Redemption for a Recovering Politician

Former Governor Jim McGreevey got a master’s degree in divinity at General Theological Seminary, but has so far been unable to win ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. | HBO

Former Governor Jim McGreevey got a master’s degree in divinity at General Theological Seminary, but has so far been unable to win ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. | HBO

While some disgraced politicians such as heterosexual adulterer Mark Sanford in South Carolina can’t stay out of the political game, “gay American” former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey, who resigned in 2004 when an affair with a male aide came to light, seems done with all that. He is not pursuing an elective office comeback but instead devoting himself to aiding incarcerated women, most from communities of color, in bouncing back from addiction and the lives of crime that fed their life-destroying habits.

His story is told in a compelling new HBO documentary by Alexandra Pelosi, “Fall to Grace,” which bows on HBO on March 28. Pelosi also talked Republican George W. Bush into letting her follow him around with her hand-held camera in the 2000 presidential campaign, though “Journeys with George” wasn’t released until March 2003. In “The Trials of Ted Haggard” (2009), she famously documented the fall of a right-wing megachurch pastor after his gay liaisons were exposed.

The director, who is the daughter of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi — who joined her at the March 21 premiere at the Time Warner Building — said she decided to make the film after reading about the scandal in the New York Post. “Fascinated by the demonization of people you don’t know,” Pelosi said the story reminded her of her mother meeting an older Republican at a reception who said to her, “You’re Nancy Pelosi? Remind me why it is I hate you so much?”

Alexandra Pelosi’s HBO documentary on Jim McGreevey charts a path back from disgrace

Unlike Haggard, McGreevey, since resigning the governorship, has never made an effort to get away from his homosexuality. He is happily partnered with financier Mark O’Donnell in a leafy New Jersey suburban home that the film shows them opening to his paroled clients and their kids for a joyful Christmas party.

McGreevey first tried to restart his life after resigning by writing “The Confession” in 2006, attempting — unsuccessfully in my view — to come to terms with his life in the closet, during which time he married twice, fathered two children, and pursued and won the highest office in his state. After his departure from Trenton, he also tried his hand at being a gay activist, speaking and writing op-ed pieces far more focused on his very belated coming out than on anything that had transpired in the 35 years of LGBT liberation that eased his journey.

McGreevey left the Roman Catholic Church over its virulent anti-gay posture and joined the Episcopal Church in 2007, completing a master of divinity degree at Manhattan’s General Theological Seminary. He sought to be an Episcopal priest, but as the documentary explains, that Church has so far declined to ordain him due to his past scandals — but not because they were related to homosexuality. McGreevey says he is at peace with that.

Where the former governor has found redemption is in the New Jersey prison ministry that Pelosi so vividly documents, working with women whom society has discarded and forgotten in a system designed almost entirely for punishment, not rehabilitation. After his searing experiences in the spotlight, it is fair to ask why McGreevey would put himself out there again like this. He told the audience at the Time Warner Building that despite initial misgivings — especially from his partner — “Alexandra just kept showing up” and they gave in. For that we can be grateful, not just to see how McGreevey has found a new life, but for the light the film casts on the plight of these women.

During a Q & A after the film in front of a powerful audience that included other members of Congress besides Leader Pelosi, McGreevey spoke passionately about the disgraceful rate of incarceration in the US and the lack of drug treatment and employment training afforded prisoners. Due to the success of programs such as Integrity House in the Hudson County Correctional Facility where McGreevey, a Democrat, works, Republican Governor Chris Christie has committed to more treatment in his budget.

The film shows that the work isn’t easy and requires intense involvement in the lives of the women both in and out of prison. When one of the women talks about how her life has bottomed out, McGreevey shares that he’s the gay governor who had to resign — a way of coming out not so much with pride but with a story of his own truly troubled times that she is able to relate to.

McGreevey’s approach is steeped in his new — or renewed — religious faith. He believes “religion should be about our better angels and transcendence, not tying ourselves to the worst in the culture,” such as homophobia.

One of McGreevey’s allies is Father Leo O’Donovan, a Jesuit Catholic priest and the former president of Georgetown University who appeared at the Q & A. To some laughter, O’Donovan told the audience, “I’m happy our new pope is Catholic,” then caught himself and said, “Jesuit.” Perhaps moved by McGreevey’s personal story, he then went out on the limb, saying, “The official Catholic teaching on being gay is very negative” and “I apologize for that.” Some Catholics, O’Donovan said, “are more accepting and wiser,” and he recommended their wisdom about homosexuality over what is officially taught.

McGreevey admits that part of what drew him to politics was getting the adulation of the people. Now he has entered into a new relationship with average people — just 40 of them, who have fallen even if not in the way he has. Along the way, he has discovered an altogether richer life that benefits both the women and himself.

FALL TO GRACE | Directed by Alexandra Pelosi | HBO | March 28 at 8 p.m. | Repeated Apr. 2 at 5:30 p.m., midnight; Apr. 6 at 10 a.m.; Apr. 10 at 3 p.m.; Apr. 14 at 5 p.m.; Apr. 19 at 6:10 a.m.; Apr. 23 at 9 a.m. | HBO 2 on Apr. 3 at 8 p.m.; Apr. 13 at 10:15 a.m.; Apr. 16 at 5:05 a.m.