Book Review of “A Higher Loyalty” by James Comey in HNN

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REVIEW OF THE COMEY VOLUME FOR HNN

James Comey, A HIGHER LOYALTY: TRUTH, LIES, AND LEADERSHIP (Flatiron Books, 2018, 290 pages)

Editor’s Note: Here we have a volunteer reviewer—the veteran of dozens of earlier reviews–who has kept one eye on the American Presidency off and on during his extended research and writing lifetime. Off and on, he has been charged with responsibility over organizations; that fact clearly affected him and egged him on to examining the difficult and burdened life of James Comey, FBI Director, who served three presidents. I think it likely that readers of his review here will find that this suddenly famous book (being nationally noticed) looks rather interesting in his portrayal. (Dr. Bornet served us recently with a look at the Wolfe book on President Trump, remember?)

It has been a rare experience: trying to review a book that is being featured on my TV, my computer, by my local daily newspaper’s columnists, and in comments by the old guys at the breakfast table. James Comey, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, 277 prose pages, a book with an odd and unusual jacket (jet black, with large letters top to bottom), good Index, moral tone front to back, and a feeling of built in “precision.”
As I read, and got set to write, I felt I must be performing “a public service” for our entire Land. I got to feel that the total communication media, all of it, appears to be interested in what I’m doing! And what was that, you ask? Well, here we have a candid book by the 7th Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States. Its author, on accepting that prestigious assignment, had been employed by the Department of Justice in the administrations of Presidents Bush and Obama, left the government to earn more money with several large corporations in the private sector, returned to accept the FBI directorship once held by J. Edgar Hoover for fifty years, then peered forward expectantly with a probable (almost guaranteed) 10 years of service ahead of him. I would be going along for the ride!

A book of 14 chapters and a short epilogue, free of footnotes, by no means intended to be a history of the famous Agency, Comey’s book boasts a great Index, one I examined at once to see what I was up against. Maybe it won’t telegraph too much if I say that the author, whose father was a chief of police, takes us through his boyhood dodging bullies in Yonkers (yes! “Hello Dolly”). He draws conclusions about himself from that mistreatment. (And shares his distress at the early death of one child.) His college (surprising to himself and to us) will be William and Mary in Virginia, where my step-niece went, happily, I recall.
It does appear that Comey was at one time active with his choice of religion, and that here we have one who takes seriously guidance in conduct familiar to the Boy Scouts. In writing, he stands to one side pretty often and asks inside himself if his conduct is “appropriate” and worthy of whatever task he faces at the moment. We have one who takes seriously the idea that we all have missions in life that we need to heed. We are responsible. We owe family members a good life. We will be held to account. There are responsible ways to do things….

I honestly think that this book—now so identified with our national political scene and its constant partisanship, but not through Comey’s doing—would be a very good read for a great many high schoolers. Yes. There is a surprising amount of wisdom and good advice in these pages. It’s an easy read, and this father of four writes as though his own children will be looking over his shoulder and praise or protest—maybe applaud.

I have reviewed many books for learned journals over the years and will not allow this one’s portrayal in newspapers to seem like just a spear directed at presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, or just some kind of judgment on our sitting President. There is much here. This is not primarily or even largely a political book, I have come to think. It has many little sections that treat interesting episodes in our national life. While other readers may differ, I believe it to be no political diatribe targeted at the author’s newfound enemies.

At least eight pages go to Martha Stewart’s problems (from one who knows). Her opportunity and burden was many thousands of dollars in stock, (sold short on the eve of disaster), and niceties of truth telling by our law man related to her purchase and sale of it. She got five months in prison. The reader can hardly believe she was worth so many millions at that time (and since). I, at least, wondered what if anything that prison stay did for, or to, her personal “nature.”

There is quite a section early on about the mafia. I am not one who worships The Godfather, but if I were I would love pages 20 to 28, with so many apparently insightful remarks about suit wearing leaders and followers and shall we say “gang members” in NYC and Sicily. It turns out the American mafia has been anything but idly random; there is much organization and Comey when in New York City seems to have had a front row seat.

In the Bush years there was much maneuvering related to 9/11. Another preoccupation of Comey is the propriety of various kinds of torture by our CIA (with lots of denial he had to deal with). That vice president who would have succeeded Bush (God saved us from that!), was behind the scenes in his years–a force to be reckoned with,it appears. Comey got ready to resign back then when “justice” seemed forgotten or pushed aside.

