I’ve noticed over the years that media coverage of books can be wildly at odds with my own impression, more so than media coverage of just about anything else.
There’s a logical explanation for that. It would be pretty much impossible to write a 300-page book and not get something wrong or include material that perhaps should have been left out.
The textbook case of this was the criticism of Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid. Alan Dershowitz (yeah, the pseudo-liberal currently defending Trump) and others found a handful of items Carter had wrong. Carter actually admitted to getting a few things wrong. Reading that criticism, I lost interest in the book, as Carter’s view also clashed with my own beliefs at the time about Israel-Palestine. Eventually, however, I read it. For everything Carter got wrong and for which he was lambasted by the pro-Israel American media, he got about 50 things right. Ultimately, the book had a profound influence on my own views.
We’re seeing a repeat of this with the media reporting on Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty. In this case, it’s not as much things Comey got wrong, but passages he included that the media have labeled spiteful or petty. When you read A Higher Loyalty, however, you see that Comey’s critics are the ones engaged in spite and pettiness.
Because of the nature of news coverage in America, the reporting on A Higher Loyalty is limited to the final one-third or so of the book, the portion related to Comey’s involvement in the investigation of Hillary Clinton and his relationship with and eventual firing by Donald Trump.
The fundamental problem with that coverage is that you have to read the first two-thirds of the book to grasp the honesty and wisdom of the final third.
Comey presents himself as the anti-Trump. I’d guess that was intentional, but that’s okay, because the presentation is dead on. You couldn’t make up Comey’s life story. The incidents Comey describes as having been formative for him had to have been so. Otherwise, he could not have remembered them as vividly as he has. Like Comey, I’m a lawyer. The case he makes for being the anti-Trump is outstanding.
What’s stuck in Comey’s memory tells you the sort of person he is. He tells of a boss for whom he worked at a grocery store as a teenager, and how that boss could be tough when mistakes were made, but without belittling Comey or other kids for their mistakes. That experience is from 40 years ago. Were it not truly formative for him, he would not have the memory of it he does.
He tells of his experience being bullied and his own shame for having bullied another student in college. That passage itself presented quite a contrast between Comey and, ironically, Mitt Romney. Romney, you may remember, was reported to have bullied a kid in high school. When confronted with it, Romney showed no remorse, instead laughing if off and attributing it to his having been a “prankster.” Comey’s incident of bullying was far less egregious than Romney’s, and Comey himself played a non-leading role in his incident. Yet Comey would never consider pardoning himself, as Romney did. There’s a lot to admire in that, in my opinion.
A Higher Loyalty doubles as a book about leadership. For anyone who is a leader or who aspires to be in a leadership role one day, it contains valuable information. Comey’s insights into the qualities of the leaders who he worked under, from that grocery store manager all the way up to three presidents, and the leaders he prosecuted, including mafia leaders, are woven together in a way only someone with his life story could.
One of the passages that I thought spoke volumes involved his leadership of the FBI. He told how he always took the additional time, when visiting an FBI office, to go floor by floor, cubicle by cubicle, to introduce himself to FBI employees and thank them for their work. As you know, he was in the Los Angeles FBI office when he saw the news coverage of his own firing. His actual FBI business there, a recruitment event, had not yet started. The FBI people to whom he was speaking when the news reports hit were so low level they did not have desks. The leaders at the Los Angeles FBI office knew of his practice of going floor-by-floor, cubicle-by-cubicle, so they scheduled a time for him to meet those workers who did not have desks, mainly the cleaning crew.
Consider what’s implicit in that situation. Yes, it says a lot for Comey that he’d take the time to thank workers whenever given the opportunity. But his human decency goes beyond that. In order for those in charge at the Los Angeles office to have scheduled that time with workers who did not have desks, they knew, without asking, that Comey, then the director of the FBI, would welcome spending time with the cleaning crew.
It’s against that background that one should read Comey’s description of the events of 2016 and 2017. It’s easy for Democrats to blame him for Clinton’s loss. It’s harder, but ultimately more valuable, to understand who Comey is and the thought processes that led to his decision on late October 2016 to disclose that he had re-opened the investigation. I never thought that decision was made maliciously, or even negligently. But I did not fully appreciate the position in which Comey had been placed. I don’t know if I would have made the same decision if I were Comey, but I’m pretty sure he made the ethically principled decision.
I wonder if Hillary Clinton herself would do well to read Comey’s book and consider changing her messaging on his role in the 2016 election. She might be seen as a bigger person if, rather than blaming Comey for her loss, she attributed the loss more to the circumstance, and acknowledged that Comey’s decision itself was justified.
Finally, Trump’s relationship with and ultimate firing of Comey. From this perspective, A Higher Loyalty is a must read. It’s pure happenstance a person with Comey’s life experience, decency, and intellectual grasp would be placed in the position he was with Donald Trump. But the insights into Trump he shares are critical. We all would do well to learn them.
And, by all means, read the epilogue.