Former NJ Governor On His 'Fall To Grace'

In 2004, Jim McGreevey was the governor of New Jersey and a rising political star. That was until he admitted his homosexuality, and an improper relationship with a male staff member. What happened next is the subject of the new HBO documentary, Fall To Grace. Host Michel Martin speaks with McGreevy and filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, as the nation's attention turned to the Supreme Court this week, I wanted to tell you about the court case that I camped out to hear. That's my weekly essay, and it's next.

But first, when you first heard it, it was a familiar story. But it turns out that it is one with many more surprising twists and turns than you might expect. Here's the story. A handsome, young, aggressive politician makes a rapid rise up the ladder. He's got his eye on higher office, maybe even the White House; but he also has a secret, and he's brought down when an illicit affair becomes public. That's what most people know about former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, a rising star in the Democratic Party until his career ended in a crash when he made this announcement in August 2004.

JIM MCGREEVEY: One has to look deeply into the mirror of one's soul and decide one's unique truth in the world, not as we may want to see it or hope to see it, but as it is. And so my truth is that I am a gay American.

MARTIN: McGreevey resigned after facing a sexual harassment lawsuit from a man he had hired for a government job. He left office in disgrace and endured a messy public divorce - but the story did not end there. He has a different life now. He still spends his days kissing babies and shaking hands, but he does that as a counselor to women in prison and others struggling with addiction.

His journey is the subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi. It's called "Fall to Grace." It debuts on HBO tonight. Alexandra Pelosi and Jim McGreevey are with us now.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

MCGREEVEY: Thanks so much, Michel, for having us.

ALEXANDRA PELOSI: Thank you.

MARTIN: Alexandra, why did you want to make this film?

PELOSI: Oh, gosh. Well, I'm so intrigued by tabloid fixtures, and that's what Jim was. He was a tabloid fixture, and I'm always fascinated. I've known a lot of people that looked really funny in the tabloids, that the caricature that didn't really match the person that I knew. So I wrote a letter to Jim and I said, I'd really like to meet you. And I went to have lunch with him and his partner, Mark O'Donnell, and I said, I'd really like to make a movie about you. And then Mark said, no. Please, no. Please, have a nice life.

MCGREEVEY: I think it was actually stronger than that.

PELOSI: Yeah, I think it was, too. I was being polite. This is radio. But, you know, I had met Jim, and I was interested in the work that he was doing. And I'm actually a journalist, a recovering journalist, and I wanted to see the work that he was doing, so he invited me to come to the prison to see some of the women that he was working with. And I went, and I was very judgmental when I first got there. Right, Jim?

MCGREEVEY: Yeah.

PELOSI: I said, these women - they're mothers. Most of them are mothers. They did drugs. They left their kids at home and they went out and bought drugs and they're terrible mothers. And Jim was like, careful with your judgment. And, funny, Jim kept inviting me back because he had to prove to me that these women had value and that they deserved some redemption, because I wasn't giving it to them when I first met them.

MARTIN: So let me go to Jim McGreevey and ask why...

MCGREEVEY: Sure.

MARTIN: ...you eventually did agree to participate in this? Pick up the ball, if you would.

MCGREEVEY: Sure. I think what - Michel, what was so powerful about what Alexandra did is that she spent incredible amounts of time and I think it's a testament to her, her eye, her insight, that she spend time chronicling the lives of these women and being open to permitting them to share their pain.

And what was significant to me is that, for so many of the women, they did not start from the starting point in life, Michel, that I did. You know, I was blessed with a nurturing, loving family and having the ability to pursue an education. For so many of the women, they grew up in some of the toughest public housing projects in the country. Their lives were surrounded by drugs and dope and copping dope and running and gunning.

I mean, it's hard when you listen to a mother talk about doing a bag of dope with her 11-year-old daughter there, but you begin to understand that people replicate the behaviors that are all around them. And so, for many of the women, that's all they saw was dope on the street corner, dope in public housing and so now they yearn for a different way of life and they give me so much and, God willing, I give them something, but we're on this shared journey to what I perceive to be a more godly life.

MARTIN: I have to ask you, though. Let me stay on this, though, if you don't mind, governor.

MCGREEVEY: Sure.

MARTIN: Because one of the points that you make in the film is that being in politics was, in part, about feeding your ego and you apparently had a big one and I have to ask. What was the - sort of the process of deciding to participate in this?

MCGREEVEY: Sure.

MARTIN: Was this kind of part of your trip to see whether you were really on the other side or was it - or what?

MCGREEVEY: That's an interesting question. I don't think it was a contrived test for me to determine my barriers. More, it was Alexandra's gaze, her sincerity and the integrity of her camera insofar that she was going to film what was.

And I think, for many of us - I mean, for me, when I was - whether I was governor or as mayor, I would drive past, you know, the large concrete walls with barbed wire on top and, you know, just assume that, you know, I have a lot of police in my family. I was a former assistant prosecutor. So the default narrative was there are bad people in a bad place and that's where they belong.

And I think, you know, starting - this might be off topic, but starting with my journey in seminary, I began to work in a prison reentry program in Harlem and I began to understand that these people yearn for the same things that I yearn for, and that is love and a sense of purpose. And it was Alexandra's willingness to meet them where they were that I believe made so much sense for me.

MARTIN: What was it like revisiting and having to hear again and again about the worst moment in your life? I played that clip in the introduction.

MCGREEVEY: Yes, thank you so much.

MARTIN: It's featured prominently in the - well, I mean, it's featured prominently in the film. I mean, I'm sorry if that was -

MCGREEVEY: No, not at all. No, it's a necessary part of the explanation and a necessary part of the journey and I think it's not only appropriate but needs to be said if only to demonstrate the falsity, for me, of yielding to my ego and myself. And so that was a pivotal moment in proclaiming my truth and authenticity, and God willing, since that time I've hopefully stumbled in the right direction in terms of doing what I perceive to be God's will in my life.

