(Published in The Star-Ledger May 2, 2007)
It is the enduring image of one of the most tumultuous days in New Jersey’s political history.
As former Gov. James E. McGreevey declared himself a “gay American” during a nationally televised news conference three years ago, his shell-shocked wife stood by his side, a rigid smile on her face, as if etched in stone.
For the first time, Dina Matos McGreevey has publicly addressed that moment, saying in an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” she continued to smile through her humiliation and pain because her husband instructed her to do so. In the wide-ranging interview, a taped segment that aired yesterday afternoon, Winfrey repeatedly asked Matos McGreevey to explain the smile.
“When I saw that news conference, the first thing I thought about was how in the world is she standing there smiling?” Winfrey said.
Matos McGreevey said her husband prepared for the news conference like the consummate politician he was, directing her how to act, when to smile and what to say if the swarm of reporters at the Statehouse somehow cornered her.
“As his world was falling apart, he was still choreographing the entire day and how everything would play out,” Matos McGreevey said. “He told me, `You have to be Jackie Kennedy today.’ And I’m thinking, Jackie Kennedy? Her husband was murdered. You cheated on me and I have to be Jackie Kennedy?”
Matos McGreevey’s appearance on the show marks the start of a publicity tour for her new book, “Silent Partner: A Memoir of My Marriage,” which went on sale yesterday morning. McGreevey released his own book, “The Confession,” and took a turn on Oprah’s couch in September.
The two are enmeshed in an increasingly testy divorce and custody fight for their 5-year-old daughter, Jacqueline. Matos McGreevey’s interview with Winfrey provided the former first lady an opportunity to fire back at her husband, who has claimed in court papers that his wife knew about his sexual orientation even before they married seven years ago.
Matos McGreevey vehemently denied that during the interview, saying she had no inkling her husband was gay or the marriage she considered a feel-good “fairy tale” was a fraud.
She said her first hint that all was not right came on Aug. 9, 2004, when McGreevey told her he had been having a sexual relationship with a man and McGreevey feared the affair would be disclosed.
“It just hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said. “I wasn’t absorbing it. I just started to cry.”
The former governor revealed more of his secret in “cowardly installments” over three days, she said, culminating in the Aug. 12 news conference, in which he acknowledged a homosexual affair and said he would resign.
Matos McGreevey, wearing a short, low-cut dress, maintained an even demeanor during the interview, neither crying nor raising her voice as she discussed her marriage to the nation’s first openly gay governor. But she spoke candidly about her bitterness and anger, saying McGreevey gave her only a half-hearted apology and remains remorseless even now.
“His actions over the last two and a half, three years are not the actions of someone who’s remorseful,” said Matos McGreevey, 40. “He’s always been self-absorbed, and it’s all about him. I think he’s lived in a state of denial for so many years, he doesn’t know what’s real and what’s not.”
Even McGreevey’s characterization of himself as a “gay American,” she said, rings false.
“I’m not in denial, but I don’t think he’s simply gay,” Matos McGreevey said. “I think he’s bisexual. I mean, he was married twice. He has two children. And, you know, I never saw him checking out men, but I certainly saw him checking out women.”
Had McGreevey not been pressured to reveal his lie, Matos McGreevey said, he almost certainly would have continued to live a “charade,” carried along by his own hubris and political ambition.
“He thought he could get away with it, and if he had not been threatened, he would probably be running for office right now with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama,” she said.
Despite her anger, Matos McGreevey said she loved her husband and she was crushed by his admission. “I felt like my world had crumbled and my life was over,” she said. “In the course of the three days of his explanation and confession to me, it was clear to me that he never loved me.”
Until that confession, she said, there were no obvious signs of his secret life or of his relationship with Golan Cipel, the Israeli national McGreevey placed on the state payroll. Cipel denies a consensual affair took place, saying he was sexually harassed.
If there were clues to be found, Matos McGreevey said, they were not in bed. She said she and her husband had a normal sexual relationship.
“I had no complaints,” she said. “It’s a cliche, but the wife is always the last to know, and it’s true.”
McGreevey, reached after the show aired, declined to respond to his wife’s comments but said he wishes Matos McGreevey well.
“Her book represents her story, her journey,” he said. “I hope she finds peace and happiness. Now it is time to move forward. Our most important obligation is to raise a healthy and loving daughter.”
Staff writer Josh Margolin contributed to this report.