There are certain books that one reads that have a way of staying with you for the rest of your life. I remember reading All the Presidents Men in the wake of the Watergate debacle. The authors' masterful work chronicling of this dark chapter in our American history continues to resonate in my memory.
It was that prescience of a book ‘staying with me’ that I felt after reading James Comey’s, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership. Much ink has already been spilled and innumerable interviews with the author in the media, that might prompt folks to just skip reading what they probably figure is now an ‘old story.’ If you are tempted to do this, I would strongly urge you to resist that temptation. The book is well worth your time and effort.
While the media and the pundits, of course, immediately gravitate to the ‘juicy’ stuff – and, in all candor, it is quite juicy – the book, as Comey continues to underscore, is essentially about reflections on what constitutes ethical leadership and what he has learned, over his many years in leadership positions, constitutes the qualities of authentic leadership that flows from a person of integrity and character.
This is actually a topic that has interested me for many years in light of my own years in pastoral leadership and what I have gleaned through experience to be the qualities that make for leaders of ethical integrity and time-tested virtue.
The book, in many respects, is a personal memoir, in elegant prose, that undoubtedly was prematurely ‘birthed’ because of the events surrounding the author’s unenviable involvement as FBI Director in the 2016 Presidential Campaign and his eventual firing at the hands of Donald Trump.
However, in the earlier chapters of the book, he speaks of personal crisis moments in his life that left indelible marks in shaping his character as a future leader. One pivotal example was as a young High School student, both he and his brother were held hostage in their home by a notorious burglar and town rapist, with their lives threatened. Comey speaks of how every day for over five years after that traumatic event, he would think of that terrifying moment when he and his brother were almost killed.
As is often the case for leaders, crisis moments can be the catalyst for an inner transformation to see with defining clarity what one’s future calling might be. And so, it was for Comey, from that defining moment to times when he was both the recipient as well as the perpetrator of cowardly bullying, a life in service to justice and the rule of law was set in motion.
As he put it: Being an outsider, being picked on, was very painful, but it made me a better person. It instilled in me a lifelong hatred for bullies and sympathy for their victims. Some of the most satisfying work I did as a prosecutor, in fact, was putting bullies of all kinds in jail, freeing good people from their tyranny.
Fast forward to the 2016 Presidential Election, Comey, as FBI Director was faced with the consummate Catch-22 situation in regard to Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server as Secretary of State. With the eventual discovery that this unsecured server had indeed held classified and confidential material, an investigation ensued. Much has been and will continue to be written, speculated and judged about the propriety of how Comey handled this situation, both in mid-campaign as well as days before the election. As a Hillary supporter, I was livid with rage at what Comey did that undoubtedly tipped an extremely close election to Trump. In retrospect and having ‘heard Comey out,’ while I still wished that normal FBI protocols had been followed, i.e., nothing should have been said until after the Election, the explosive nature of this Election with two highly unpopular and flawed candidates, could indeed have thrown into question the legitimacy of Hillary win. History must be the judge.
The last quarter of his book zeroes in on the now infamous relationship between Comey as the then FBI Director and the President-elect and soon to be sworn in 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump. The author weaves a depressing tail of duplicity, mafia-like solicitation of loyalty, boorish and crass behavior and eventual character assassination as Trump attempts to subvert the sovereignty of the institutional rule of law as the ‘forest fire’ of his Presidency continues to wreak havoc on our beloved Republic. This is what happens when ethical leadership is sacrificed at the altar of narcissistic pragmatism, unmoored from the institutional values that have truly and authentically made our Country great. He concludes:
Donald Trump’s presidency threatens much of what is good in this nation. We all bear responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election, and 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. We are fortunate some ethical leaders have chosen to serve and to stay at senior levels of government, but they cannot prevent all of the damage from the forest fire that is the Trump presidency. Their task is to try to contain it.
In summary, unless the Mueller investigation concludes unambiguously that there has been clearly impeachable offenses perpetrated by the President, I agree with Comey that partisan attempts to impeach Trump would, in the end, be counterproductive and could exacerbate the toxic divisions in our Country. For, it is the truly ‘institutional’ antidote to this virulent virus that must now be vigorously pursued. More and more citizens, especially Millennials, are coming to know that democracy demands their engagement, their vote, now more than ever. I am heartened by the passion of so many, especially the youth of our Country, who still believe in the possibility of political leadership that is tethered to the values of respect for the truth, the dignity of all God’s children, freedom of a responsible and conscientious press, vigorous debate with civility and the belief that no one, not even a President, is ever above the law.