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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

James Comey is a very good writer, storyteller, and teacher, so on a literary level (except for one odd plot order choice—the highly dramatic John Ashcroft hospital showdown between Comey and Bush representatives—which I suspect has to do with the need to insert a ton of detailed background information), this book works.

Comey is a man who is in love with the law and justice and has a loathing of bullies. He is a student and practitioner of ethical leadership—which is really the topic of this book. He is a deeply reflective person. Yes, he tries to make himself look good by talking about his noble motives, but, unless he practiced introspection, he could not relay his introspective self-interrogations about his motives and whether something is ego-driven or directed for the higher good. If he were not compelled to know what's honest, he would not have told the story of the time he was the very thing he loathes—a horrible bully. I relate to this introspective inquiry because I do it myself—constantly, relentlessly—and I'm amazed so many other people don't. But I shouldn't be surprised. As Comey writes, "It is painful to stare openly at ourselves, but it is the only way to change the future. (137)" One can only know this pain by experiencing it, so I believe he is committed to this. Also like me, Comey has had a lifelong struggle with his tendency to think he's right—overconfidence—and he has had to learn to check his opinions with others, let in belief-disputing information, and monitor his tendency to be impulsive and arrogant. He freely admits all this, and he sees and admires Obama's enlightened ability to believe in himself yet remain humble enough to learn from others "which doesn't often exist alongside overconfidence. (155)"

I like this guy. I really, really like him. We are made from a lot of the same stuff.

I enjoyed hearing about his formative experiences (from a terrifying house break-in when he was a boy to his prosecution of Mafia bosses as a young attorney), and I loved being his student, learning about the working of the Justice Department from such an educated, experienced source. Even if this book weren't a response to Trump's firing of him and possible obstruction of justice, it is valuable for the education it offers. Once Comey reached the pinnacle of his career, standing in the Oval Office with the leader of the free world, I could relate to his humility and shock at realizing, "It's just us"—that's how I would feel if I were suddenly still just me and had such responsibility. In other words, the protagonist of this memoir, for me, is highly "relatable."

All of this makes it personally painful to read his rationalization—with the agreement of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who in my opinion shares equal blame—to ever talk publicly about an ongoing investigation, no matter what the precedents, no matter how many people already knew that Hillary Clinton's email use was being examined. When he publicly confirmed the investigation—referring to it as a "matter" at the direction of Lynch—he set in motion absolutely everything that was to come, ensuring that the FBI would play an untenable role as a political actor, and I'm amazed that a man of his introspective bent would not look at this critical decision and action and at least question it. He screwed up way before the election-changing announcement. His public disclosure in 2015 mandated the later decisions, because it established a "duty to inform." And his lone-wolf announcement about the investigation's conclusions in July 2016, without checking with the Justice Department because he believed it would politicize things (read the book for the details for that conclusion) belied his own belief in checking what he was certain was true with people of contrasting opinions—and trusting them to be just as fair and responsible as he.

I read and liked Hillary Clinton's What Happened. She admitted that using a private email server was a mistake, and I appreciate that. But I believe it was a mistake of arrogance: it was just too hard to carry two phones and learn the blasted cumbersome and antiquated systems and she didn't want to be bothered. But that's my theory, not founded in provable fact. However her flippant dismissal of the DNC's rigging of the primary (see linked review for more on that) is in her book and, in my opinion, just as mind-blowing as Comey's rationalization of the original disclosure of the email investigation. And I believe that Clinton and Comey suffer from the same blinding arrogance at times, and blaming one more than the other is a distortion of what happened. In some ways, they mirror each other.

I like Clinton. As I said, I like Comey a lot—so much that, trusting he would learn from this debacle, I'd consider voting for him if he were running for office. I am not wild about the Democratic Party, but I've always voted for Democrats. Like Comey and Clinton, I've suffered from blinding arrogance, and after reading this and other "aftermath" books, I can only conclude that this Blinding Arrogance is the disease that has allowed and perhaps invited the current "forest fire that is the Trump presidency (275)"—well documented in the last three chapters of this fourteen-chapter book (and I had no problem with any of that, which is largely stuff already in the public record).

Now what are we going to do about the disease that led to all this?

I defer to the book about those things: Steve Almond's wonderful Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country. It's time to stop blaming, look at ourselves, be honest, and VOTE.

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