In A Higher Loyalty, Comey is attempting to define what good, ethical leadership should emulate and how he has always strived for honesty in his work. While he has been criticized as being sanctimonious and having a big ego, I think much of the criticism towards Comey does not reflect his grand ideals on ethics, integrity, and leadership, and why that lead him to that fateful day in October.
Surprisingly, this book had me laughing a lot. Comey’s humor comes through in an awkward yet endearing way, very much in line with most dad-jokes. One theme throughout the book was humility, even when it was juxtaposed against power and prestige. He introduces you to several key people, from Harry the Grocer to President Obama. Comey highlights specific points in his career and personal life and uses them to illustrate what he deems as ethical leadership.
Comey isn’t here to appease a specific base or to even defend himself against critics. His recountings in the book read very prosecutorially. He’s simply laying down the facts in the situations and showing you how he made decisions regarding multiple cases from Martha Stewart to Hillary Clinton. Comey will probably go down in history as the person who cost Hillary the election. He certainly was one of many factors. That day in October before he talked about investigating more emails from Weiner’s laptop, he was asked, “Should you consider that what you’re about to do may help elect Donald Trump president?” I think his response accurately sums up Comey’s view that the FBI should always remain independent and also explains why he made the decision to speak. He says, “It is a great question, but not for a moment can I consider it. Because down that path lies the death of the FBI as an independent force in American life. If we start making decisions based on whose political fortunes will be affected, we are lost.” Comey truly believes this and while I believe there is valid criticism directed towards Comey, I do not think that critics are trying to understand that the independence of the FBI was his focus, as it should have been. Comey asserts that if the FBI started to act and think like every other partisan in Washington then the FBI would no longer have or deserve the public trust. He truly believes that the job of the FBI is to protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States. He says, “we all have different roles, but the same mission.“
Current politics aside, there were several surprising aspects to Comey that I enjoyed. For one, I liked his almost old-fashioned, gentlemanly, philosophical approach to being a good person. Being somewhat of a former goody-goody myself, I could understand his aspirations. I did not know that he was the one in charge of the Martha Stewart case. He says that he didn’t think the case was worth all the trouble. When deciding how far he would pursue the case against her, he decided to check how many people in New York who did not have wealth and status and power are imprisoned due to lying to a prosecutor — two thousand people a year. The case now didn’t seem so minor. And he pursued it.
Another surprising thing I learned about him was his disturbance upon discovering that over 80% of special agents in the FBI were predominantly white. He believed that the agency should reflect the people it is supposed to protect, and if it does not then it will not be effective. During his years as FBI director, he was able to recruit more people of color to the FBI. In the book, he says, “I was frightened by one trend. The special agent workforce since 9/11 had been growing steadily more white. When I became director, 83% of the special agents were non-Hispanic Caucasians. As I explained to the workforce, I had no problem with white people, but that trend is a serious threat to our effectiveness. In a country that is growing more diverse, which, in my view, is wonderful, if every agent looks like me, we are less effective. 83% would become 100% very quickly, if the FBI became known as “that place where white people work.” I also admire that Comey took the initiative to improve the workforce’s mentality by having them read Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He says it is one of the most important things he has ever read and he has re-read it several times since first encountering it in college. Personally, I think every American should read Dr. King’s letters. I admire that Comey did not shy away from the truth about the involvement of the FBI with Dr. King and Civil Rights. He aggressively states, “I wanted all agent and analyst trainees to learn the history of the FBI’s interactions with King, how the legitimate counterintelligence mission against communist infiltration of our government had morphed into an unchecked, vicious campaign of harassment and extralegal attack on the civil rights leader and others. I wanted them to remember that well-meaning people lost their way. I wanted them to know that the FBI sent King a letter blackmailing him and suggesting he commit suicide. I wanted them to stare at that history, visit the inspiring King Memorial in Washington, D.C., with its long arcs of stone bearing King’s words, and reflect on the FBI’s values and our responsibility to always do better.” In the age of Trump, where I no longer give white people the benefit of the doubt, I was super touched by Comey’s understanding of the importance of Dr. King and the FBI, and his refusal to not shy away from this topic.
Another chapter of his book deals with police brutality and a brief response to Black Lives Matter. He gave a speech at Georgetown University, saying, “we in law enforcement need to acknowledge the truth that we have long been the enforcers of a status quo in America that abused black people; we need to acknowledge our history because the people we serve and protect cannot forget it.” I think this is one of the most powerful lessons that law-enforcement can learn. Many people to this day don’t understand why black people still talk about slavery. Comey knew that as a white FBI director with long law enforcement experience, he could say things about law enforcement history and biases that others couldn’t. I commend him for using his privilege this way.
Probably my favorite parts of this book were his recollections of his interactions with President Obama. It is obvious that he gained a deep respect for President Obama. His first impression of Obama was his ability to focus on an issue, and he was surprised that the president’s view of the FBI’s job mirrored his own. Comey writes, “ it turns out he had a different conception of the FBI director than either I or most partisans assumed. He said, ‘ I don’t want help from the FBI on policy. I need confidence and independence. I need to sleep at night knowing the place is well run and the American people protected’.” There were two other encounters that Comey details, one in which they discuss policing in black communities. In the end, Comey says, “I was trapped in my own perspective. A black person – who happened to be the president of the United States – helped me see through other eyes.” In his last meeting with Obama, he said, “Although I hadn’t supported President Obama when he ran for office, I had developed great respect for him as a leader and a person, and it was only at that moment that I felt the full weight of his imminent departure and what it would mean.”
And now to leave you with a few quotes from Comey about our current president:
“What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn’t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be. Nor did they ask how the United States may prepare itself to meet that threat.”
“The FBI and the Department of Justice are drawn into the most controversial investigations in the country, investigations that frequently involved prominent members of a presidential administration… The FBI is able to do that work credibly because it is not – and is not seen as- a tool of the president.”
“I remember thinking in that moment that the president doesn’t understand the FBI’s role in American life or care about what the people there spent 40 years building.”
“In what kind of marriage, to what kind of man, does the spouse conclude there is only a 99% chance that her husband didn’t do that.”
“The ‘leader of the free world’, the self-described great business tycoon, didn’t understand leadership. Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear – like Cosa Nostra boss – require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders care deeply about those they lead, and offer them honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice. They have a confidence that breeds humility. Ethical leaders know their own talent but fear their own limitations – to understand and reason, to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. They speak the truth and know that making wise decisions require people to tell them the truth. And to get that truth, they create an environment of high standards and deep consideration – ‘love’ is not too strong a word – that build lasting bond and makes extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.”
“Without all those things – without kindness to leaven toughness, without a balance of confidence and humility, without empathy, and without respect for truth – there is little chance President Trump can attract and keep the kind of people around him that every president needs to make wise decisions. That makes me sad for him, but it makes me worry for our country.”
“Our country is paying a high price: this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty. “
I’m choosing to pair this book with a Mint Julep even though, in the book, Comey mentions drinking beer and having Pinot Noir on the flight back to Washington after finding out he was fired. The book was humorous and informative, and I think the combo of refreshing mint and slow burn of bourbon fit the tenor of this book.