I had no plans to read James Comey’s memoir. Then I got stranded in the Indianapolis Airport, located in a cul-de-sac in a cornfield at the dead-end of the Ronald Reagan Parkway, when the FAA sprang surprise inspections on Southwest Airlines, after one of its engines blew up in flight killing a woman passenger. Both my flights were cancelled and what was meant to be a five-hour journey back to Portland turned into an 18-hour ordeal, zig-zagging from Indy to Denver, Denver to Vegas (the country’s most dismal airport), Vegas to Oakland and Oakland to Portland. I needed something to pass the time.
The battery on my Kindle was dead and I was nearly finished re-reading Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days, one of the most enjoyable chronicles of political psychopathy since Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King. The choice in the airport newsstand came down to Comey’s A Higher Loyalty or Madeleine Albright’s Fascism. Tough call. But since Albright’s volume didn’t appear to be a confession, I made a quick calculation that Comey’s might prove the lesser of two evils. It was, at least, the shorter of the two volumes.
One of the first things you learn about Comey is that he loves to poor mouth. He complains that he and his wife couldn’t afford a New York City apartment and he had to commute 50 miles to and from his home in Connecticut to his office in Manhattan when he served as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Comey also bemoaned the pay cut he had to endure when he accepted Obama’s offer to become director of the FBI, a job that paid a measly $172,100 a year. He failed to mention, however, that his net worth at the time was around $11 million and that he had just pocketed a $3 million payout when he stepped down as general counsel for Bridgewater Associates, a Connecticut-based hedge fund. Comey made a huge chunk of change after his, by his own telling, “heroic” departure from the Bush administration over torture and domestic spying, when he became general counsel for a humanistic enterprise known as Lockheed-Martin. One wonders what Comey’s hero Reinhold Niebuhr would have made of that career choice. (Of course, Niebuhr, a homegrown anti-communist moralist who ran for Congress on the Socialist Party ticket in 1932, did support the execution of the Rosenbergs, so perhaps he would have given Comey’s work for the manufacturer the F-35 and the Trident missile his seal of approval.)
By the time Comey was licking his wounds after being given the boot by Trump, his net worth had climbed to something in excess of $15 million, owing in large measure to the $2 million advance for his tell-all book, which has already sold more than 600,000 copies, meaning a big fat royalty check at the end of the year.
But is Comey’s book a “tell all”? As revenge stories go, A Higher Loyalty doesn’t rival “The Spanish Tragedy” or The Count of Monte Cristo. Comey’s bitchy comments about Trump’s Day-Glo tan and moderate hand size are confined to a single paragraph. I wish he had thrown more of this kind of shade at Trump, if only for the entertainment value. Unlike most Feds, Comey has a dry sense of humor and a tart tongue, which gets him in trouble with the famously prudish John Ashcroft, the man who draped the statue of Lady Justice under black cloth to conceal her bare breasts. After a meeting Comey is summoned to the Attorney General’s office where Ashcroft warns him “to be more attentive to your language.” Comey searches his memory for having “dropped an F-bomb” in front of Ashcroft. He comes up blank and asks Ashcroft what offensive word he’d said. Ashcroft snaps back, “It rhymes with ‘word.'”
The book is mercifully brief and therefore much is left unsaid, especially on Comey’s own savage escapades using Hooveresque tactics to punish leakers and whistleblowers under Obama, where more such prosecutions were brought than in all previous administrations combined—a fact that goes unmentioned in Comey’s pious account of his tenure as FBI director.
Though it is a thin volume, A Higher Loyalty is also surprisingly well-written. Like many prosecutors, Comey has a flair for narrative prose. He can tell a gripping story, especially when he wants to send someone to the gallows. Some of the best sections of the memoir involve Comey’s descriptions of his early days as a prosecutor investigating organized crime cases under Rudy Giuliani. Here Comey describes sharing a pasta dinner in Rome with Gazpara Mutolo, a hitman for the Sicilian Mafia.
Mutolo had killed so many people that he couldn’t remember them all. After naming nearly thirty, he added that we should assume there were seven or eight more. At one point, he recalled killing a man named Galatado. Then he recalled hitting another man named Galatado with a meat cleaver, but the man had not died. On the witness stand, he remembered that he had actually killed yet another man named Galatalo, making it two Galatalos killed and one Galatalo merely hit in the chest with a meat cleaver.
This sounds a little like Trump cleaving his way through the Republican field in the 2016 primaries.
A decade later, Comey would be meeting with governmental mass murderers almost daily as Deputy Attorney General in the Bush administration. Apex killers like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney flow in and out of Comey’s story like dark wraiths out of a bloody past, infusing the pages with a faint chill. Comey faced off with Cheney in a scene in the Situation Room of the White House shortly after he and Robert Mueller had prevented White House stooges Alberto Gonzalez and Andy Card from tricking an ailing John Ashcroft into signing an extension of the NSA’s Stellar Wind warrantless wiretap program. The Dark Lord cast a caustic stare at Comey and snarls, “Thousands of people are going to die because of what you are doing.”
