New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey's gay declaration of independence, when he advanced downstage to muse about his inner turmoil, brought an oddly Shakespearean turn to the national soap opera. The difference is that when Shakespeare's Richard III goes on about what it's like to be a hunchback, he's talking only to himself. That's what a soliloquy is -- a character's inmost thoughts, overheard only by the audience. Whereas Jim McGreevey was cleansing his soul in front of all the other characters in the drama of a family and a state, including millions of strangers. His thoughts are no longer inmost. They're outmost.

McGreevey was speaking in the language of Oprah, but what he said (and how he looked) conjured up a different era. The clean-cut appearance; the pert, stoical blond wife whose roiling emotions were concealed by a Stepford (or stunned) smile; the retro aroma of old-fashioned, patronage-filled Jersey politics: The news conference was both a '50s flashback and a dramatization of McGreevey's subconscious. In his head he was always a retro man because he was beleaguered by retro demons.

Of course, the candor of McGreevey's speech was deeply evasive, calculated to drown out the much less forgivable lapse of putting his almost comically unqualified boyfriend, Golan Cipel, on the state payroll -- and not in some no-show job in the Department of Motor Vehicles but in the homeland security office of a state that's just a boat ride away from Ground Zero.

Even so, the mere fact that McGreevey was playing the gay card as a trump for being corrupt shows how much things have changed for the better. One theory of the Alger Hiss case in the late '40s used to be that what Hiss really wanted to cover up was his sexuality -- that he'd rather risk having people think he was a spy and a traitor than have them suspect him of being gay. That's how bad it was in the bad old days. Now being gay is a shining shield. It's dignified. "I am a gay American," McGreevey said, with no less pride than he might have said, "I am an Irish American."

Perhaps McGreevey feels an element of chagrin that something that was so hard for him to own up to is garnering so little outrage. "The common reaction here in New Jersey is we don't care if he's gay, we care about our money subsidizing this guy on the payroll," Jim Willse, the editor of the Newark Star-Ledger, told me. "But there's a lot of ex-post-factoism that travels with this stuff that makes it easy to slip the issue of whether the electorate cares if it has a gay governor or not." Or, as the Star-Ledger's Kathleen O'Brien put it: "New Jersey -- Progressive Enough to Elect a Gay Governor, Not That We Knew It at the Time." Might make a good slogan for the tourism bureau, like "Virginia Is for Lovers."

Either way, McGreevey's soul-bearing really just got him a brand-new box to get stifled in. Suppose he doesn't want to become the new standard-bearer for gay politics. Suppose he is fulfilled enough by his marriage that he wants to continue it, with occasional extracurricular flourishes. So far we have not heard that the McGreeveys are parting ways.

It brings to mind an aspect of the Clintons' marital drama. The president's nightmare was not that he hadn't come clean with the nation but that he hadn't come clean with his wife. Still, their marriage was forced into subscribing to the acceptable American norm because of the intense political risks that any other choice carried. It is inconceivable that the first lady could have been allowed to react to the president's betrayal with Monica in the way the wife of the French doctor Etienne-Emile Baulieu did when asked how she felt about her husband's long affair with (and eventual return from) Sophia Loren: "Well, what can you expect?" she replied with a shrug. "She was Sophia Loren." (Which Monica wasn't. The Clintonian version -- "What can you expect? She showed him her thong" -- wouldn't cut it somehow.)

Before he scaled the Golan Heights, McGreevey seems to have been, as one old friend put it, "a somewhat awkward, old-style party politician, like an inactive gay priest or what used to be thought of as a 'confirmed bachelor' who happened to be married." For all the liberal pieties about McGreevey's "bravery," one feels there will be far less public affirmation if McGreevey and his wife decide they want to continue living a married family life -- but one in which she agrees (and we know) that he sometimes spends the night out with a guy. After all, if she loved him enough to let him have the occasional discreet fling on the side, wouldn't that be as valid as his being willing to give up the flings on the side? But that's not a script we're ready for. If McGreevey wants to stay in public life, he will be forced to choose from only two available roles -- penitent adulterer or flag-waving gay activist.

The McGreevey story is as much a comment on the narrowness of our mores as it is on McGreevey's. For all our talk of honesty, we are still not honest enough for the real thing.

(c) 2004,Tina Brown

Gov. Jim McGreevey and his wife, Dina, last week, moments before he revealed that he'd had a gay affair and would resign.