Comey’s higher loyalty: Life’s lessons, mistakes

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From childhood jobs and bullies to the culture of lying to the infamous 2016 email investigation, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership” takes its readers on the American journey that is the life of James Comey ’82. “A Higher Loyalty” goes beyond a simple impugnment of government officials over the years (although it isn’t lacking in that department) to discuss how Comey developed his code of ethics and personal definition of true leadership. From the shelves of Harry Howell’s grocery store to the halls of Barack Obama’s White House, “A Higher Loyalty” is a detailed account, seemingly directed toward college-aged students, of Comey’s personal journey from graduating from the College of William and Mary to stepping into the spotlight of America’s greatest stage.

Part I: Ethics

Typing the name “James Comey” into Google at any point results in hundreds of headlines related to the 2016 presidential election, accusations in relation to government officials and offices and at least one reference to recent memos. What doesn’t pop up on the screen is the story of a teenage Comey coming face-to-face with death or learning compassionate leadership from a high school part-time job.

Comey uses the first half of “A Higher Loyalty” to talk about the parts of his life that led up to becoming the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and finding himself thrown into the relentless political battlefield. He outlines his idea of ethical leadership and describes the people he met throughout his life who shaped that conception, all politics aside.

In the early pages of the novel, the reader learns of Harry Howell, the owner of the grocery store where a young Comey worked. Howell is described as one of Comey’s finest bosses because he “loved his job and was proud of his work” and “had power, and he wielded it with compassion and understanding.” Having pride in your work and using your power to do the right thing are reoccurring themes throughout the novel, from the simple task of stacking milk cartons in a grocery store to evaluating the Central Intelligence Agency’s information extraction tactics. Comey uses these stories to emphasize how the best leaders exercise their power in order to achieve the highest quality of work, and how he strived to do the same throughout his career both as a lawyer and as the director of the FBI.

“A Higher Loyalty” makes a stark comparison between Rudy Giuliani and Helen Fahey. The first was a boss who was resented by his employees for his egotistic ways and whose confidence, encroaching on arrogance, went unchecked, while the second was someone to whom Comey claims to “owe his entire career in leadership.” Where Giuliani used his position of power to further his own career and aspirations, Fahey used hers to build up those around her and to allow them to make their own names alongside her. The way Comey describes and contrasts these strong influences in his life leaves the reader comparing Comey’s own displays of leadership to the two and deciding whether he follows the code of ethics he preaches throughout the novel.

At its first appearance, a reader may question why they are reading about the heart-wrenching death of the newborn Collin Edward Comey. While it may seem out of place, the story of Comey’s son quickly introduces the compassionate and resilient leadership of Comey’s wife, Patrice. In the face of tragedy, Patrice chose to fight for mandatory testing in hospitals for the bacteria Group B streptococcus so other families wouldn’t have to needlessly go through the pain that the Comey family did. From this, Comey learned that there is a mission in ensuring that something good comes from suffering, a lesson that he tells readers through Collin’s story.

The culture of lying and its dangers is another widely discussed topic throughout “A Higher Loyalty,” both in relation to Comey’s professional and personal life. He warns of small lies becoming a hard-to-shake habit, for “the actions of one person can destroy what it took hundreds of people years to build.” Despite being a more controversial moral, given how people feel about Comey’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election, Comey’s go-to metaphor is relatable no matter which side the reader is on. From a lie that results in an entire legal investigation to a lie that has no repercussions, it can all add up and leave a sizable dent in affected system or relationship.

Comey incorporates a range of humorous stories, tragic events and tender moments to deliver what he considers ethics and leadership. From mob men to his wife, lessons in ethical leadership come from all around, sometimes when they are least expected. While this may not be what some readers expected from his book after all the buildup, “A Higher Loyalty” goes beyond stating the facts that everyone already knows by including information about Comey’s past. It helps readers understand who he is off the political stage and gives them a peek into how he became the man he is today.

