Front cover of A Higher Loyalty by James Comey - A higher loyaltyA HIGHER LOYALTY: Truth, Lies, and Leadership

James Comey

[Flatiron Books, 312 pages]

In my twenties, I asked a spiritual companion who’d just become a lawyer why he’d made that career choice. “I find the concept of Justice beautiful,” he said.

America’s former FBI Director James Comey has a similar sense of the abstract value of Justice and the Law. His new book, A Higher Loyalty, presents Comey’s ideals and takes the reader through the process of their formation. However, the book is most valuable because it’s the story of a lifetime spent in the crucible where those ideals have met the fire of real-life challenges.

Not a hatchet job on Trump

This book is no mere hatchet job on Donald Trump, who’s scarcely mentioned until the final chapters. The narrative of Comey’s life in government service, however, gives the reader a powerful context in which to evaluate the interactions that led to the FBI Director’s firing.

The idea that Comey is a “slimeball” telling lies, as President Trump has suggested, seems preposterous in this framework. Why would a man who has generously shared his entire life—made it pretty much an open book for the reader—suddenly resort to fabrications in the final chapters? That’s not logical, nor do those chapters read like fabrications. They’re made of the same stuff as the rest of the book: keen observation, honest reporting and good writing.

Comey’s formative years

Comey begins his story in childhood, citing teachers who inspired him, as well as experiences of being bullied. In one deeply-regretted instance, he also joined some bullies because he was too afraid of social rejection to refuse.

The climax of his formative years came when he and his younger brother were held at gunpoint one night by an intruder in their New Jersey home, while their parents were out. The author says that his personal experience of the terror that crime victims feel is what eventually led him to change his career track from medicine to law enforcement. He shares that his memory of that terror is never far from him, and has motivated his lifelong commitment to protect American citizens.

Comey’s legal career began with a job as a young lawyer in the United States Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York. The U.S. Attorney heading that office at the time was Rudolph Giuliani, who later became known around the world as New York City’s mayor at the time of 9/11. Comey reminisces about how Giuliani arranged things at the U.S. Attorney’s office so that he would personally receive all the credit and publicity for what were often team efforts. Comey decided then, early in his career, that this wasn’t the best way to run an agency.

When Comey famously observes that his first meeting with President-to-be Trump reminds him of his dealings with the Mafia, the association isn’t merely a tossed-off insult.

During his U.S. Attorney days, Comey was deeply involved in prosecuting of a number of high-up Mafia figures. He had years of hands-on experience dealing with men who’d personally murdered many other men. The choice of death was usually strangulation, which Cosa Nostra saw as an “honourable” way both to die and to kill.

Later in the book, when Comey famously observes that his first meeting with President-to-be Trump reminds him of dealings with the Mafia, the association isn’t merely a tossed-off insult. It’s grounded in years of actual experience of the code and patterns of Cosa Nostra—loyalty without exception to the godfather.

Comey’s entire book is a thoughtful primer on the challenges of a life of public service in action. At every stage, he learns more about the administration of justice and the concomitant necessity for the Department of Justice to remain independent of petty politics.

The plot thickens

In the years after 9/11, when he was Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George W. Bush, he describes his thorny and sometimes dramatic clashes over the legality of Bush’s torture and surveillance policies. These conflicts eventually led to his leaving government service for a time. Comey was surprised when, in 2013, he learned from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that President Obama was interested in bringing him back to Washington, D.C. as FBI Director.Split screen with Trump during presidential campaign on left and Clinton on right - A higher loyaltyThe plot of Comey’s book thickens, as they say, as its narrative approaches the 2016 presidential election. Before Donald Trump enters as a character, there’s a lengthy section about Hillary Clinton’s private email servers and the intense partisan emotions that often held Comey in their crosshairs.

Indeed, he and his FBI leadership companions recognized early on that the Clinton investigation was a no-win situation for them. In a way, Comey confides, he feels this freed him to simply act as he believed was best, since no matter what he did, he knew he’d be blamed by many.

By the time we get to Trump, we realize that we’re being taken through the final tests and subsequent firing of Comey by an expert guide who has done his best to retain integrity throughout a lifetime of public service.

Comey has long been aware that in the current Washington, D.C. environment, partisan tempers usually preclude real listening. (President Obama, Comey tells us, was an exception to that pattern.) However, during his work with previous presidential administrations, he’d never seen anything like Trump.

Comey’s narration of his interactions with Trump—who talked constantly and, far from listening, rarely even let him get a word in—are compelling. Most readers, at this point in the book, will trust his narrative voice.

A real book

This is a real book, about real issues that matter, by a person with a real conscience. I feel a bit wiser after treading the labyrinthine pathways of the American justice system with this guide. Furthermore, the reader is able to see Trump through the eyes of someone whose sense of appropriate and inappropriate pursuits of justice has been finely tempered.

The book, I feel, has objective value for Americans and the rest of the world at this time. I hope Comey is right that, as he asserts in the Epilogue, America will weather our current political storm and its Constitution and spirit will emerge stronger than ever.

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image 1: Rich Girard (Cropped from original); image 2: Wikimedia Commons