Politics & Policy

What Makes James Comey an Expert on Ethical Leadership?

Copies of James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty at a Barnes & Noble store in New York City, April 17, 2018. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
In a book talk, Comey portrayed himself as expert on the topic.

New York City — The first protester didn’t hesitate. As soon as former FBI director James Comey announced he would begin taking audience questions — they were submitted via notecards before the talk — she began shouting about how an “ethical leader” wouldn’t have briefed then-incoming president Donald Trump about the unverified material contained in the infamous Steele dossier

“You’re not an ethical leader!” she shouted as security led her out.

Comey returned to the questions, but he didn’t get very far. “Donald Trump and Mike Pence are fascists!” yelled the second protester, yanking a banner out of her purse that corroborated her shouts. She, too, was escorted out quickly.

These kinds of protesters are a familiar type: They act like regular participants in the event, jump through all the hoops to gain entry, and then pounce once things get started, disrupting the talk or rally or press conference with a barrage of questions or a mantra and are escorted out to applause from the rest of the crowd. They are annoying, and they are everywhere. But they’re also like magnets, meaning it’s rare — especially today — for those of opposite stripes to meet at these events.

At Wednesday night’s event, the first stop on Comey’s promotional tour for his new book, A Higher Loyalty, at Barnes and Noble’s Union Square location, the meeting of the political poles wasn’t so surprising. Comey is like the kid nobody quite wants to pick for basketball at recess—even though he’s 6’8”: For a long time, the Left didn’t want him, seeing him as a partisan villain whose improper treatment of the Hillary Clinton-emails investigation cost her the election. The Trump Right stopped supporting him when his approach to the Steele dossier came to light, and his firing only made things more confusing, as the Left largely supported the decision until Trump made it, at which point it became a possible pathway to impeachment.

One could see Comey as someone caught in the middle, a noble, ethical leader, unfairly damned for all time by a tyrant who embodies all that Comey has lived to repel. Certainly, that’s the position from which Comey has written his book, and it’s how he’s framed himself during his whirlwind week of high-profile late-night interviews and at the lower-profile audience talk Wednesday night. In his own telling, A Higher Loyalty is meant to be a guidebook to what ethical leadership looks like from an expert on the subject: Himself.

It’s not clear where he finds his authority to speak about ethical leadership. Is it because his high-school boss didn’t fire him for making mistakes, a story he relates in his book, or is it because his grown-up one did? He says both incidents helped him understand what ethical leadership looks like. Comey’s ability to contrast himself with a man who may be the least ethical person in government certainly gives him a perspective, but it’s not clear why the contrast automatically confers absolute moral rectitude on Comey.

Comey has finally given those across the political spectrum something to agree about: that his book is a grand act of opportunism from a man whose approach to ethics stems from an egotistic comparison of himself with his mortal enemy.

Given his track record in the past few years, Comey might be better positioned to offer advice about what not to do if you’re a leader. His speech Wednesday night was evidence enough of that: He spoke about his many failures to follow protocol (for example, how he circumvented Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the Justice Department). He reflected on his personal sadness over the effect his actions have had on the FBI’s reputation. And he mused about the way his ego got in the way of his decision-making.

The most telling admission he made, however, came in response to a question from the audience, “What is your biggest regret?” His answer: that he had been given the lot he had been given. That is, he wishes that he had not been tasked with investigating one of the presidential candidates during the election cycle, and that he had not been tasked with disclosing to Trump the details of the Steele dossier.

One of the protesters heckling Comey was Laura Loomer, a career disrupter and token idiot of the alt-right who believes that Comey should be locked up for treason. But Comey isn’t a deep-state plant out to get his political enemies; he was probably just as committed as the next FBI guy to nonpartisanship. No, Comey is just a regular, run-of-the-mill human with, as his book suggests, an upbringing similar to that of most Americans.

One of the audience members told me that while she has a neutral view of Comey, she wishes he had just stayed quiet. I imagine many of us agree with her.

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