By Penny Smith
James Comey, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. New York, 2018.
The number of Americans who, as children, heard the phrase “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am” surely outnumbers those who managed to avoid one of Dr. Seuss’s classic “beginner books.” For some reason, since the second Clinton e-mail revelations in late October, 2016, I have had variations of that jingle jostling in my head: “I do not like that Comey man, I do not like him, sure I am.” That’s probably one of the reasons I put off reading the book, when it landed on my doorstep days after its release.
Everywhere one turned on cable news, there were critiques (mixed, depending on the network), summaries (usually dull and almost always focused on the Trump exchanges), interviews with its author (seriously intense), and panels devoted to its veracity (high in the main stream media). Once all that died down, I decided that maybe, like Sam-I-Am, I would have a conversion experience in the reading (recall Sam likes those eggs by the end of the book) and decide I approved this literary variation of green eggs and ham or at least liked something about the author. After all, he was going to attack a man I’m convinced is menacing democracy, lacks empathy, is uninterested in learning, personifies arrogance, is a misogynist, a probable racist, and likely applauds (perhaps encouraged) the interference of Russia. There should be something there to like.
Moreover, I once taught leadership theory. The subtitle suggests that I can add to my woefully behind the times leadership knowledge base (I’m retired, after all, with little incentive to “keep up”), so there was another reason to pick up the book.
Unfortunately, I still do not like that Comey man, although I do find things to admire about his wife.
The book itself is part memoir, part “my side of the firing” defense. It begins: “Who am I to tell others what ethical leadership is? Anyone claiming to write a book about ethical leadership can come across as presumptuous, even sanctimonious …”. Well, yes they can and, yes, you do, even though I think your level of self-awareness about that fact is low. Comey claims his rationale for the book is not so much a defense as a warning. “We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country,” he tells us and he is here to warn us about a “troubling trend” in which lying is normalized and unethical behavior abounds.
What do we learn about Comey personally? He was bullied as a child. His family moved from a neighborhood in New York, where he was beloved, to one in New Jersey, where he was the awkward outsider. He confronted and was terrorized as an adolescent by the Ramsey Rapist, which led to his interest in protecting other people from criminals. At William and Mary he participated in trashing a dormitory mate’s room as part of a testosterone filled group – an act for which he is now profoundly sorry. He let people believe he played basketball in college (he’s really tall), because it was more trouble to explain he did not – an act for which he is, again, profoundly sorry. (An aside: I think the primary reason those two stories make the book is to illustrate he’s got a few flaws, can see them, and feels bad about those short-comings – to let you know that what is forthcoming illustrates his road away from his less stellar angels. Persuasive? Not really, strange than persuasive.)
Comey entered work as a federal prosecutor, because he wanted to go after the bad guys, the bullies. He tragically lost a son, unnecessarily, to a post-birth infection that is today routinely and successfully treated. He worked in Rudolph Giuliani’s NYC office, but did not admire his boss’s leadership style. He went after mobsters. (He uses a bunch of mob references as illustrations throughout the book.) He left New York, because his wife didn’t like it and the cost of living was too high to raise a family. After a short stint in private practice, he returned to a prosecutor’s job, this time in Virginia, again because he wanted to be the good guy getting rid of the bad guys. Soon thereafter George Bush convinced him to go back to NYC and become the head of that office and he reluctantly accepted. Comey reluctantly accepts several job upgrades in the book.
While back in NYC he oversaw the Martha Stewart case. In his telling, Comey ultimately seems to revel in prosecuting her. True, there is a period of fretting, but winning out is his Boy Scout desire to demonstrate that no one is above the law and no one should lie to federal agents. Whenever he confronts a case like Stewart’s and later the Clinton e-mails, he agonizes, stews, worries, ponders, then shoulders his burden like the good soldier he tells us he is and does his prosecutor thing. Comey makes very clear that he does, and we should, care about the truth. Lies are bad things.
