Part 4—Evoking the young Joni Mitchell: Many mainstream press observers are trying to read James Comey.
Finally, this very morning, Vanessa Friedman weighs in.
Her piece appears on the front page of the New York Times' "Thursday Styles" section. According to the hard-copy headline, Comey is "The Model G-Man, Still Looking the Part:"
FRIEDMAN (4/19/18): Mr. Comey stares out from small screens and promotional pictures everywhere—trailers, social media and reviews. He is steely eyed, often glancing upward, as to a higher goal, or resolutely ahead; dark, brush-cut hair just beginning to be smudged with gray; the squareness of his jawline matched only by the squareness of his shoulders, his 6-foot-8 frame often draped in layers of true blue.Comey's look is in many ways the culmination of a cinematic romance with bureaucratic iconography, at least according to Friedman. As they read her reading of the G-Man, our analysts nodded appreciatively over and over again:
The look is in many ways the culmination of a cinematic romance with bureaucratic iconography that began in 1935 with James Cagney’s film “‘G’ Men,” and continued through Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness in Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables.” Mr. Comey fits neatly within this predetermined, easily read lens. It’s both comforting and slightly unnerving to see how closely he resembles the fictive embodiments of his role.
FRIEDMAN: It’s a character Mr. Comey has been honing for years, since he took the oath of office as F.B.I. director in 2013, and immortalized in his testimony before Congress last June, when he appeared in a dark suit, pristine white shirt and dark red tie, caught forever in multiple cameras and the watching imagination.It's so obvious once you read it! According to Friedman, Comey "is increasingly casting himself...as the mission-driven antipode [sic] to the president." In this increasing act of self-casting, "his appearance acts as a kind of supporting argument."
Even when he takes off his tie, as he has for his recent TV appearances, or swaps the jacket for a collared shirt in a dark shade, as he did for his Twitter page and his author photograph, as if to acknowledge his role as a private citizen, his clothes still convey sincerity and sobriety. There’s nothing really casual about them.
On Mr. Colbert’s show, he wore a black shirt and matching trousers with a gray jacket finished in black buttons: Johnny Cash, the lawyer version. You can take the G-man out of the suit (and the job), but not the suit out of the former G-man.
This has the Pavlovian effect of giving his words a believability (at least for those who buy into the cultural stereotype). It helps counteract the (understandable) perception that he is limelight seeking and self-promotional, because even as he stands out there on his own, he is connected to a much bigger tradition.
Reading Friedman's analysis, we had to admit that we've missed a lot as we've tried to read Comey. We haven't focused on his suits, or on the way they help his casting as an antipode. Like Jack Oakie in The Great Dictator, we'd blown right past the Pavlovian effect triggered by his wardrobe selections.
For whatever reason, we've focused on other parts of Comey's performance in the past week. We've focused on behavioral tics which made us think that James B. Comey, while perhaps a thoroughly decent person, is also perhaps a slightly odd duck, in ways which may have changed a little thing called the history of the world.
We haven't read Comey's book. Plainly, we haven't attended enough to his suits.
We did read Carlos Lozada's review of Comey's book in Sunday's Washington Post. The review appeared on the Post's front page, and grabbed us in several ways.
Lozada, of course, is picking and choosing from Comey's book in ways which make sense to him. It may be that some of the material he cites will seem different when read in the book's full context.
That said, let's start with something which may seem trivial. In the passage shown below, Lozada describes a behavioral tic which comes to us straight outta Rachel Maddow.
"When Comey cops to petty misdeeds...the self-criticism—and self-regard—is almost comical," Lozada writes, offering several examples. "But when the stakes rise, self-examination diminishes," Lozada goes on to allege.
We've often noted this same pattern in Rachel Maddow's almost comical self-corrections regarding trivial errors, matched by her refusal to correct herself concerning larger, highly significant bungles. According to Lozada's fuller passage, Comey displays the same self-serving behavioral tic:
LOZADA (4/16/18): When Comey cops to petty misdeeds...the self-criticism—and self-regard—is almost comical. At 6-feet-8, he used to lie about having played basketball for William & Mary, and he still feels bad about it. (After finishing law school, he reached out to friends and fessed up.) He once regifted a necktie to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “Because we considered ourselves people of integrity,” Comey explains solemnly, “I disclosed it was a regift as I handed him the tie.” And he congratulates himself for not exercising director’s prerogative and cutting in line at the FBI cafeteria. “Even when I was in a hurry. . . . I thought it was very important to show people that I’m not better than anyone else.”Is Comey a alightly odd duck, especially with regard to his solemn self-regard in the moral sphere?
But when the stakes rise, self-examination diminishes. On his decision to publicly denounce Clinton’s handling of classified information in her private emails in July 2016, Comey’s misgivings are cosmetic. He wishes he had organized the statement differently and explained early that no charges were warranted, and he wishes he had not characterized Clinton’s actions as “extremely careless”—even if “thoughtful lawyers” could understand what he meant. (Too bad thoughtful lawyers weren’t his only audience.)
To us, it's strange to think that he would have lied to friends about playing basketball in college, though that would have happened long ago, when Comey was still in his twenties.
It seems extremely strange to think that this ancient, rather weird episode would be present in Comey's new book—a book about such serious topics as the possible end of the world. Perhaps it seems different in context.
When Lozada reads Comey, he finds a nearly obsessive focus on Comey's own moral status. "Consider the egotism of being preoccupied by your [own] egotism," Lozada writes at one point, taking a pot shot at Comey.
