Cipel's statement to reporters Friday in Manhattan, attorney Allen Lowy said McGreevey's representatives had summoned him at an earlier point to a meeting and offered "a sum of money to make my client go away."

McGreevey's aides accused Cipel of attempting to extort millions of dollars from the governor by threatening a sexual harassment lawsuit and said they had reported it to federal authorities.

The recriminations only served to underscore the complex nature of what Republicans were calling McGreevey's "deception." Whether it was an "adult consensual affair," as McGreevey described it, or sexual harassment of an employee, the relationship was incendiary.

His afternoon announcement -- watched on TVs in offices, homes, restaurants and shopping malls -- brought the state to a near standstill and was met with stunned disbelief throughout the nation.

As McGreevey considered his decision Thursday to come out as gay at the same time he was confessing to adultery, his chief of staff placed a frantic call to Sacramento early in the day.

The aide told Daniel Zingale, an openly gay man who was California Cabinet secretary to former Gov. Gray Davis, that he needed "somebody who has done this before," recalled Zingale, who advised Magic Johnson when the basketball star decided to reveal that he had contracted HIV.

"And I said: 'This has never happened before,' " Zingale said he told McGreevey's aide. " 'You have to realize how huge this is.' "

Zingale and three other people familiar with the deliberations by McGreevey and his senior advisors on Thursday described a daylong series of tense discussions inside the library at Drumthwacket, the governor's official residence in Princeton. Early in the day, they said, the prevailing sentiment was that the governor would announce that he was gay and admit the affair but would not resign.

Zingale said he advised, in a conference call with McGreevey's advisors, that they not deal with politics. "I kept saying ... deal with the personal, come forward, admit that he is gay, come clean on the adultery, take responsibility for it. Say you regret it, but the rest of it is between me and my wife."

But by midday, those familiar with the deliberations said, the group decided that McGreevey had to reveal his affair and resign, effective Nov. 15. The fact that Cipel had threatened to file a sexual harassment lawsuit against the governor was a central consideration, according to Jim Margolis, a media consultant and McGreevey advisor.

"The threats that were being made were part of what made it difficult for the governor to continue to do his job in the way it needed to be done. He knew that once the word had gotten out about the lawsuit, regardless if the charges were false, that all that would be left would be a circus out there," Margolis said.

In his speech, McGreevey did not mention Cipel by name, saying only that his affair was "wrong ... foolish ... inexcusable." The consultants said McGreevey insisted on writing every word of the speech himself, refusing to let aides edit it.

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