By Masha Gessen
Truth is good. Truth is great. Truth is so much better than loyalty that the former F.B.I. director James Comey wrote a book about it. Much of the coverage of Comey’s new memoir, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” has focussed on the insults its author has hurled at President Donald Trump, and on Comey’s narrative of how he handled the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, but these two topics make up relatively small parts of the book. The true subject of “A Higher Loyalty” is the goodness of James Comey. The premise is that a man whose value is truth is superior to a man whose value is loyalty, and Comey’s understanding of “truth” is as basic as Trump’s understanding of “loyalty”: he believes that there is such a thing as “all the truth” that exists outside of history, context, and judgment.
Dishonest men who value loyalty bracket the book. Early in the story, Comey narrates his career in the New York U.S. Attorney’s Office that was working to break up La Cosa Nostra. He describes vicious killers who demanded and promised loyalty but were rotten to the core—not so much, one senses in Comey’s telling, because they killed, as because they lied to one another about the killings, Mafia rules, and drugs. Two hundred pages later, he describes the now-infamous February, 2017, White House dinner during which the recently inaugurated President of the United States asked the F.B.I. director for his loyalty. Comey rightly points out that Trump has the style and the substance of a Mafia boss.
In between, Comey marches through life telling the truth. He falters at first: when he was a law student at the University of Chicago, he confesses, he sometimes fibbed about having played basketball in college. But then he found his way to truth, and even wrote to his former law-school classmates confessing the lie. (They seem to have known all along.) From that point on, truth was his sole guiding light.
In a country whose politics have been hijacked by lying liars, a man of truth has a palpable appeal. If only we had a leader who told the truth! The longing is so strong that Michiko Kakutani, the former book critic for the Times and the author of a forthcoming book called “The Death of Truth,” devoted six paragraphs of her recent review of Comey’s book to comparing Trump and Comey. One has “autocratic instincts,” while the other is “an apostle of order and the rule of law.” One “uses language incoherently,” while the other is so devoted to truthtelling that when he gave a tie decorated with tiny Martini glasses to the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, he made sure to note that it was a regift. One is a narcissist, while the other wrote his college thesis on the religious ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. The reader might wonder how exactly the last pair of characteristics stand in opposition to each other, or, indeed, who but a narcissist would consider it appropriate to inform the reading public that he not only regifted a tie but informed the recipient that it was a regift. But this side-by-side comparison of Trump and Comey—which his book all but explicitly invites—has the peculiar effect of highlighting their key similarities. Both are anti-political politicians, each of whom has a single, simple solution for how to run things.
One should wonder about the argument for the primacy of a single moral value, even if that value is truth over loyalty. Part of Comey’s zeal is prosecutorial: he headed an agency that loves to punish people for the coverup rather than the crime. For Comey, this is principle rather than method. As a U.S. attorney, he writes, he made sure that Martha Stewart went to jail—not, he stresses, because she engaged in insider trading of a kind that would have warranted but a warning, but because she lied about it. As the F.B.I. director, he hoped that his agents would catch Hillary Clinton in a lie about her e-mail servers. By this time, investigators had concluded that the use of Clinton’s private server had caused no damage, but Comey makes it clear that his primary concern and objective was to catch the former Secretary of State in a lie. The pursuit of the prosecutable lie has been a cornerstone of F.B.I. strategy, especially in its post-2001 incarnation as an anti-terrorism agency, and Comey wastes no time reflecting on its tenuous relationship to actual crime, or actual justice.
As Comey walks the reader through American history since 9/11, truthtelling is his only lens. It’s not always a good fit—it’s not clear, for example, how illegal surveillance or torture were lies, exactly, or how these crimes could have been remedied by telling the truth. By the time the story gets to the Black Lives Matter movement—which was gaining momentum when Comey was serving as director of the F.B.I., under President Obama—the moral vacuousness of an ahistoric focus on facts becomes painfully clear. Comey positions himself as the good guy because he can “tell the truth” about “both sides”: the Black Lives Matter activists and the police. In two different speeches in 2015, Comey discussed what he saw as communities of color and the police pushing each other away. “Each time somebody interprets the hashtag #blacklivesmatter as anti-law enforcement, one line moves away,” he said in a speech in Chicago, describing police and African-Americans as two arcing lines. “And each time somebody interprets the hashtag #policelivesmatter as anti-black, the other line moves away.”
During this period, Obama met with Comey to try to explain to him how his comments were coming across to black communities, including his use of the term “weed and seed” when referring to poor black neighborhoods suffering from high levels of crime. (In the 2015 speech in Chicago, Comey said, of his past work as a prosecutor in Richmond, Virginia, “We worked hard to weed those neighborhoods by removing those who were strangling it, so that seeds could be planted to allow good things to grow and fill that space . . . We did this work because we believed that all lives matter.”) Comey writes, “I hadn’t taken the time to consider how the term ‘weed and seed’—one we had been using in law enforcement for decades—might strike people, especially black people at a challenging time.” But he persisted in asserting the equivalence of “both sides”: if Comey had to give up “weed and seed,” then Obama should give up “mass incarceration,” which, Comey said, was offensive to the police: “The term was both inaccurate and insulting to a lot of good people in law enforcement who cared deeply about helping people trapped in dangerous neighborhoods.” This passage is one of the most tone-deaf and self-absorbed in a book characterized by tone-deafness and self-absorption.
The book’s subtitle contains the third keyword of the book: leadership. The words “leader” or “leadership” show up two hundred and fourteen times, to a hundred and ten instances of “truth” or “true.” It’s a hollow word: Comey thinks that a good leader is someone like his first boss at a grocery store, who didn’t lose his temper even when Comey broke a price gun or spilled milk. He thinks that he himself was a good boss because, as F.B.I. director, he coerced his employees into dressing more casually, directing both men and women to attend his morning meetings in shirtsleeves. A good leader has a sense of humor—Comey points out that both George W. Bush and Obama could laugh, while Trump does not. A good leader can listen: Bush wasn’t great at this, Obama was a master, and Trump simply doesn’t do it. All of this is undoubtedly accurate, but one wonders if a good leader—especially the leader of a country, this country—might also need vision, beliefs, values, principles, judgments.
In one striking passage, Comey describes telling F.B.I. agents that they need to get enough sleep because “when you sleep, your brain is actually engaged in the neurochemical process of judgment. It is mapping connections and finding meaning among all the data you took in during the day.” It’s a telling detail—this idea that judgment is the unconscious processing of data—and it seems characteristic of a technocratic understanding of political leadership that Comey and Trump in fact share. Comey’s conviction that a man who faces, discloses, and processes the whole truth is the best leader, is surely more appealing than Trump’s belief that a man who can run a company can manage a country. But both are equally devoid of substance.
Indeed, Trump and Comey appear to share a fundamental perception of reality. Comey begins his book with a description of surviving a break-in as a teen-ager, and frames his career in law enforcement as a reaction to what is apparently constant and mortal danger. He claims that anyone who has ever stared down the barrel of a gun sees the world in similarly catastrophic terms. (I feel compelled to say this is not a true statement.) He and Trump are looking through the same window at a terrifying, us-versus-them world. Comey is simply making the argument that, amid American carnage, a truthful man makes a better protector than a loyal one.