White House

The Prig vs. the President

Former FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee, June 8, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Nothing is better than being the most righteous guy in the room—while still getting a huge payday.

James Comey did it, naturally, for the children.

Why does anyone in Washington take advantage of the most opportune moment to make a mint off publishing a tell-all book? It’s never for the profits or the sheer satisfaction of sticking it to your enemies and putting yourself in the best possible light. No, there’s always some ostensible higher cause. For the former FBI director, it’s demonstrating, through his own sterling example, what ethical leadership is, “especially to young people.”

That the nation’s youth will be riveted to their TV screens in coming weeks, watching Comey’s exquisitely thoughtful gymnastics of self-justification, and conclude that this is how to conduct themselves when they inherit the baton of the country’s leadership seems extremely unlikely.

James Comey has managed the seemingly impossible. The former FBI director is locked in a death struggle with an unpopular president who makes even his allies cringe with his belittling nicknames, foolish threats and strange view of the presidency — and somehow it is Comey who is coming away as the unlikable one.

That’s because no one likes a prig, especially when he has an ax to grind. Comey has good reason to disdain Donald Trump, who fired him in humiliating circumstances and whose warped view of the Justice Department as an institution for the protection of the president is rightly anathema to him. Comey is just the latest of Trump’s adversaries, though, who are diminished by the president dragging them down to his level and exposing their weaknesses.

Comey’s weakness is self-regard, clearly wounded by the widespread sense that he took an impossibly challenging assignment in 2016 and made a complete hash of it.

A lesser mortal wouldn’t be able to write about himself the way the former FBI director does. He describes sitting down with President Barack Obama after the election. Obama praises his integrity. A moved Comey agrees that he is just trying to do the right thing. “I know,” Obama commiserates. “I know.”

Every Washington memoir portrays its author as the smartest guy in the room; Comey is the most ethical guy in the room, and he lets us know it. A tart review in the Washington Post notes, “Comey isn’t just the kind of writer who quotes Shakespeare, but the kind who quotes himself quoting Shakespeare.”

Underneath the high-mindedness is a thirst for petty revenge. He says he took note of the size of Trump’s hand when they first met — smaller than his. He goes out of his way to say Trump looks like he wears tanning goggles. In his interview with George Stephanopoulos, he says it might well be true that Trump watched prostitutes perform a profane act in a Russian hotel as described in the dossier — an observation surely born of a desire to wound.

Is all fair in a struggle with a president who calls you a “slime ball”? Maybe. But this is another instance of the country not being well-served by the president or his opponents violating norms.

It’s not a healthy precedent for former FBI directors to attack presidents they served, even if briefly in terrible circumstances. It doesn’t do the standing of our law enforcement and intelligence institutions any good to have the men recently entrusted with leading them, like James Comey and John Brennan, brand themselves as committed partisans almost immediately upon leaving government.

It’s understandable that Comey wants to get his side out. But he’s already done that in his extensive memos that he made sure to leak upon his firing and in his congressional testimony. He’ll probably have his moment in the sun again as a key witness in the Robert Mueller matter, depending on how it shakes out.

Yet none of that is as remunerative as cashing in as a hero of the resistance when the Mueller investigation is perhaps at peak intensity. Nothing is better than being the most righteous guy in the room — while still getting a huge payday.

Children, take note.

© 2018 by King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry — Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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