MARTIN: Let me play a short clip and then, Alexandra, I'm going to ask you about it. This is a clip where Alexandra, you do ask a lot of these questions, you know, about how the former governor kind of figured out where he was and what was his response about it now. I just want to play...

MCGREEVEY: However badly I did it, Michel.

MARTIN: I just want to play a short clip from the film, and then I want to ask about that. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "FALL TO GRACE")

MCGREEVEY: And coming out was a great gift because I realized, you know, being open and being honest. I'm like, I'm gay. Big (bleep). And you could accept - I could accept what I was, but then I also challenged myself, all right, what else did I have going on?

Can I just add, Michel?

MARTIN: Yeah, please. Yes.

MCGREEVEY: The best line Alexandra said - she goes, so what was worst - or what was hardest...

PELOSI: Having to pretend to be...

MCGREEVEY: To be straight.

PELOSI: ...heterosexual, or having to pretend to be a politician.

MCGREEVEY: Exactly, thank you.

PELOSI: I mean, the reason Jim has credibility with these women in jail that he works with, is because of his train wreck of a life. He can walk into a prison and say to these women, look, we've all made mistakes. I've made big mistakes in my life, and here I am. I've pulled it all together, and I'm here to tell you that there's life after the crash.

And so these women, they look - these are women who have never been paid attention to, in their lives. They're broken worse than Jim ever was. And they look at him and they think, oh, well if he could pull it together after that public train wreck of a life, then I can, too.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the new HBO documentary "Fall to Grace" with filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi and the subject of the film, the former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey. So the idea of redemption is a big part of this film, and the story does unfold on two tracks. It unfolds on, you know, the former governor's story and also, the women that he's now working with. I just want to play a short clip and Alexandra, this is from a conversation that you're having with Brenna(ph) about why he connects so well with the women with whom he's working. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "FALL TO GRACE")

PELOSI: Why do you think that Jim believes in you?

BRENNA: Because I think he truly, honestly believes in salvation, and I believe he believes in second chances.

PELOSI: Do you think the reason is because he got one himself?

BRENNA: I think his second chance is what humbled him. I think it made him realize, too, on a different level; but I think it's what made him realize, too, is that no one's above anything, you know what I'm saying? Like, no one's above anything, and anyone can fall at any time; so it's what you do after the fall that matters.

MCGREEVEY: For so many women in jail and prison throughout this country - I mean, 70 percent of them are clinically addicted. And their own self- narrative is limited by the circumstances of their past. And so what we try - to work with a woman, we say there's our template - we look at three things. One, the notion of treatment, and we're a clinically based, best practices-driven program that starts treatment behind bars. And so the argument is that if you wait to start treatment when people are released, it's too late. Second is community. And so each of the women participate in a community, and we try to change the behavior from what they previously understood in their past lives, to almost a more godly way of thinking. And when they're released, we require the women to be placed in communal, sober housing for six months so that you're not sitting there looking at the four walls of a one-bedroom apartment and saying, how am I going to get through this day?

And the third leg of the stool is work. Every one of the women works in prison, and each of the women works when they get out. And if we make that investment - that three-legged investment - in these women, we can offer them a new self-narrative. We can offer them a new dream that enables them to reach their fullest capacity.

MARTIN: Part of the path of redemption for you - you were raised Roman Catholic; you talk about this in the film. But you were seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church. First of all, this was not greeted rather kindly by the New York tabloids, who were still following your story. And then after a certain point, the church decided not to accept you for ordination - at least, at this point.

MCGREEVEY: Yes.

MARTIN: And so I want to ask, how painful was that?

MCGREEVEY: Well, you know, it was painful but obviously, I accept it. And I almost see it as a blessing because working with the women - there is, unfortunately, so much judgment focused upon them. And so the beauty of being simply Jim affords me an equality and a commonness with them. And so often in title, there is a sense of greater than, less than. And so I consider it a great blessing to simply be who I am and to reaffirm my equality, and reaffirm the women's equality with me.

MARTIN: Alexandra, what are you hoping people will get from this film? I got the sense from talking with you here - I didn't get the sense initially, from the film but actually talking to you here - that you were a little bit skeptical about him, even though it was your idea to do the film.

PELOSI: Yeah. I'm a journalist, and I am always skeptical about everybody and everything. And I went - kept going to the prison and following Jim because I wanted to know - for real - if it was sincere and authentic, the work that he was doing. So I went on Christmas morning, to find out if he would show up; or I went on Easter Day, to see if he would show up.

I went to the courthouse and to the IHOP, when the women get out of prison. I went to all these places where Jim goes, to see if he would actually show up - and see if the women would follow through with what they said that they were going to do. And in the end, I found - over the course of the last two years - a real sincerity and dedication to this theme of redemption, and that people deserve redemption.

Some people, you know, there's a lot in American society - there are a lot of fallen figures; and some are redeemed, and some are not. But that's because some go ahead and do the work to earn it. And I felt, in the end, that Jim McGreevey had proven that he had earned some redemption. And that's why we're airing this at Easter because the theme of redemption is, everybody deserves a second chance.

MARTIN: Is that what you would want people to get from the film?

PELOSI: Yes. I'm hoping that the moral of the story here is that in the warm spirit of the Easter holiday, everybody deserves some redemption.

MARTIN: Alexandra Pelosi is a documentary filmmaker. Her latest film, "Fall to Grace," debuts tonight on HBO. It follows the story of Jim McGreevey, a former governor of New Jersey; and they both joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you both so much for joining us.

PELOSI: Thank you for having us.

MCGREEVEY: Thank you.

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