Many readers will focus interestedly on the Hillary Clinton episode of 2016, and try to second guess the choices made at the time by FBI Director Comey. Plainly, he was trying always to protect the Bureau’s good name; hers was of less interest, quite clearly. That he was a Republican may have been relevant—but it doesn’t seem so. That she was (choose a word: careless, self-serving?) in handling her vast email correspondence as Secretary of State is true; yet those dire words “Secret” and “Top Secret” can become inflated in meaning when many thousand messages are being assessed. How assess, evaluate, Comey’s decision in October to reveal truths to all of us out there? What are we to do with the assumption of ALL of us that she was bound to Win?

Donald J. Trump gets a full column in the Index, with “loyalty to” as expressed by him to the FBI leader a feature, naturally. The famous, or is it notorious, dinner they had, with Trumpian misconduct, gets 11 pages. (Most reviewers just settle in there and tell that story, followed with ample second-guessing, harsh judgment, and a lot of siding with one or the other of our face-to-face parties. People seem almost happy as they repeat snappy and even snarling long-honed hostility to Mrs. Clinton or ‘that Trump.” (And why not, with him tweeting stuff daily?)

There is nothing quite like those first person accounts of Trump in Trump Tower and Trump pulling Comey to one side in the White House! (It will be a good movie whatever the cast.) Having lived in the whole book with our new pal, James Comey, and inevitably getting concerned enroute about his wife’s morale, his efforts to uphold standards, and his assurance he will direct the FBI forthrightly for that full ten years no matter what, the reader gravitates to siding with that stalwart FBI man over that Chief Executive. At least I did; it was easy. An example: “Under the optimistic assumption that the attorney general had any control over President Trump, I then took the opportunity to implore him to prevent any future one-on-one communications between the president and me. “That can’t happen,” I said. “You are my boss. You can’t be kicked out of the room so he can talk to me alone. You have to be between me and the president…. Sessions cast his eyes down on the table [and]…said nothing.”

Next the head of the FBI observes, “I would struggle with President Trump for three more months.” Then the president called on the phone “to see how you’re doing.” He wanted “’to lift the cloud.’” Shortly after this, Comey was on the West Coast interacting with FBI subordinates, working routinely with morale as necessary. Giving a speech, he stopped in midsentence. On the back wall of the large room were projected the words “COMEY RESIGNS.” As time passed, “nobody called. Not the attorney general. Not…the deputy. Nobody.” He knew only what the media was saying. What a way to run a railroad!

The powerful FBI Director had no way to get back to Washington. He considered renting a car and driving the whole way…. (Displayed from above at the time was the same hateful treatment accorded McCabe when he was fired so his pension would be invalidated! Intimates did get Comey transportation to D.C., where a letter was idly awaiting. General John Kelly called to say it made him sick and he would quit in protest (a remark protested). It made no difference that Trump had praised his FBI Chief repeatedly and often asked him to stay. Many FBI employees were “tearful.”

I just don’t feel like retracing and dwelling on that Comey/Clinton interaction in October; it has been in the hands of commentators quite awhile. But going over the famous Trump/Comey dinner as told here should be interesting. On pages 247 to 255 we have one side’s account. Meeting in the Oval Office, these two had a memorable interchange. Bill O’Reilly is quoted to good advantage.

What do I think? I believe reading A Higher Loyalty about dedication to doing one’s job no matter what is a good reminder that those charged with real authority ought to be worrying for all of us. Its author has to choose over and over between pathways that are decidedly different. We are not compelled to grasp and admire the Comey choices in every case, but we do need to think a bit more than usual about alternative paths within his grasp.

It is right, I think, to quote James Comey’s final message, carefully phrased: “The FBI is honest. The FBI is strong. And the FBI is and always will be independent.” Endangering those sentiments, it appears is the “vicious partisanship” we are undergoing as I write this review. The troubled author, not yet out of the woods, hopes we will find “a higher loyalty…, truth among lies, and…ethical leadership.” Let’s hope so!

This little book of worry, concern, and dedication to one’s assigned task was a good way for me to spend most of a week—mostly thinking. For a time, I felt charged with responsibility and wondered off and on what I was obligated to do next—that is, if all would be turning out well in the end. It is one of James Comey’s contributions that many in the army of readers of A Higher Loyalty will quite possibly end up feeling as I did, enroute.

 

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