Whereas once, Comey, the Proto-Puritan, argues, we were constrained from bad behaviors by our faith traditions, now the only thing that holds us back is fear. That’s the reason for aggressive prosecutions, to strike a note of fear in potential liars. “People must fear the consequences of lying in the justice system or the system can’t work.” So, to trial, to trial, merrily to trial we go. “To protect the institution of justice, and reinforce a culture of truth-telling, she had to be prosecuted. I am very confident that, should the circumstance arise, Martha Stewart would not lie to federal prosecutors again. Unfortunately, many others who crossed my path would continue to commit the same foolish act.”
Is it just me or don’t you hear the old television show Dragnet’s theme when you read his conclusion? He’s the knight on the prowl, the brave, good-hearted Lone Ranger on the silver horse. It would be foolhardy to cross his path.
He’s finished with the part of his life story that he’s going to tell you before the book is even half over. He then uses the Bush years to presage the moral compass he will use with Clinton and Trump. After the Bush Administration hired him to be the Deputy Attorney General, he oversaw the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the secret agent leak that led to the Libby prosecution. (Probably one reason for Trump’s pardon of Scooter Libby was an attempt to slap Comey in the face again.) Comey also steadfastly defended John Ashcroft at his hospital bedside from administration officials trying to get him to sign off on “enhanced interrogation.” There are several “I’m a dedicated good guy” stories addressing legal overreach during the Bush administration, followed by a brief mention that Comey left to make money in the private sector. He had children reaching college age, tuition was expensive, and, besides, Dick Cheney wasn’t too thrilled with his positions.
The Obama decision in 2013 to hire him as head of the FBI came as a surprise to Comey. He was, after all, a nominal Republican, a confirmed conservative (as are most folks in law and order organizations), and had worked in a Republican Justice Department. Yet hire him, Obama did. When he followed Robert Mueller in that position, Comey tried to loosen up the work environment from the staid atmosphere Mueller had created.
One of my knocks on the book is that although Comey talks at some length about admiring ethical leadership and points to leaders whom he believes are good ones, like Mueller, he also, when in their positions, lets you know he changes things. There is more than a suggestion that maybe they were good leaders, but he’s a better one. None of that is blatant, but it’s a nagging part of the story that follows him throughout the book. To his credit, many of Comey’s comments about leadership conform to what research tells us is effective. None of his observations, however, are original or surprising.
It’s as head of the FBI that we get to the Clinton e-mails and eventually to Donald Trump, whom he found repellent on multiple levels. I’m not going to dwell on that part of the book, because it’s what the press covered ad nauseam.
I still don’t buy his rationale for publicly chastising Clinton over her handling of e-mails. I definitely don’t buy his rationale for the way he reopened the case immediately before the election and let it hang out in public for two weeks prior to Election Day. I certainly don’t think he gets a pass, because he was able to say that there was nothing there on the eve of the election – the damage had already been done. Nor does he get a pass for treating the Russian/Trump campaign with silence during the same period. I found the language with which he describes the stress of the Clinton investigation eerily reminiscent of the Martha Stewart language, without appreciating the difference in the two situations or that his reasoning suggests a subtle sexism.
Then there’s the matter of chapter epigraphs. Each one of the chapters begins with a quotation from someone famous whose wisdom summarizes the text. I can’t argue with many of them, but they almost seem like the man Googled famous quotation sites and picked out something that fit. I’ll admit that I have an aversion to anyone who uses a quotation from Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” Since that heads one of the chapters, maybe I went off the deep end with the epigraphs. The Kipling quotation is the one about keeping your head, while everyone else is losing theirs – a perfect example of the rectitude vibe Comey kept sending. To his credit, Comey recognizes that humility is one of the essential qualities of a good leader. However, he has a darn hard time proving it. Yes, he tells you over and over how much he believes in humility and, yes, he tells you over and over how he tries to practice it. Unfortunately, that righteousness just gets in the way all too often. I just can’t like this Comey man, I just can’t like him, Sad-I-Am.