I THINK JAMES COMEY WAS MY YOUTH PASTOR
The role of FBI Director is, in fact, a political one, and James Comey is a politician, yes. But in this political moment, a lot of the hubbub around Comey’s book is about the personality behind it.
Unlike Michael Wolff’s book, which pitted a journalist with questionable scruples against the chaos personality of Donald Trump in a down and dirty fight, everything about the A Higher Loyalty tour seeks to frame Comey as a noble truth teller unswayed by partisan politics.
Comey’s got the gee-shucks mannerisms and just enough self-effacing asides that set him as a stark personal contrast to Trump. He calls on high concepts of truth and morality and decency; even when he admits to failings, it serves to reinforce his moral high ground.
He reminds me of a youth pastor.
A BRIGHT PAST IN VAGUE THEOLOGY
I spent my youth at various youth groups, most of which tore through at least one YP a year. From my observations, there are, broadly speaking, three basic types. And while we’re all familiar with the types of youth pastors who are in the news for all the wrong reasons, there are also many who are honestly trying to the best by their kids in one of the most thankless jobs you can imagine.
Comey reminds me of neither of these types.
PAGING TYPE NUMBER THREE
He’s the third type: he’s affable and slightly dorky, but still charismatic. He tells bad jokes and brings at least one signature tater-tot dish he brings to potlucks. You aren’t quite sure why, but you just know he’s full of shit.
He’s the type who’d drop references to mainstream pop culture in his messages, while strictly enforcing Christian Music Only. He’s the sort who’d be really selective with which kids he punished for rule breaking, while talking a lot about fairness. The sort who, if in any sort of position of academic authority (a lot of YPs are also employed at Christian Schools, because YP, once again, don’t get paid for their stress) would wax vague about “values” and “responsibility” and “learning opportunities” while ruining a fifteen year old’s life because they, say, smoked weed once.
IT COULD BE WORSE
But! He’s way more friendly than Deacon Bill, who, YP Comey reminds you, would have just called the police right away. And there’s the time you were stuck for a ride and your dad would have been way mad to have to pick you up, and he drove you home while whistling showtunes.
So you want to like this person. It is, in many ways, much easier to like the people in positions of authority, especially if said position confers some sort of moral expertise, and especially if there’s a Mean Deacon Bill to contrast them to.
But the expertise also seems to be what’s missing here: I’ve not read “A Higher Loyalty” but reports are that it’s vague when it needs to be specific, goes in for hacky jokes about Trump’s appearance and generally doesn’t tell us a lot we don’t already know about the current state of the White House. It’ll provide a contrast in personalities, and possibly even open up the door for “Comey Republicans,” and I’m sure there’s lots of interesting FBI anecdotes from his long, storied career. I’m guessing as a personal memoir, or legacy piece, it’s a solid read.
But as the book is being touted as a rebuke to the current administration, it seems more of a show of dueling personalities than anything. And Comey reminds me of not the worst types of people you’d find at the churches I grew up with. . . but still you don’t trust them.
They’re too vague when you need directness, too sanctimonious when you need practical help. Not the one to trust, even if you really want to.
THE FBI DIRECTOR IS A POLITICIAN, SO JAMES COMEY IS A POLITICIAN
James Comey would like the world to know that he is not a politician. This is nonsense, and it’s dangerous nonsense.
The FBI director is a political actor. Anyone who says otherwise is lying.
A history lesson is critical to understanding as much. The FBI’s first prominent moment, the Palmer Raids, was overtly political, and it created the template of FBI behavior in the political realm until this day.
In the raids, the FBI’s direct predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation (BOI), arrested thousands of domestic radicals and activists under the pretense of stopping a terrorism campaign. The raids, which were partly directed by future FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, were an excuse for federal agents to harass people of color, recent immigrants, and dissidents.
Over the course of the rest of the 20th century, the FBI harassed (and assassinated) leaders of the civil rights movement, farm workers’ movement, and American Indian movement. The FBI and DOJ have continued to harass radical activists and immigrant communities under administrations of both parties to this day.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez have become sanitized, sainted figures of contemporary politics; in their heydays, both men were treated by the DOJ as dangerous radicals.
In reality, the FBI is one of the most important political organs of the U.S. government. The FBI and DOJ enforce the boundaries of political discourse in the United States. They routinely intimidate people who operate outside the boundaries of the political discourse of the day. (Fortunately, federal law enforcement has gotten out of the political assassination game in recent decades, as far as I can tell.)
So the FBI director is a political actor. He always has been. (Every FBI director has been a white man, of course.)
Comey must know this history. Indeed, his FBI (and Bob Mueller’s) continued this unsavory history by harassing Black Lives Matter and Muslim activists. That’s the point: a big part of the FBI director’s job is to enforce the boundaries the state sets on political discourse.
WHY JAMES COMEY IS A POLITICIAN
Yet, on Sunday, Comey told George Stephanopoulos that his job was not political:
“My loyalty’s supposed to be to the American people and to the institution. But more than that, it grows out of a lifetime of my trying to be a better leader and figure out what matters in a leader, and realizing from a whole lot better leaders than I, that there must be a loyalty to something above the urgent, above the political.”
It’s complete nonsense, and contrary to Comey’s public record. Comey is the same man who very intentionally, very publicly denounced the movement to protect Black and brown bodies from police violence, seemingly in order to thumb his nose at his bosses, Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama. That is a political act well within the bounds of mainstream politics, not just the violent political role that the FBI director has historically played.
Plus—and this seems obvious—to become FBI director, you must be a consummate politician. Nobody can win the role, nor the role of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York (Comey’s old job), without some sort of political skill and a carefully cultivated political persona. Only a politician, a climber, would want those jobs.
WHY COMEY’S CHARADE IS DANGEROUS
There are several reasons this “I’m not a politician” nonsense is bad.
Most importantly, Comey is defining the scope of politics. (So do others when they se the same style.) His rhetoric holds an implicit idea: the ideology of the Democratic and Republican parties is the only legitimate spectrum of politics in the United States. Comey does not see his harassment of radicals as a political act; only the major party duopoly is politics.
This framing is harmful to anyone who believes in political ideas that the capitol’s political class has deemed unreasonable. Comey’s rhetoric is the same that elected officials use to dismiss ideas like real universal healthcare, a welfare state, guaranteed housing, the end of hunger, and full employment.
This cozy, myopic system has created the crappy politics of the moment. Worse, it prevents the state from responding to popular opinion or actually solving anyone’s problems.
Most of all, Comey’s apolitical positioning is an effort to let himself off the hook. If he is not a political actor, as he claims, he cannot have made the biggest political mistake of his life, and the life of the modern republic’s.