21 August 2004

The Governor Who Loved Poetry Too Much

James McGreevey and Amiri Baraka

Outside of New Jersey, the loudest (until now) political firestorm of the James McGreevey administration came from an unexpected source. The Governor wound up getting publicly scourged not, as he had before and would again, for being a water-carrier for wealthy men, but for lending the state’s endorsement to an irresponsible poet.

Amiri Baraka, New Jersey’s first poet laureate, was an odd choice for the honor in a state that has not distinguished itself in the realm of racial tolerance, much less socialist revolution. And it wasn’t as if Baraka had become a wizened old man of American letters—he had perhaps served out some visiting professorships, but no one could accuse him of becoming, as the young LeRoi Jones once accused his elders of becoming, like “[Ralph] Ellison silenced and fidgeting in some college.” He had parted company with institutional poetry decades ago; while the angry yet formally innovative work of Jones survived in anthologies of postwar American poetry, the flailing invective of Baraka was excluded from publication in “serious” poetry journals. But a state arts council that was either imbued with a penchant for mischief or sympathetic to a ruined hulk of failed, sometimes noxious, ideological enthusiasms handed him the ceremonial title, a bit of boilerplate accompanied by a $10,000 prize.

And then, a year after the World Trade Center attacks, Baraka publicly recited a histrionic poem in the harsh rhythm-inflected idiom he’s adopted since renouncing modern American poetry in favor of a strident anti-imperialist militancy. It was called “Somebody Blew Up America,” and it was phrased in the form of a series of questions:

Who own the oil
Who do no toil
Who own the soil
Who is not a nigger
Who is so great ain’t nobody bigger
Who own this city
Who own the air
Who own the water
Who own your crib
Who rob and steal and cheat and murder and make lies the truth
Who call you uncouth
Who live in the biggest house
Who do the biggest crime
Who go on vacation anytime
Who killed the most niggers
Who killed the most Jews
Who killed the most Italians
Who killed the most Irish
Who killed the most Africans
Who killed the most Japanese
Who killed the most Latinos
Who? Who? Who?
Who own the ocean
Who own the airplanes
Who own the malls
Who own television
Who own radio
Who own what ain’t even known to be owned
Who own the owners that ain’t the real owners
Who own the suburbs
Who suck the cities
Who make the laws
Who made Bush president
Who believe the confederate flag need to be flying
Who talk about democracy and be lying
Who the Beast in Revelations
Who 666
Who know who decide Jesus get crucified

It wears you down a bit, no? It has a certain elemental force, and amid the sometimes muddled historical account there is the visceral expression of a deep truth: that many of the downtrodden of the earth have experienced world history in the age of European and American ascendancy as one continuous calamity.

Who put a price on Lenin’s head
Who put the Jews in ovens, and who helped them do it
Who said America First and ok’d the yellow stars
Who killed Rosa Luxembourg, Liebkneckt
Who murdered the Rosenbergs
And all the good people iced, tortured, assassinated, vanished

Who frame the Rosenbergs, Garvey,
The Scottsboro Boys,
The Hollywood Ten
Who set the Reichstag Fire

The crowd listening to this at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in September of 2002 must have grown pedantic with Baraka eventually: the Hollywood Ten weren’t framed, you know, and Julius Rosenberg was a spy, and it turns out the man who was convicted of having set the Reichstag fire is probably the man who really did it—a single Dutchman acting on his own. But it wasn’t until Baraka asked the following—

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed
Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers
To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

— that the first nationally covered firestorm of the McGreevey administration erupted. Outrage was voiced, the ADL got involved, McGreevey demanded Baraka’s resignation. Baraka refused, the state tried to take away the honor, but found that there was no administrative procedure for doing so. Rather than let him hold the prize, New Jersey abolished it. And Baraka’s continued exclusion from the ranks of respectable poets was renewed with fresh emphasis.