The Bush era chapters are the most revealing sections of the book and should serve as something of an antidote to those liberals who have recently become intoxicated by the amusing antics of the Bush clan. Comey spares no one in the administration, but himself. When Comey belatedly becomes convinced that the legal opinions justifying torture are without merit, he searches fruitlessly for an ally inside the Bush administration who will back him up. His last hope resides with Condi Rice, apparently unaware that Rice was Bush’s National Security Advisor when the “enhanced interrogation” program was being put into action. Comey’s urgent calls to her went unanswered. An aide tells him that Rice believed that “If Justice says it’s legal and CIA says it’s effective that ends it.”
The hero of Comey’s story is, naturally, James Comey. His sense of self-regard is at least as grandiose as Trump’s and it comes embroidered with pieties cherrypicked from the greatest hits of moral philosophy. His writing turns brittle when he begins spouting off about the ethics of leadership, where his observations are as insipid as Kanye West’s daily epigrams from his work-in-progress “philosophy” book.
Here’s Comey extrapolating on the humility of leadership:
Of course, in a healthy organization, doubt is not a weakness, it is wisdom, because people are at their most dangerous when they are certain that their cause is just and their facts are right. And I’m not talking about finger-in-the-wind, I’m afraid-to-make-a-decision kind of doubt. Decisions have to be made, often quickly, even the hardest decisions. And the hardest ones always seem to need to be made the fastest and on the least information. But those decisions must be made with the recognition they could be wrong. The humility leaves the leader open to better information until the last possible moment.
Corey aspires to be a post-modern Thomas More, but his homilies sound more like they came from a TED Talk by self-empowerment guru Tony Perkins.
Comey’s memoir reveals DC to be a small town, where the same cast of suspect characters keeps intersecting decade after decade. One of Comey’s first gigs was as an investigator in the Whitewater probe. Comey was briefly assigned to one of the scandal’s more bizarre tributaries, the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster, Hillary Clinton’s former partner at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. Comey also probed missing billing records and other documents that were later discovered in the private quarters of the White House. He speculates HRC, who refused to meet with him after he was named US Attorney for the Southern District of Manhattan, held a grudge against him ever since.
From DC, Comey ended up in New York City, working for Giuliani, a man who would later be hired as Trump’s lawyer to defend the president against charges that he obstructed justice by firing Comey.
At the end of Clinton’s second term, the president issued a surprise pardon to the tax fugitive Marc Rich, a renegade billionaire who had hired Lewis “Scooter” Libby to lobby his case to Clinton. A year later, Comey, now Deputy Attorney General in the Bush Administration, would later investigate the circumstances of the pardon to determine whether any federal laws were violated.
Two years later it was Scooter Libby himself who was under investigation by Comey for leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame to reporters Tim Russert and Matthew Cooper in an attempt to smear her husband, Joe Wilson, who had written an op-ed in the New York Times busting President George W. Bush for his bogus claims about Iraq buying yellow-cake uranium from Niger. In 2003, Comey appointed his friend Patrick Fitzgerald as special prosecutor in the Plame affair. In 2007, Libby was convicted of lying to the FBI and obstruction of justice. Libby, a martyr for the neocons, was pardoned by Donald Trump, until then a fierce critic of neoconservatism, on April 13, 2018, in an apparent message to those under scrutiny in the Mueller probe to keep their mouths shut and similar indulgences might come their way. All in the family.
A Higher Loyalty fizzles out just when it should ignite. We learn nothing new about Russian meddling in the elections, the forensics behind the FBI’s assertion that Russians hacked the DNC and Clinton campaign’s email servers, Trump Organization dealings in Russia or loans backed by Russian banks and oligarchs, Trump’s sexual dalliances or his team’s promises to revoke sanctions on Russia. Comey doesn’t even tell us how he feels about being shivved in the back by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the man who wrote the memo critiquing Comey’s handling of the Clinton email case that Trump and Jeff Sessions used as justification for his termination. In fact, Rosenstein’s name doesn’t even merit a mention in A Higher Loyalty, a very curious omission indeed.
Perhaps the most revealing sequence is Comey’s account of his close relationship with Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who Comey describes as “the leader I most admire in government.” This is an extraordinary admission from a man whose book is subtitled “Truth, Lies and Leadership.” After all, Clapper perjured himself before Congress about the true nature of the NSA’s domestic spying program, an incident escaped Comey’s attention.