Part II: Politics

Comey’s recent legacy means that much of the public attention directed toward his book focuses on its malignment of political figures like Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump. In reality, these opinions are not really the point. Instead, his discussions of political leaders are only one part of the message of “A Higher Loyalty,” and they are more like tools used to illustrate his arguments about ethical leadership in general than they are opinions for opinions’ sake.

Comey’s thoughts on political leaders are clearly stated — the audience does not need to guess how he feels, particularly about the sitting president — but they are usually well-reasoned, and even in cases where a reader disagrees with his opinion about a person, they can follow the logic of how and why he formed it.

Comey’s main purpose is not in making absolute moral judgements on political figures as people, but in showing how their leadership style is or is not beneficial to the people around them. For example, former Attorney General John Ashcroft was a strong leader because he was “warm, decent, and committed to his job over his own ambitions” when Comey worked under him as deputy attorney general in the early 2000s. Former President Barack Obama was a strong leader because he “could see and evaluate a variety of angles on a complicated issue” and “hunted for points of view.” Comey’s warm or cold feelings toward the people in the book are not because of their politics; they are because of their leadership methods.

As a result, the way Comey evaluates the actions of political figures and the propriety of his and the FBI’s response to them is fairly refreshing. Readers on either side of the political aisle who are frustrated by the lack of dialogue on partisan issues will appreciate his approach. Comey usually acknowledges both political opinions in his conclusions about a person or event, often ending up somewhere in the middle.

The book itself works — and for the most part, succeeds — as the opposite of what Comey calls a “Washington listen,” the phenomenon where “words [are] reaching ears, but not getting into a conscious brain.” However, it in no way avoids discussing the polarizing issues that brought the man himself into the headlines. Nor are his opinions inherently more neutral than those held by most Americans.

Throughout the book, Comey uses examples of crime families, ethical and unethical leadership, actions under pressure and various responses to partisanship. The entire time there is the unspoken sense that he adds each of these stories as a piece of evidence, slowly building a case that culminates in two things: his explanation of his own leadership during the 2016 email scandal and his opinion of Trump’s leadership.

The first is handled with a steady, logical clarification of facts that will probably surprise readers, based on the overarching narratives surrounding the email scandal in most media. Comey’s recollection of the FBI’s behind-the-scenes work in the investigation helps readers understand why the investigation played out the way it did.

Those frustrated by what seemed like a needless re-thrusting of Clinton into scandal right before the election get an explanation of why the FBI had to reopen the case as it did. On the other side, those frustrated by the lack of a criminal charge against Clinton get an explanation for why the FBI could not legally do such a thing given the information it had. While this doesn’t quite provide closure for those on either side with strong feelings about the investigation’s result, it does offer an explanation, without rationalization.

The book makes little mention of Comey’s personal opinion of Hillary Clinton. He states that he had “never met Hillary Clinton, although [he] tried” in 2002 when he was a district attorney in New York. As such, there are no personal accounts of Clinton’s behavior or words. There are instances in which Comey seems to question the ethics of Clinton’s behavior during her campaign, or at least implies a certain amount of pettiness; however, these instances are subtle.

The second is perhaps more influenced by Comey’s personal thoughts on the current president; his descriptions of his interactions with the president before he was fired as FBI director betray a strong dislike of the man for reasons that include, but also stretch beyond, the professional.

Trump is, throughout Comey’s account, compared to a Cosa Nostra mob boss, shown to not understand what the word “calligraphy” means, and stated to “never [stop] talking,” which “pulls all those present into a silent circle of assent.” In Comey’s account, the president contradicts himself in his evaluation of Comey’s leadership and repeatedly brings up topics nobody around him has mentioned for the sole purpose of claiming they are untrue. Despite Comey’s alternating exasperation and distaste for these qualities, he concludes that his “encounters with President Trump left [him] sad, not angry” because it is how the president’s leadership affects the country that matters most.

Comey’s conclusions are very strong after his book-long preparations; it would be challenging to read “A Higher Loyalty” without rethinking at least one strongly held personal opinion, political or otherwise. However, were the book only about Comey’s political experiences prior to the 2016 election, it would still remain fascinating, informative and dryly humorous.