You couldn’t have a conversation of any depth with New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey without hearing nostalgic stories about his Catholic school childhood. Born in Jersey City, the son of working-class Irish Catholic parents, McGreevey had a childhood many Northeast Catholics would recognize. His family left the old neighborhood in Jersey City for the promise of the suburbs, and young Jim went to St. Joseph’s High School in Middlesex County, where the post-war housing and highway boom in central New Jersey took shape. Eventually, he received a law degree from Georgetown University. He also has a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s in education from Harvard.
As Governor, McGreevey conspicuously wore ashes on Ash Wednesday. He often told stories about a nun in Atlantic City, Sister Grace Nolan, who works with the poor of that depressed city. He seemed to wear his Catholic upbringing on his sleeve.
Of course, as we now know, the story of Jim McGreevey was a good
deal more complicated than the stereotypical Catholic school kid from the 1960s. As he said in his nationally televised resignation announcement on Aug. 12, McGreevey sensed that he was gay when he was an adolescent. But he felt compelled to play the role of heterosexual family man in part because he wanted to fit in, he said.
But that was not the only conflicted role McGreevey played. He also wished to be seen as an earnest policy wonk, the kind of politician who enters public service for all the right reasons. New Jersey and many other states are populated with politicians who use their public positions to benefit themselves financially. Usually, this is quite legal, as when a part-time legislator or mayor builds a law or real estate practice through his or her political connections.
Jim McGreevey was not one for such ethically dubious practices. Money was never much of a concern, and it showed. When he served as a state legislator and as Mayor of Woodbridge township, the only income he received, for the most part, was his public salary. Most of his colleagues had lucrative side work, but that wasn’t for Jim McGreevey.
When you have a resume like Jim McGreevey’s — Georgetown, Columbia and Harvard — there’s only one reason you enter public service: To make a difference. If you were interested in money, many other doors would be wide open. With his credentials, Jim McGreevey could have made millions as a partner in a powerful law firm in New Jersey or New York.
Instead, he chose politics. Why? Clearly it was not because he saw it as a path to riches. I believe he had a Civics 101, Catholic-school belief in the political system as an agent for change and as a force for good. He also was tremendously ambitious, so much so that his election as Governor in 2001, when he was in his early 40s, came as little surprise to the New Jersey political establishment. Political insiders in New Jersey will tell you that McGreevey wished nothing more than to be liked. That’s one of the reasons his most-reliable audiences were senior citizens, who saw McGreevey as a model son. They loved him, and he loved the fact that they loved him. Of course, being a leader sometimes means having to say no, and McGreevey had a hard time with that.
Like Jim McGreevey the person, who lived a double life, Jim McGreevey the idealistic public servant also had another side. To achieve his ambitions, to succeed in the brutal world of New Jersey politics, McGreevey made alliances with the state’s political bosses — not known for their sense of ethics and propriety — and in essence sold his political soul to big campaign contributors and fundraisers. Long before McGreevey decided to resign, his administration had a reputation for playing fast and loose with ethics. Fundraisers and contributors were either on their way to prison or under investigation. Decisions seemed tainted by the dictates of political fundraising. Policy decisions were entwined with politics, and politics in New Jersey meant, and means, fundraising.
Jim McGreevey didn’t take a dime. He wasn’t like the politicians
of the past who soiled New Jersey politics. And he was proud of that, intent on gaining a reputation as a politician immersed in public policy.
But, in the end, politics was his downfall. He tried to live a political double life — a master of policy and a voracious fundraiser — and he failed. Just as he thought he could create a false image of his true personal identity, he believed he could balance the pressure of high-powered political fundraising and the noble notion of public service.
He couldn’t. He said in his resignation speech that he could no longer serve two masters. He was right, on several levels.