As the 2016 elections come into focus, Comey’s book loses much of its momentum. It becomes a defense of Comey and, by extension, the FBI. Yet Comey’s defense of the agency, and his own actions in inserting himself into the election, are based on a corrupt premise: that the FBI is an apolitical agency. Trump, at least, understands, if only intuitively, what Comey pretends not to: that the FBI is a domestic security force every bit as ruthless and politically-driven as its long-time rival the KGB.
Comey, who brags about having kept a memo from Robert Kennedy to J. Edgar Hoover approving the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, on his desk at the FBI would have us believe that all of the agency’s sins expired when Hoover gasped his last breath in 1972. This disciple of MLK, Jr. is the same man who proselytized about an alleged “Ferguson Effect” in the wake of the police murder of Michael Brown, where increased scrutiny on the activities of cops supposedly made them gun-shy leading to a spike in urban crime rates.
The real power of the FBI relies not on “public trust,” as Comey repeatedly asserts, but on public fear. Fear of surveillance, fear of entrapment, fear of manufactured evidence out of the infamous FBI crime lab, fear of perjured testimony and black bag jobs and assassinations. Comey elides from his sanitized history of the agency its involvement in COINTELPRO, the FBI invasion of Pine Ridge, the framing of Wen Ho Lee, the shootings at Ruby Ridge, the burning of Waco, the Whitey Bulger case, the targeting of Steven Hatfill in the Anthrax case or the persecution of lawyer Lynne Stewart.
In an audacious passage, Comey presents the FBI as a model of impartiality, at the very moment he is throwing Obama’s Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, under the bus:
For years, I have spoken of the reservoir of trust and credibility that makes possible all the good we do at the FBI and Department of Justice. When we stand up, whether in a courtroom or a cookout, and identify ourselves as part of those institutions, total strangers believe what we say, because of that reservoir…I have always used the reservoir metaphor because it captures both the immensity of it and how quickly it can be drained away by a hole in the dam. How could I protect the reservoir standing behind an attorney general who appeared politically compromised? The FBI was independent and apolitical, and the American people needed to see that.
Comey’s writing becomes more rushed and confusing the closer it gets to his own moments of dubious decision-making, such as his impetuous decision to step before the cameras and spank Hillary Clinton for using a private email server, even as he chose not to seek charges against her, a decision that is usually not the FBI’s to make. Again, Comey paints himself, and not Clinton, as the victim:
What made this unusual was that the FBI director—to protect both institutions—was stepping out front to make the announcement separate from the Department of Justice leadership. That decision was made knowing it put me and my professional reputation directly in the line of fire from all sides of the political spectrum.
Comey’s memoir is redolent with this kind of rectitude, especially when it comes to his interactions with Trump, where Comey was brave only in the privacy of his own office writing up his famous memos. In the actual conversations, Comey often seemed to wilt before Trump’s strange blend of seduction and bombast. Comey never told Trump that his plea that he back off Michael Flynn was inappropriate. He didn’t tell Trump to stop inquiring about the status of Russia investigation and whether he was a target of the probe. Comey didn’t even have the fortitude to leak his own memos to the New York Times, instead he hid behind a cut-out, his friend Dan Richman, a professor at Columbia University’s law school.
The fact that Comey was fired rather than quit after being asked for his loyalty, tells us more about James Comey than Donald Trump. So much for the man of conscience. Comey thought he could outmaneuver Trump. Comey wanted to be a player, but in the end he got played, by a man he considered his moral and intellectual inferior.
Don’t cry for Comey. By the time you finish reading this, he will have sold another 100,000 copies of his book, banked another $250,000 in royalties and will be sifting through job offers from the likes of Raytheon, Wells Fargo and Monsanto. All they’ll ask for in return is a little loyalty.
RIP Charles Neville: Lord, Did He Ramble
What I’m reading this week…
Circe by Madeline Miller
Collusion: How Central Bankers Rule the World by Nomi Prins
A Higher Loyalty by James Comey
What I’m listening to this week…
Still recreating my lost vinyl collection. Here are this week’s acquisitions…
51. Catholic Boy by Jim Carroll
52. Street Songs by Rick James
53. Chet Baker Sings by Chet Baker
54. Call Me by Al Green
55. To Bring You My Love by PJ Harvey
Free Choice Between Brands and Gadgets
Herbert Marcuse: “The distinguishing feature of advanced industrial society is its effective suffocation of those needs which demand liberation—liberation also from that which is tolerable and rewarding and comfortable—while it sustains and absolves the destructive power and repressive function of the affluent society. Here, the social controls exact the overwhelming need for the production and consumption of waste; the need for stupefying work where it is no longer a real necessity; the need for modes of relaxation which soothe and prolong this stupefication; the need for maintaining such deceptive liberties as free competition at administered prices, a free press which censors itself, free choice between brands and gadgets.”