Sanctimony is unappealing; in large portions it quickly becomes tiresome. But seeming to be sanctimonious while doing the right thing can be forgivable, and sometimes enlightening.
Those sour-sweet flavors saturate and complicate “A Higher Loyalty,” fired FBI director James Comey’s first-hand exploration of what is happening to American democracy because of Donald Trump and the civil and political infection that he is visiting upon it.
Approaching the book in the deeply-riven, tribalist atmosphere of today’s America requires keeping in mind this variation on a literary platitude:
Don’t judge a book by its coverage. Or by the publisher’s sales strategy.
Unfortunately for Comey and open-minded readers, neither the cherry-picked, sensation-seeking news media coverage nor the fists-up way his publisher is pushing sales helps to alleviate the civic problems his book illuminates and aspires to curb.
Fortunately for Comey and readers, “A Higher Loyalty” out-classes both its news coverage and its public relations strategy. Those who approach the book thoughtfully will emerge from the experience rewarded, challenged and concerned. Those who approach it seeking confirmation of prior fixed opinions about Comey’s stewardship of the FBI will, of course, find it, no matter their angle of approach. So reading the book with a closed mind would be a waste of time, but failing to read it yet continuing to carry strong opinions about the man would be ignorant hypocrisy.
Rarely has any public official almost simultaneously incurred the wrath of both ends of the political spectrum by relentlessly doing his job.
To Democrats, Comey cost Hillary Clinton the presidency when he announced the closure of an FBI investigation of her emails, then 11 days before the election announced its reopening, then two days before closed it again with no charges. How, they quarrel, could that be done by the leader of an organization that claims to be apolitical? The book demonstrates how, but in the process often makes Comey seem sanctimonious.
To Republicans, the intelligence community tracking Russian interference in that election and the investigation of it by the FBI was partisan in origin, evil in its goal of damaging Trump, and led directly to the still-widening investigation that threatens Trump’s presidency. Doesn’t that justify Trump firing Comey? The book addresses that also.
The most dedicated, involved partisans of any persuasion have difficulty accepting that professionals in public life — what some call bureaucrats — actually can act apolitically, doing their work faithfully within the job descriptions and the bounds of the law. That growing cynicism is a cancer upon our public life; and it is mistaken and dangerous.
Comey’s book makes a strong case that he was following the law, but he — and we — would be better served letting the book speak for itself. Endless TV appearances and, even more foolishly, Tweeting back at Trump’s wholly predictable, reactive Twitter storm weaken Comey’s claim of non-partisanship. Truth, where it exists, should be sufficient unto itself.
The most important truth in “A Higher Loyalty” isn’t what Trump or Comey said, did or thought in a given moment, though those things obviously are of interest and weight. The highest long-term value is the narrative’s constant reminder that even amid unreasoning political chaos, constant fidelity to the rule of law protects us from tyranny and separates us from anarchy, and that we dare not let go of it.
Davis Merritt, Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.