Conserving the concept of thinking and acting beyond self, is an integral aspect of A Higher Loyalty, a book authored by America’s former FBI Director James Comey. He was fired by the new American President Donald Trump, shortly after coming into office, learning about it first on a television.
James Comey had served his country loyally throughout his career, progressing through the ranks of the public service to end up as the chief of spooks at the FBI. He had many loyal and trusted people around him who seemed to respect his judgment and assessments and for people outside the United States, it was hard to fathom why.
Surely such leaders in our democratic western world are meant to be apolitical, thinking of the greater good and always taking a bipartisan stance on behalf of the people. That is how western democratic freedoms were first founded and evolved, emerging from ancient times to be still valid and in place today.
James Comey for many seemed to epitomize those values, which are at the heart of western civilization and to be safeguarded at all costs. They are bigger than any one person.
The story itself starts with a thought provoking quote by the man James Comey saw, as a student, as a man of ideas. He admired the American theologian, ethicist, commentator on politics and public affairs, Reinhold Niebuhe (1892-1971)
‘Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary’.
Niebuhe also proffered the wise words
‘… grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Before he really starts however James Comey, as a freedom fighter and an agent for justice, gives us perhaps most interesting and revealing author’s note I have read in eons.
Don’t Read Any More Unless You Want Some Spoilers.
A highly skilled historical observer, James Comey offers A Higher Loyalty as a clear, concise easy to read, succinct and impassioned narrative, one that reveals just how and why he believes ‘…trust is a far better foundation than coercion… at least, in a mature democracy’.
The book is filled with an enormous amount of detail about how and why he made the decisions he did throughout his career as an ‘ordinary man’ who lived, worked and advanced through the stages of his life to that point, in an ‘extraordinary’ way.
James Comey logically and methodically, progresses his argument for the decisions made throughout his career, especially during the time he was at the FBI, many of which were controversial in their time and extremely challenging.
He lays out carefully those he feels he bungled and with a lot of conscious thought, offering his own handle on his evolution through learning as a human being. He consciously admits he is ‘stubborn, prideful, overconfident and driven by ego’ but hoped that he had always taken on board and considered the advice of those around him.
He offers a clear and concise explanation of why he would not agree to pledge personal loyalty to any President of the USA. He also details why he considers the current incumbent in the White House President Donald Trump, is damaging his country’s traditions and undermining its values.
As he also points out “Ethical leaders choose a higher loyalty to those core values over their own personal gain… this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values,” he observes, “His leadership is transactional, ego driven and about personal loyalty”.
We must not ever subscribe to a miserable philosophy that in our modern age ascribes everything to the ‘spirit of the age’, believing nothing can be done by the influence of individual character. It remains the single greatest inducement to successful actions, and the spur to great achievements.
James Comey explains why we are all called upon to make our voices heard, to become part of an enlightened majority – one animated by the spirit of the age.
While the past cannot be changed, the future can. To that end we know theory does not always work well in practice and staying focused on putting your ideas and ideals into practice, can be so much harder than what it sounds in words.
History proves this time and again. If humans forget their history, they will end up making the same mistakes over and over again, becoming regressive, not progressive.
The well-explained narrative moves quickly from Comey’s early childhood to his teen years, when he was involved with his brother in an extraordinary experience no one would ever forget, one that impacted on his choices.
We learn about his career as a prosecutor in New York, where he was not only unhappy about living conditions for his family a long way out of the city due to cost, but also learned a great many valuable lessons in navigating the minefield of politics, systems and social order.
We can all forget a life in the public service does not always mean huge personal capital gain, even if the protagonists are moving in what seems to others as extremely lofty social circles.
James Comey eventually arrives at his time in Washington, where he hoped he and his family would all live happily for being closer into the city, enabling him to see them more often. At the FBI Comey says he really learned how to be a real leader.
‘Effective leaders’ he said, ‘… almost never need to yell… guilt and affection are far more powerful motivators than fear’.
Becoming Director of the FBI must have initially been a sobering experience. He couldn’t have known at the time, his life and theirs would be overturned by unforeseen coming events.
We learn to appreciate how it can take ages to become accustomed to being in such a high powered potentially dangerous job with so much responsibility.
He explains about his family having to become used to having men with guns around them day and night. He light-heartedly relates an event that happened when he was first in office.
His wife unwittingly it appears setting off a silent alarm at 2am in the morning while getting ready for bed. This set up a full-scale response and even in hindsight, it sounds like an experience we would not want to have ourselves.
To be appointed to such a position of power and trust apart from a great many talents, you would have to be able to be someone who could instantly go with the flow of the daily events around you while keeping your head above the water’s level as you learn on the run.
Being six feet eight inches tall would have aided Comey to a degree, especially when he walked into a room. The majority of us would never understand that feeling. We might see his height as an advantage when in reality, it would also be a hindrance in many other situations.
Each chapter as I discovered, compelled me to keep moving forward noticeably, and for a long time, without a flicker of a mention of the current president’s name. He is working through the issues to try and ease his own mind about what happened, which is understandable. His whole life’s work has been about analyzing data and making decisions based on the advice of those around him.
