Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for May 8th, 2018

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

Posted by nliakos on May 8, 2018

by James Comey (Flatiron Books 2018)

If you have been paying attention, you already know that James Comey did not unveil any deep dark secrets or smoking guns in the memoir he published after being fired from his position as FBI Director by Donald Trump, four years into a ten-year term. But the reader will learn much about Comey’s own life and career, which touched some of the most notorious cases of the past thirty years (including Whitewater, Martha Stewart, Scooter Libby, Edward Snowden and “the collision between privacy and public safety”, Marc Rich, Abu Ghraib and the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture), David Petraeus, and of course, the notorious Clinton email investigation. As Assistant Attorney General of the Southern District of New York (the ones who are suing the Administration to prevent them from adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census), as U.S. Attorney in Manhattan under Rudy Giuliani, as Deputy Attorney General and later Acting Attorney General of the U.S., Comey has had a front seat to many if not most of the big cases we’ve all heard about. He dealt with the Mafia, and he dealt with George W. Bush’s barefaced attempt to coerce John Ashcroft, Attorney General and Comey’s boss, to approve extensive surveillance of American citizens by the NSA. It was fascinating to read his retelling of these events.

The book is essentially an autobiography; after an initial chapter on his encounters with La Cosa Nostra, it begins with his childhood (when he was the target of bullies in his Allendale, NJ elementary school (I used to ride horseback in Allendale!). He spent years doing his utmost to avoid those bullies. He credits his parents (“tough, but kind”), some of his teachers, and an unforgettable boss named Harry Howell, with giving him the support and guidance which helped him to become the person he is. There is a marvelous story about how he once spilled 24 gallons of milk on the floor of Howell’s supermarket. He explains, “I stopped abruptly and pushed the hand truck hard upright, heedless of the basic laws of physics. The universe and the milk, of course, were not heedless.” Howell’s low-key reaction to the catastrophe (“Have you learned something? . . . . Good.  Clean it up.”) exemplifies Comey’s idea of “great leadership”.

But Comey was not only the target of bullies; he describes a memorable time when he participated in the humiliation of a nerdy classmate at the College of William and Mary when he was a freshman. But he learned from that experience, too: “Four decades later, I’m still ashamed of myself.” Despite his own experience being bullied and despite the teaching and examples of important adults in his life, he gave in to the temptation to belong to “the group”. Still, he concludes that being bullied made him a better person and instilled in him a hatred of bullies and sympathy for the victims of bullies. (Of course, the reader thinks of Donald Trump, Bully-in-Chief.)

Comey describes his career in public service and his family life. The Comeys had hoped to settle permanently in Richmond, where he worked as Assistant U.S. Attorney under another memorable boss, Helen Fahey. But after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01, he returned to New York as U.S. Attorney.

Comey writes intelligently and thoughtfully about lying (in a chapter mostly about the Martha Stewart and Scooter Libby cases) and leadership. He writes that he spent a lot of time during his first year as FBI Director traveling around the country and abroad to every field office, where he met and listened to special agents and other employees. It was very important to him that each employee knew how much he valued him or her. Reading about his views on good leadership and how he tried his best to be a good leader, I thought that he must be a fantastic person to work for, able to get the best out of each employee.

Chapter 6, “On the Tracks”, is one of the most fascinating, describing the struggle between the Justice Department and the (second) Bush administration over Project Stellar Wind, a program of citizen surveillance which required the Attorney General’s approval before it could be implemented. Both Comey and Ashcroft opposed the project because they felt it was not within the law. With Ashcroft desperately ill in intensive care at GW Hospital, two White House staffers rushed to the hospital to get him to sign off on the program, but Comey and several of his staff beat them there and in the end, Ashcroft refused to approve it. I remember reading about this in the Washington Post when it happened but not understanding well what had happened. Comey’s chapter explains everything in great detail. It reminds me a little of what happened during the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” in 1973, and of what could happen if Donald Trump were to fire Robert Mueller or Rod Rosenstein. In such blatant power grabs by a President, the DOJ must function as a check on the White House. If not, then Congress must explore the impeachment option. I never realized that the Card-Gonzalez-Comey-Ashcroft situation very nearly precipitated that kind of crisis in 2004.

Of course, what most readers are itching to get to are the sections which describe Comey’s relationship with Donald Trump, Trump’s attempts to get Comey to pledge loyalty to him, and the horrible way in which Trump fired Comey. This was interesting, but these were also the parts that were quoted and summarized extensively in the media when the book came out, so there was less to learn that was new. However, I was impressed by the detailed description of Comey’s emotional reaction to having to leave the FBI and a job that he loved, just when he was hitting his stride as Director. I was amazed to learn that Trump was nasty enough to want Comey, who was in Los Angeles giving a speech to staffers in the field office there when he learned of his dismissal on TV (he thought it was a joke at first), to have to pay his own way back to Washington while the FBI plane he had flown out on flew home empty. It was Andy McCabe who authorized Comey to return on the FBI plane, and Trump was furious. Not satisfied with dismissing Comey in a horrible, public way, Trump wanted to humiliate him as much as possible by forcing him to fly back on a commercial flight, at his own expense. The mean-spiritedness of the man is astounding.

A few favorite quotes:

Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear–like a Cosa Nostra boss–require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders care deeply about those they lead, and offer them honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice.They have a confidence that breeds humility. Ethical leaders know their own talent but fear their own limitations–to understand and reason, to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. They speak the truth and know that making wise decisions requires people to tell them the truth. And to get that truth, they create an environment of high standards and deep consideration–“love” is not too strong a word–that builds lasting bonds and makes extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.

I say this as someone who has worked in law enforcement for most of my life, and served presidents of both parties. What is happening now is not normal. It is not fake, It is not okay.

There are men and women of good conscience in the United States Congress on both sides of the aisle. . . . But not enough of them are speaking out. They must ask themselves to what, or to whom, they hold a higher loyalty: to partisan interests or to the pillars of democracy? Their silence is complicity–it is a choice–and somewhere deep down they must know that.

The situation offers an opportunity to rebalance power among the three branches of our government, closer to the model the founders intended.

Far from creating a new norm where lying is widely accepted, the Trump presidency has ignited a focus on truth and ethics.

I choose to be optimistic.

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