James Comey is an unusual man who has written an unusual book. Comey, the former FBI director, stood at the crossroads of history during the last months of the 2016 presidential campaign and the early months of Donald Trump's presidency. After President Trump sacked him, Comey returned home to summarize what he experienced. His clear, direct prose made headlines.
It may be James Comey has been interviewed more often than any first-time author in American publishing history, including former presidents.
His memoir of less than 300 pages has the starchy title "A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership." His views on leadership seem like padding. Treat people right, build a team, bring out the best in the team. It's the tension between truth and lies that makes the book unusual.
Comey, 57, is a moralist, and while he says little about his religious training, he is an evangelist for what the textbooks of my youth called the American Way. For Comey, the American Way is the ideals the Founders expressed in the Constitution revitalized by the civil rights movement, today endangered by the roaring Goliath of liars, President Donald Trump.
The media has given little attention to the early pages of Comey's memoir, rushing forward to the chapters in which Hillary Clinton and Trump enter.
The early pages are crucial to understanding the Comey who encounters Trump.
Comey, by his explanation, was another happy, nerdy kid in suburban New York until his father moved the family of six to New Jersey. In his new Garden State school Comey, an outsider, was bullied. Bullying, he tells us, hurt him yet sharpened his appreciation of justice. His appreciation grew dramatically when he was 17 years old. An armed robber broke into his home while his parents were away and held James and his brother at gunpoint during a robbery. Before he finished high school, Comey learned there are dangerous men in our midst and something must be done about them.
As a young adult, he chose the law, emphasizing in his memoir that he saw the law as helping people. But helping people through a traditional law practice did not satisfy him. He wanted law that produced demonstrably concrete results — namely, putting bad guys in jail and keeping them away from good people — and thus he became one of the bright young federal attorneys who deliver justice to the criminally inclined.
Comey was involved in the prosecution of mafia dons and Martha Stewart in New York, a minister in Richmond, Lewis "Scooter" Libby and General David Petraeus in Washington. It is hard to imagine Sammy "the Bull" Gravano in the same room with Martha Stewart and a minister (even the same courtroom). As for Libby and Petraeus, the former was a well-connected D.C. lawyer in government service, the other a military hero covered with ribbons and director of the CIA.
Here's where the book becomes compelling. What did these people have in common? They were liars — and a threat to society of the first order, Comey explains, with Trump's shadow further darkening the page.
Mobsters lie about about anything. Stewart lied about insider trading. The minister lied about an embezzlement scheme. Libby lied about what he told the media about a CIA officer. Petraeus lied about sharing classified information.
A writer so preoccupied with lying is rare, although the election of Trump and the prevalence of fake news have made lying a subject of urgent conversation. Usually lying is the province of a few scholars studying why people lie, a sub-specialty of psychology. Freud explored lying but he approached it as a scientist, not a prosecutor. A hundred years later, Al Franken wrote" "Lies And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," but Al was a comedian subjecting ideological opponents to ridicule, not a moralist.
Comey concedes lying is part of the human condition: Everybody lies at one time or another, even if his or her lies are of former Trump aide Hope Hicks' "little white" variety. Comey himself lied — about playing high school basketball, he explains, and he is still is uncertain why he said he was a player when he wasn't.
Comey spent much of his law enforcement career in Washington D.C., a location that must produce more lies per breath than any city in the United States –even Hollywood, where "loved your picture" and "let's do lunch" are merely accepted evasions.
As an educated man, Comey must know that lying is not one of the seven deadly sins and is far down the list of prohibition in the Ten Commandments rendered in the rather legalistic form of not bearing "false witness against thy neighbor."
Let's face it: The world is full of liars; few of them are criminals, let alone Trumpian ogres.
However, Comey worked for the FBI, and lying to the FBI is a crime. He stresses that during the investigation of Hillary Clinton's e-mails, the FBI found no evidence she lied, and the government had nothing to charge her with. Instead Comey, uncertain what to do, called her out as careless, which set off a national uproar over whether he should have spoken or remained silent.
Think about this for a moment. if you, a citizen, lie to the FBI (should agents appear at your door), you have committed a crime. But if the president of the United States goes on television and lies to the entire American people about — to use one example from pre-Trump history — America's coming victory in the Vietnam War, the law is helpless.
Comey does have moments in his book, other than conflicts with Trump, when his commitment to the truth and aversion to lies have a national impact. After his Department of Justice staff reviewed the legal foundation for the Bush Administration's torture program and found the program legally indefensible, Comey fought Vice President Dick Cheney demanding revision of the program. He prevailed, despite Cheney's threats, which featured — what else? — lies.
The Comey memoir clearly is structured to lead to Comey's meetings with Trump. After those encounters, Trump dismisses Comey, the president continues his assault on the truth and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation inches forward. In the final pages, the rookie author, running short of material, predicts that one day the American people will return an honorable leader to the White House. (You can almost hear a patriotic air in the background.) This prediction is hardly original and leaves the reader feeling like a moviegoer who, after two hours in the theater, sees THE END appear on the screen, the credits roll, and the lights go up. "Quite the show," the viewer tells a companion. "What do we do now?"
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