There had been local problems, too. In late 2001, McGreevey met a young Israeli poet named Golan Cipel at a performing arts center in Cipel’s hometown of Rishon Lezion, where he was working in public relations; the two immediately hit it off, and a mere six months later McGreevey had signed him on to serve as his campaign’s outreach coordinator to the Jewish community. Cipel moved into a townhouse a block away from McGreevey’s in Woodbridge. The controversy kicked in when McGreevey hired Cipel (over recently retired FBI director Louis Freeh) to the post of counterterrorism advisor. This, even though Cipel had no experience in intelligence or law enforcement of any kind. It was a move that demonstrated, in the words of one Israeli terrorism expert, “incredible chutzpah.”

When, amid great uproar, the FBI refused to brief Cipel on homeland defense because he was a foreign national, McGreevey tried to keep him on as a “special advisor” with unspecified duties. Cipel would continue to bounce around from job to job in McGreevey’s vicinity, at one point resuming his task as “liaison” to the state’s sizable and wealthy Jewish community and weathering the storm around Baraka’s poetry.

But the real business of New Jersey is of course business, and McGreevey was getting some done. The man who had introduced McGreevey to Cipel was Charles Kushner, a billionaire from Livingston, New Jersey, a landlord to 22,000 apartment dwellers, the “unofficial banker to the state,” a Marc Rich-like figure to Jewish institutions of NJ, including the ADL, a friend to Benjamin Netanyahu, and McGreevey’s principal donor. Kushner subsequently became the focus of a Federal Election Commission probe into illegal campaign contributions, and last month it was reported that Kushner had hired a prostitute to solicit his brother-in-law, videotaped the brother-in-law’s acceptance of said solicitation (she seemed like a nice girl, and her car had broken down), and then tried to blackmail him out of testifying before the Commission.

Kushner’s was the most spectacular of the many large and small acts of corruption that had plagued McGreevey throughout his administration. The Governor’s brief and mixed political legacy is a series of promises made and then either wholly or partially traduced. He introduced a regional planning system designed to reverse the trackless sprawl development that has been the bane of the state’s public life since the Second World War—and handed developers the expedited approval process that they had lobbied for so they could perpetuate this pattern precisely. He signed a bill protecting undeveloped swaths of North Jersey, even as he punted on his promise to change the “pay to play” system that institutionalized a culture of legalized kickbacks which had fueled his own political ascent. Something in the very fiber of New Jersey politics—the unfathomable riches of New York City to the east, the garish neon billboards of a second-rate gambling town to the south, and then, to the west, the terrifying hulking mass of the rest of the country—narrowed the range of the possible. In New Jersey, as in the Inferno, there were merely different shades of corruption, but no way out.

And then, as the drama of McGreevey’s downfall came to a head, even the Governor’s most cherished bulwark seemed to crumble: Cipel, it was said on the television, might not have been what he claimed to be.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well, I also am taken with the word “poet.” I mean, a poet would be an odd person to name as your homeland security chief, given the fact he had no training in terror fighting or terrorism at all. He simply was an Israeli who had caught this guy’s eye. . . I mean, this guy was taken with this person, to say the least. And this…

BOB INGLE [GANNETT NEWS SERVICE, NEW JERSEY]: Well, let me go back to the beginning there.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

INGLE: Sandy McClure, who is one of our investigative reporters, did the majority of the work on this story. And as far as the poet thing goes, there was a rumor going around that the fellow had written a book of poetry. We can’t find it. If it ever happened, we can’t find the publisher. We can’t find the poetry. So I’m not sure where that came from and, if, in fact, that ever actually happened.

“We can’t find the poetry.” What did poor Governor McGreevey think, upon hearing this? Four days later, breaking his public silence, Cipel himself told a group of Israeli journalists that he wasn’t even gay.