Comey describes how he wanted to keep the FBI aloof; from and right out of politics.
In the middle of endeavouring to establish a ‘culture of truth’ and a ‘habit of true listening at the FBI’, he found himself and his organisation embroiled ‘improbably and unexpectedly in the middle of the 2016 election between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
He details carefully his relationship with the three Presidential administrations he served under and his treatment of the so-called ‘Hilary Clinton email affair’. No one reading his account of how the ‘matter’ proceeded could fail to be moved by the predicament he found himself in. After all timing in life is all important, especially when you are making hard decisions.
The most powerful expression of the understanding of his decision to announce first the end of the ‘matter’ and then later its re-opening, are indeed plausible and rational and it did not come from his friends, but from President Obama.
Despite being disappointed over the outcome of the election, President Obama asked Jim Comey to stay after their next and last meeting with others in the White House just before he left to express his thoughts on what had happened.
Obama said to Comey, “I picked you to be FBI director because of your integrity and your ability,” he said. Then he added what Comey perceived as a remarkable comment. “I want you to know that nothing – nothing – has happened in the last year to change my view”
“He wasn’t telling me he agreed with my decisions. He wasn’t talking about the decisions. He was saying he understood where they came from”.
This caused Comey to take the opportunity to tell Obama (whom he hadn’t voted for to be elected) “… how much I am going to miss you”. he says.
“Obama was an extraordinary listener” Comey notes, as he gives an explanation of what he believes ‘listening’ really means.
His assessment of President Obama and his attitude is revealed in the detailing of his brilliant ability to engage people from all walks of life and backgrounds in conversation that was open and free from pressure.
He exemplified the qualities Comey most admired in other men; confidence and humility, kindness and toughness, qualities the former President both cultivated and admired.
He relates how President Obama would actively work hard to access all points of view before he made a decision, confirming what many people I have spoken to outside of America believe, that Barack Obama was a natural leader.
He was willing to risk his ‘superior position’ and make himself open and vulnerable, so that he would become the best and fairest President in office for a long time.
On the other side of the coin, Comey conducts a long talk about ‘bullies’ in a way easily understood. Having been exposed to many in my own lifetime, including those who often have a rare ability to stay under the radar as they set their sights on just one person in a group, he had me on his side.
He starts one chapter with a quote by Britain’s former iron lady and PM Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides”.
A Higher Loyalty is the carefully considered memoir of a man fighting to prove, save and hold onto what remains of his own integrity in life. He prides himself on being apolitical and independent, and makes it easy to see how and why a political system can be corruptible. Especially in America where they still seem to not have enough checks and balances in place to ensure transparency and honesty.
There are a lot of lessons here for new democracies to learn. Transparency and honesty are core values that should be, and remain at the forefront of social life, where complacency and warped ideas of entitlement by those in power often reign.
Far too often it’s hard to know just how best to contribute to changing both attitudes and culture, when both parties in an argument believe they are right.
This is very evident in the challenging cultural conversation James Comey has with President Obama over how volatile responses to just a few words in a sentence can easily result in non-intentional misunderstandings between diverse groups.
The American voting system which generally seems unfathomable to most of us living outside that state, becomes a point in question. It can seem far from as democratic as we understand the former idealistic founding fathers of that country would have hoped.
Throughout the book there are many ironies; an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been expected to happen, detailed.
Comey says himself doubt is wisdom and that “… leaders who never think they are wrong, who never question their judgments or perspectives, are a danger to the organizations and people they lead”.
What America today has now is a tumultuous ‘Trumpocracy’, which is quite alarming to the rest of the free world.
This is the result of all those who voted on their own personal feelings, rather than looking to the people in the party and assessing if they had the policies and plans in place that would ultimately benefit society as a whole.
Many are now reeling with the actual reality of it all. Wisdom in hindsight is so much more than we think.
They have discovered being president in the ‘west wing’ is not like a ‘TV show’ after all. They have discovered just how many of their colleagues and friends willingly voted for a man who is not a leader we would hope any future generation of American mothers and fathers would want their children to model their life upon, as they have in the past.
It is understandable why James Comey after his first meeting with this highly volatile individual, decided to record their meetings in personal memos that were not ‘official’ or required by the FBI.
Couldn’t help thinking how President Abraham Lincoln and indeed in the modern age, President John Kennedy and others I have known and read about during my lifetime, would be totally appalled by the turn of events in the country they loved.
It is fascinating and frightening all at the same time, especially for those with great optimism who have always seen America, at least since World War II as a crucible for constant change for the better. The dedication by James Comey is to ‘…former colleagues, the career people of The Department of Justice and the FBI, whose lasting commitment to truth keeps our country great’.
Will such a premise last? As the great nineteenth century, English politician and statesman Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) so aptly reminded us all
‘… power is a trust and we are all accountable for its exercise; from the people and for the people all springs and all must exist…’
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2018
A HIGHER LOYALTY
Truth, Lies, and Leadership
By James Comey
290 pages. 2018 Flatiron Books