Truth, Lies and Leadership

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

A Higher Loyalty – Truth, Lies and Leadership is the title of former FBI director James Comey’s recent book (2018 Flatiron Books [Macmillan]). It is a good title, for the point of the book is about his president asking him to be loyal to him first. Not to the Constitution, which Comey swore to uphold (as did his president); not even to a political party. He was asked to be loyal to a man.

Dictators, strongmen, autocrats and mob bosses demand loyalty. Democracies, through their constitutions, write the laws to keep leaders from behaving like kings, from becoming stronger than the state and bigger than the balances set in place to keep one person from taking over.

In his author’s note, Comey writes, “I spent a lot of time thinking about the title of this book. In one sense, it came out of a bizarre dinner meeting at the White House, where a new president of the United States demanded my loyalty – to him, personally – over my duties as FBI director to the American people. But in another, deeper sense, the title is the culmination of four decades in law, as a federal prosecutor, business lawyer, and working closely with three U.S. presidents. In all those jobs, I learned from those around me and tried to pass on to those I worked with that there is a higher loyalty in all of our lives – not to a person, not to a party, not to a group.”

Through his life working in the positions mentioned above, Comey strove to be as kind, tough, confident and humble as he could to accomplish the job. Honesty and integrity led him. These were the traits he weighed himself and his decisions against at all times, each time.

He chose his mentors from historical figures of honor and moral thoughtfulness; his guides were also unknowns, from his first job as a kid, who affected him and altered him, taught him to be better than he thought he could be. He took to heart a line from Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, dead before he was born: “Safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches his task with humility.” Comey’s memoir of his years of service to the Constitution, the country and its people reveals the importance to him of these words that became the words he lived by.

Amazingly, he maintained a sense of humor. As assistant U.S. attorney under Rudy Giuliani, Comey learned the definition of self-aggrandizement. In a case against Mafia don John Gambino he learned the meaning of bully, what Comey calls “a distinctive species,” that he would come across again. He eventually worked under three presidents: George W. Bush appointed him U.S. Deputy Attorney General, Barack Obama appointed him as director of the FBI and Donald Trump kept him on in that position for about four months. During all of these experiences with criminals as well as politicians both honorable and not so honorable, he never failed to acknowledge his humility in what he considered the exalted company of some of his peers, all of his co-workers and his many life teachers.

He tells of a command photo-op with the recently inaugurated president in which heads of security departments were to be thanked by the head of state. Comey didn’t want to attend because he felt a distance needed to be maintained between his position as director of the FBI and the administration, whoever it was. But a summons from a president is usually met with a yes. Comey was determined not to have his photo taken with the president, as he didn’t want the world to think they were in cahoots about releasing information on Hillary Clinton’s emails right before the election. Comey’s telling the tale of the evening is pretty funny. As it turned out, he escaped having his photo taken with the president by blending in to the dark blue curtains at the back of the room which were the same shade as his suit; but on world-wide TV, set up to cover the event at the president’s request, Trump swooped in close to Comey to whisper in his ear; on TV, it looked like he was being kissed.

Comey considered the entire “thank-you” event as a set-up to make it look like all law enforcement – FBI, CIA, Capitol police, Secret Service and so forth – surrounding the office of the president was promising fealty. From Comey’s point of view, it was like a Mafia don’s purposeful playacting drama of finding out who was on his side and who might have to be fired.

Comey realized he’d been fired by the president while he was giving a talk to FBI employees and possible recruits in Los Angeles. He saw the news flash across three TV screens at the back of the room where he spoke. It was definitely news to him.

But Comey did realize after the shock wore off that he had seen this behavior before. It was typical get-even dictum from a bully, who gets rid of people who disagree with him.

Comey has survived to write the book of how he worked and succeeded in his life – despite or because of being fired by the man in the most powerful position in the world — and why and in what uncomely manner it was done. Comey has led his life in high places yet remains just a guy, humble and funny, loyal, but to no man. These words, which are his own, stirred me: “The higher loyalty is to lasting values, most important the truth. I hope this book is useful in stimulating all of us to think about the values that sustain us, and to search for leadership that embodies those values.”

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