Governor McGreevey had not originally planned to resign on that fateful day fifteen years ago. Once we started getting press questions I have long suspected may have been sparked by a tip from Senate President Dick Codey, McGreevey moved up the now-famous speech he had been planning for the following day. Had he stuck to his original timetable, he and those of his advisers arguing against a resignation would have had 24 more hours to consider remaining in office, perhaps in favor of not seeking reelection.
As staffers, we had known something was up since the Democratic National Convention in Boston two weeks before. McGreevey suddenly went from constant accessibility to radio silence. Delegates and supporters who knew him well sensed it, too. We had carefully planned his convention appearances to highlight his leadership of the New Jersey delegation, to shore up lingering questions about David Damiano, an indicted fundraiser who claimed McGreevey used a code word about his scheme – “Machiavelli,” which anyone who knew the governor at all knew he’d need not the slightest encouragement to bring up. (“Did I mention that this couple you’re about to meet happens to be reading Machiavelli” would have been more than ample to guarantee an animated discussion.) We prided ourselves on being part of the turnaround team that was helping McGreevey climb back from a series of rookie-year errors, and we were making headway. Unfortunately, our plans for the convention were laid to waste by a clearly distracted governor who would disappear for hours at a time on what plainly appeared to be soul-searching conversations with chief-of-staff Jamie Fox on the Boston Common, just across the street from the Parker House where the delegation was staying.
Back at home, we were similarly distressed on August 10, when the governor slept-walk through one of the crowning achievements of his administration—his signing of the landmark Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act.
The next evening, I got a press call asking about a rumor that a former male staffer would be filing a sexual harassment lawsuit and the governor would resign the next day. I immediately called Jamie. I’ll never forget his response: “I am out to dinner drinking a glass of wine, which I would not be doing if there was going to be a resignation tomorrow.”
Early the next morning, NBC reporter Brian Thompson– as always one of the first to the story– was about to board a plane to visit his mother in Wisconsin. He called to ask if he should wait. I told him exactly what I knew. I have long suspected—and not from Brian, who would never reveal his sources—that he was hearing in his other ear, “I’m going to be governor today.”
Governor McGreevey realized he would need to respond on that day. From Drumthwacket, he told us to schedule a press conference. When we sent word back that speculation was growing rampant, we heard back: “tell them there’s NOT going to be a resignation today.”
An hour or two later, “there’s not going to be a resignation today” gave way to “I am a gay American.” The governor faxed us a copy of the speech he had been writing and was now planning to deliver later that afternoon.
George Zoffinger stormed into the governor’s office at the State House and asked us to get the governor on the phone. I don’t recall whether he spoke directly with McGreevey, but his message was, “you don’t need to resign today. You can decide not to run again, but you don’t need to resign over this.” But by then the governor’s mind was made up, hastened or at least convinced by the gathering storm of questions that had formed.
My old boss would almost certainly deny the possibility that he might have changed his mind and decided to remain in office, or that another day would have made any difference. Indeed, if you look at the history of modern political scandals, McGreevey was something of an example to later politicians of the “rip off the Band-Aid” approach. That is, if you move off the stage quickly enough, you might be able to contain the damage to your allies and your party. Or, to put it more in line with his thinking on that day, the questions were just never going to stop. This was the only way for his family and the state to ever get beyond them. So, in what I have always felt was a display of his fundamental decency, he decided to start the healing.
All I know for sure is there was not supposed to be a resignation on August 12, 2004, and many people would have tried to talk him out of one the next day.
Micah Rasmussen served as Press Secretary to Gov. James E. McGreevey. He is currently the director of the Rebovich Institute for Politics at Rider University
Click play for audio version of this story