George Norcross welcomes me into his private office at Conner Strong & Buckelew, his Marlton-based insurance firm. A table is laid out with fine china, silverware, fruit, raw vegetables and hummus. He takes me on a tour of the photographs lining the walls.
The images cover everything from his daughter Lexie’s graduation from NYU to family vacations, numerous political events, and old sepia-haunted photos of himself, as a boy, with his father. He spends several long minutes narrating the circumstances of each. His tone, at times, grows distant, as though the images on the wall have pushed him from the spot where he is standing to the moments they were taken.
The most moving, in terms of his own personal story, are the ones of him and his dad. In photo after photo, Young George gazes with innocent eyes at some governor of New Jersey—Richard Hughes in 1966, Cahill in ’63, Meyner in ’62. His dad stands there, beaming, and Young George is learning that the hand of a state governor is accessible to him. The natural question, given how open he’s been, is if he might let me borrow and scan some of these photos to publish as part of the story. “No,” he says.
“Really,” he replies. “They’re off the record. This is all off the record.”
“Why?” I ask. He maintains a steady stream of unrelated patter, clearly sending me the signal to move on. But I don’t. This tour of his past, of photos capturing events we had discussed on the record, is to be put off the record?
“Yes,” he says again.
The moment strikes me as telling. And in the coming days, I decided to write about this exchange. For one thing, by the rules of journalism, a source can’t retroactively put quotes or a scene off the record. He needs to request such an arrangement before speaking with a reporter—and Norcross hadn’t. But I didn’t want to write about this in order to prove any point about journalistic rules. I wanted to convey this scene because of what I thought the moment suggested—that on some level, he needed to reach out and exercise control. He needed to express his power. He needed, in spite of feeling that he had been wrongly defined over the years, to stay, well, as unknown as possible. And as a consequence, he tried to wipe away even these photos that bring some sense of duty and romance to his story—that soften his sometimes brutal image.
The overall effect, not just of this episode but of spending 10 hours with George Norcross III, is that he is asking to be seen in the best possible light without ever really emerging from the shadows. And so, in the end, it might not matter how many medical schools he builds or charter schools he founds or media companies he sells or saves. Because what we really need from him is something deeper and more intimate than all these things.
We need him to step out. We need him to apologize—to openly acknowledge that, crime or no crime, he is guilty. He has done wrong. He has lorded over—whup! whup! whup!—and undermined the democratic process of an entire region.
But the best Norcross can muster is to say he is embarrassed he swore. For that reason, he will likely go on feeling that he can’t win.
Not in this lifetime.
Because without that apology—without him letting go of some of his power—this region’s relationship with him will remain tainted by an unquenched desire: to see George Norcross III climb onstage, stand before a podium, and take a deep and holy breath. To see George Norcross III hang his head—flashbulbs popping—and assume the position.