According to McGreevey’s people, it was a mere twenty days after Cipel’s lawyer demanded $50 million to make a threatened sexual harassment lawsuit go away that the Governor appeared on national television to declare himself a Gay American. In the intervening weeks, Cipel’s demands had steadily diminished: if $50 million could not secure his silence, then $5 million would have to do. Toward the end, Cipel was prepared to be placated by $2 million and the Governor’s expedited recognition of a medical school that Touro College, a small Jewish university in New York, wanted to build in the state. Touro College’s advisory board was distinguished by the presence of billionaire philanthropist Charles Kushner. Rather than let himself be bullied or bribed, McGreevey came out, proving that there are limits to every man’s venality.

Yet McGreevey’s hiring of Cipel was an act of waywardness that remains inscrutable. Here is a man whose classmates at the Kennedy School of Government remember him as a dreamboat exuding effortless charisma, a striver on course to be in the Senate by 50 and target the White House soon afterward. Even his high school history teacher thought he was an ambitious jerk. So how, having spent his whole life calculating political expediency, could he end up such a fool? In the obscurity of the counterterrorism mystery a thousand conspiracy theories will bloom; Al Jazeera has already speculated that Cipel was an agent of the Mossad sent to infiltrate the United States in cahoots with the sinister Jewish billionaire. It is the kind of theory that would gratify Amiri Baraka, who has continued lashing out at McGreevey’s obeisance to “the Israeli lobby” ever since the abolition of the laureate post. Who own what ain’t even known to be owned?

Not, as it turns out, McGreevey. All along he had been a haunted man forced to hide himself as a condition of the life he wanted. Two things had to remain below the surface: the fact of his part-time homosexuality, which he disguised behind two (2) wives and two (2) children, and the fact that, even in an age of big political money, he was a particularly amiable face of selfish men’s private interests. When the circumstances he had recklessly courted made it impossible to sustain them, he told the world about the first lie. But not about the second. Indeed, the genius of the gambit was to hide the bigger lie behind the unconditional positive regard the media extends to all who put themselves through the ritual of pained confession. There was a time when a preoccupation with deviant sex was the repressed but ever present secret somewhere near the heart of a paranoid America’s persecutorial manias. Today, Jim McGreevey’s confession of the politician’s dilemma must be filtered through the language of sexual disclosure. “Which master was I trying to serve?” McGreevey mused, referring to the struggle between the rewards of staying hidden and the stirrings of what he euphemistically called his “truth.” Sex used to be the thing hidden; now sex is the thing that other secrets hide behind.

Maybe the waywardness and chutzpah McGreevey showed vis-à-vis his poets expressed an unconscious wish. He did not literally love poets or poetry—he didn’t choose Baraka, and early on in his administration, he proposed to help balance the budget crisis he inherited by cutting off all funding for the arts. But maybe a man who has hidden everything important and true might harbor fugitive longings for deliverance from his lies. Deliverance through self-exposure, through scandal, through the freedom to say whatever he wished.

In 1966, Amiri Baraka announced his new path as a rabble-rousing black nationalist with a call for “poems that kill,” for words that could “crack the [people’s] faces open to the mad cries of the poor.” He traded the comfortable powerlessness of the lonely lyricist for the illusion of efficacy that the sixties momentarily vested in wayward visionaries like him. He gave up the literary game, moved to Newark, survived a brutal beating at the hands of the police, saw the city burn in the riots that erupted after they killed Martin Luther King. He saw his sister and daughter murdered. He wrote radical poems, some of which convey a visceral sense of harrowing things that he knows to be real, some of which succumb to an ugly glorification of violence, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and hate. He failed us, he failed himself, when he became a dupe of fascists and fools. There can be no tragedy in the world of New Jersey politics, since there is no nobility to be traduced, only mediocre men grasping for money and power, and the literary genre of McGreevey’s masterly confession, ultimately, is farce. But his tenure began with tragedy, that of Amiri Baraka, who really wasn’t, it turned out, such a great choice for poet laureate.

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