Loyalty to whom?

Paul Constant

April 24, 2018

Early in his memoir A Higher Loyalty, former FBI Director James Comey shares an anecdote from his childhood that is perhaps more telling than Comey realizes. It's just three sentences long:

Before she died, my mother showed me a note I had written to her after getting sent to my room at the age of seven or eight. "I am sorry," the note read. "I will be a great man someday."

That note from young Comey would be a better title for the memoir than A Higher Loyalty. And I Am Sorry. I Will Be a Great Man Someday would probably be a more honest and self-reflective book, too.

As it is, A Higher Loyalty is a readable but dumb book, lacking any of the introspection or contrition that Comey needed to bring to the project. Instead, the author puffs himself up again and again.

Comey explains to the reader that he is fully aware of his own blind spots and that his blind spots had no part in his decision to throw Hillary Clinton's legal status into question days before the 2016 election. Comey hilariously tells stories from his youth about causing huge accidents and not having to face the repercussions while somehow framing the experiences as valuable lessons. The book reeks of enormous self-regard, and it is as headache-inducing as a perfume sample tucked into the pages of a fashion magazine.

One more thing about that note from young Comey: it signals the man's lifelong obsession with the idea of a "great man." Loyalty is riddled like buckshot with the phrases "great man" or "great men." Comey reflects on all the great men who shaped his life. He solemnly recounts stories when people embraced him and told him that he, Comey, was a great man. That idea of greatness seems to be the yardstick by which he measures a life well-lived.

But I don't know if Comey ever fully defines what it means to be a "great man." When he refers to a person's greatness, is he talking about a moral person - someone who makes the right decision, no matter the personal cost? Or is he just talking about someone who history remembers long after they're gone - someone who has lived an extraordinary life? I honestly can't tell.

The problem is that both definitions of greatness are dictionary-valid, but they mean nearly opposite things. Comey seems to believe he's a morally correct man - someone who can claim impartiality and objectivity in matters of law enforcement, but who can also claim moral authority when it comes time to punish evildoers - but his greatness (if indeed it exists at all) instead springs from the fact that his circumstances have rendered him remarkable.

You can tell which definition of greatness appeals most to Comey when he describes his early career working for one of the most talented showmen of modern politics: Rudy Giuliani.

Giuliani had extraordinary confidence, and as a young prosecutor I found his brash style exciting, which was part of what drew me to his office. I loved it that my boss was on magazine covers standing on the courthouse steps with his hands on his hips, as if he ruled the world. It fired me up.

Comey is clearly impressed by the glitz and glamor of 1990s Giuliani. He can't separate Giuliani's notoriety from his actual record. The legend and the reality are fused into one being, and it's the number of magazine covers that seems to wow Comey, not the reason why Giuliani landed on those covers.

The truth seems to be that James Comey is less concerned with doing good in the world than he is with maintaining the public perception that he is doing good in the world. To Comey, being good and being seen as good are one and the same. He's got a very square sense of propriety: if you follow every rule, you're a good guy; if you break a rule for a good reason, you're a bad guy. Why? Because everybody is watching, and you have to set an example. And you set an example by looking like a good example. And you look like you're setting a good example by being watched setting a good example. It's an ouroboros of meaningless performative morality.

Let's be plain: James Comey is a drama queen, a showboat. But when Donald Trump was elected president, Comey found himself serving at the pleasure of an even bigger drama queen. And as anyone who has watched any reality TV show knows, when you stick two drama queens into a room together, only one drama queen is going to walk out intact.

Yes, Loyalty's last third is heavy with juicy, dramatic accounts of Comey's interactions with Trump. And yes, the accounts are entertaining, and if you have a dim view of Donald Trump you will likely find them to be pleasantly confirmatory.

But is this book useful? Does it do anything worthwhile besides earn Comey a mountain of royalties? I would argue that it is not, and that the timing of its release serves absolutely no one but James Comey. It does not change the political discussion; it only reaffirms pre-existing biases. It doesn't break any real news; it only adds to the thousands of so-called "palace intrigue" stories that have dominated cable news shows for the last year and a half.

Here are things American citizens can do to create change in the midst of the Trump administration: we can give money and attention to candidates and causes who deserve it; we can protest unjust laws; we can amplify the voices of minorities who are being targeted by the government; we can work to share our perspectives with those who are willing to hear us; we can register as many Americans to vote as humanly possible.

Here are things American citizens have absolutely no power over right now: The Russian collusion investigation; the proceeding of impeachment hearings; the question of whether Trump is mentally fit for office; legal investigations into Trump's dirty business dealings; Robert Mueller's investigation.

I gently suggest that as Americans in the year 2018, we need to make sure we're investing more time and energy into the things we can change than the things we cannot. Sharing Mueller memes on Facebook might provide a shot of dopamine into your lizard-brain, but it does absolutely nothing to fix the mess that our country has become. Making calls for candidates or gathering signatures for initiatives that you support, though, actually represent a quantifiable difference in the world. One of these actions is fun but useless. The other is difficult but positive.

Ultimately, the Comey book is entirely useless. There is no actionable information here, unless your name happens to be Robert Mueller. (And even then, Mueller had other avenues to this information; it's unlikely he had to stand in line at Politics & Prose for a copy of A Higher Loyalty.) It's another chapter in the ongoing soap opera that is the Trump Administration, and it treats you as a passive viewer, a nobody who sits around helplessly absorbing pointless gossip about the supposedly "great" men who are destroying the planet.

You deserve more than this. You deserve to have a hand in making the world a better place. Let the grandiloquent showboats vacillate over their own legacy of greatness; it's time for the rest of us to clean up the mess they've made.

Books in this review:
  • A Higher Loyalty
    by James Comey
    Flatiron Books
    April 17, 2018
    304 pages
    Checked out from library
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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