James McGreevey and a place called hope

This is commentary from political blogger and cartoonist Rob Tornoe.

One of my first political cartoons ever published as a professional cartoonist featured disgraced former governor James McGreevey, who is now enjoying an Easter rebirth as a spiritual advisor who is devoted to preaching the gospel to recovering female drug addicts.

The cartoon (large image) shows McGreevey on the cover of an autobiography titled “Distraction,” sitting atop newspaper headlines of the various corrupt and unethical activities that occurred during his administration. My opinion then, as it is today, was that McGreevey was able to survive his corrupt plane wreck of an administration by jumping ship and descending back to Earth on a rainbow parachute.

With the premiere last week of the HBO documentary “Fall to Grace,” New Jerseyans are getting a glimpse of McGreevey 2.0, who counsels female inmates as a part-time employee of the drug treatment group Integrity House. We no longer talk about his junkets to Ireland and Puerto Rico. His “Machiavelli” embezzlement scandal is all but forgotten. The names Charles Kushner, William Watley, David D’Amiano, Peter “See No Evil” Harvey (as Asbury Park Press columnist Bob Ingle dubbed him) and Joseph Santiago are long-lost footnotes of the state’s corrupt past.

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All we seem to recall is the closeted homosexual who was forced to reveal he was “a gay American” and resign from office when his former lover threatened to blackmail him.

As a political cartoonist, I’m a natural cynic. By and large, I think all politicians are basically one bad decision away from selling out their constituents for slightly more power or a tad bit more money. New Jersey certainly is replete with a cast of characters more at home in an episode of “Law & Order” than the statehouse in Trenton.

If there is one constant I’ve observed drawing political cartoons in the Garden State, is that any politician, at any time, can fall from grace. 

McGreevey was a prime example – a self-serving phony only interested in propelling his political future forward. It’s especially hard to have his personal story of redemption forced down our throats during Easter weekend, and come away believing the idea he’s a recovering politician no longer interested in the rough and tumble world of politics.

But after watching “Fall to Grace,” McGreevey truly seems to have genuinely changed his ways. Not to reenter politics, not to sell books. But to honestly try to do good, to make up for past mistakes and to help people.

Throughout the film, McGreevey isn’t afraid to laugh and comment about his past mistakes, which make him completely sympathetic and even… dare I say it… likable.

Near the end of the documentary, a woman named Lisa, who McGreevey has counseled, begins to cry as she tells the former governor she feels like he can see past her life as a drug addict and criminal and recognize the women she was before.

McGreevey pauses, and with a small smile on his face, responds, “I’m gay and I resigned as governor.”

“Alright,” a smiling Lisa responds. “You win.”

That’s not to say this sloppy-kiss of a documentary doesn’t have its flaws. Even as I marveled at the sympathy I was able to feel towards McGreevey and his turnaround, I was dying to see a counter-point, a critic, someone to speak about McGreevey’s train-wreck of a governorship, which he has been able to escape wrapped in a rainbow-flag of sympathy.

The film, directed by Alexandra Pelosi, daughter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, fails to challenge the theme of the reformed McGreevey. There’s no mention of Golan Cipel, the unqualified “sailor” and “poet” McGreevey nominated as New Jersey’s homeland security advisor, presumably because of their romantic relationship. There’s also no talk of Dina Matos McGreevey, his second wife who stood by his side as he admitted his sexuality to the world long before politicians fell over one another to support LGBT causes.

Still, there is something compelling, even heart-warming, about McGreevey’s new-found devotion to working with drug addicts and convicts. I truly hope the release of this film draws some much-needed media attention on our broken criminal justice system, which acts as a revolving door for individuals caught up in a cycle of addiction. 

Maybe I’m being naïve, but after years of covering the world of cynical politics and unethical hacks, it’s refreshing to still believe in a place called hope, especially as we all bask in the afterglow of Easter.


Rob Tornoe is a political cartoonist and a WHYY contributor. See more of his work at RobTornoe.com, and follow him on twitter @RobTornoe.

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