It's the kind of easy jibe to which Lozada is sometimes inclined. Still, this longer passage fleshes out what Lozada means:
LOZADA: Comey revisits his own big career moments—prosecuting mobsters, standing up to Vice President Dick Cheney and his consigliere David Addington over counterterrorism policies—with understandable pride. Yet he constantly worries he is too self-centered. “I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego,” he admits. “I’ve struggled with those my whole life.”Lozada's examples continue from there. Is Comey's apology to Clinton in his book "a very Clintonian apology?" In our view, Lozada would be a better writer if he would avoid such easy, almost slick, jibes.
That struggle continues in this book. Comey isn’t just the kind of writer who quotes Shakespeare, but the kind who quotes himself quoting Shakespeare. He rejects the notion that “I am in love with my own righteousness” yet notes that “I have long worried about my ego.”
That said, James B. Comey is 57 years old, and he has long been a very important public official. To us, it's odd, and far from reassuring, to see a person of such years and such standing still debating his own moral standing in the tortured ways Lozada describes.
“I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego?" Incomparably, we think of a brilliant lyric from Joni Mitchell, though you do have to hear it performed:
He tried hard to help meThat beautiful lyric (especially as performed) constitutes a very unusual, very direct piece of moral self-flagellation. But it was written by a poet, not by a former head of the FBI, and the poet was 27 years old at the time. We don't think it's reassuring to hear its tone in that excerpt as Lozada reads Comey.
You know, he put me at ease
And he loved me so naughty
Made me weak in the knees
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on
I'm so hard to handle
I'm selfish and I'm sad
Now I've gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on
We'll note a third element which caught our ear as we read Lozada's review, and as we watched Comey interviewed by George Stephanopoulos. We refer to the psychiatric tone in Comey's prose, which may serve to make him an object of pity and to undermine judgment of his behavior:
LOZADA: [Trump] lurks in Comey’s schoolboy battles with bullies, for instance. “All bullies are largely the same,” he writes. “They threaten the weak to feed some insecurity that rages inside them.” Or in his days battling mafia families as U.S. attorney in Manhattan, a time that came back to him once he encountered team Trump. “As I found myself thrust into the Trump orbit, I once again was having flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things.”Please note: Comey wasn't just having flashbacks—he was having flashbacks once again. He seems to have them a lot. He referred to his flashbacks as she spoke with Stephanopoulos, and of course to his out-of-body experiences:
STEPHANOPOULOS (4/15/18): How weird was that ["pee tape"] briefing [with Trump]?Comey wanted to descend from the ceiling and hastily exit the room.
COMEY: Really weird. I mean, I don't know whether it was weird for President-elect Trump, but I— It was almost an out-of-body experience for me. I was floating above myself, looking down, saying, "You're sitting here, briefing the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in Moscow." And of course, Jeh Johnson's voice is banging around in my head. President Obama's eyebrow raise is banging around in my head. I just wanted to get it done and get out of there.
Later in the interview, Comey describes the meeting where Trump suggested that he should drop the investigation of Michael Flynn. Sure enough! It happens again:
STEPHANOPOULOS: What were you thinking as you left the Oval Office that day?Sung to the tune of "Back in the Saddle," he was up on the ceiling again.
COMEY: That something really important just happened, and that I was a little—another one of those out-of-body experiences, like, "Really? The president just kicked out the attorney general to ask me to drop a criminal investigation." Wow, the world continues to go crazy.
For a guy who was running the FBI, Comey seems to have had a lot of flashbacks and out-of-body experiences. This doesn't seem reassuring wither. Nor does it strike us as true.
Does anyone really believe that Comey (presumably felt he) "was floating above myself, looking down" as he spoke with Trump that day, with Obama's eyebrow raise banging around in his head? It seems to us that his out-of-body experiences and flashbacks create a highly dramatic narrative structure which serve to excuse his perhaps peculiar, perhaps slightly craven behavior in these exchanges with Trump.
This is also true of the unconscious forces he says may have affected his judgment in October 2016, when he took Candidate Clinton down for the second of his three times. It seems to us that these narrative tics mainly serve to position Comey as a figure buffeted by forces of superhuman power. For ourselves, we'd prefer to have an FBI head who doesn't end up floating above the room when a figure like Donald J. Trump makes inappropriate suggestions.
Lozada is highly skeptical of Comey's super-moralistic stances and frameworks. He ends up suggesting that Comey isn't wholly unlike Donald Trump. Here's how his reading ends:
LOZADA: [Comey] laments Trump’s lack of self-reflection or self-awareness. “Listening to others who disagree with me and are willing to criticize me is essential to piercing the seduction of certainty,” Comey writes. “Doubt, I’ve learned, is wisdom. . . . Those leaders who never think they are wrong, who never question their judgments or perspectives, are a danger to the organizations and people they lead.”Oof! For all his flamboyant self-reflection, is Comey really a bit like Trump is his foundational self-regard? Does he secretly lack the self-awareness gene? Is his moral self-flagellation really a form of cover?
Trump is the most severe example of that tendency in this book. But he is not the only one.
Perhaps we'd have a better idea if we'd paid more attention to his clothes. That said, we don't believe in bad people here. We do believe in rather strange ducks, and that's how Comey tends to strike us.
Everybody's some kind of way; also, nobody's perfect. That said, Comey's behavior in 2016 may have changed the history of the world, in a rather unpleasant way.
This brings us back to Loretta Lynch, who we find under a bus, huddling there with Hillary Clinton and with several others. Why did Comey get such a pass when his amazingly well-intentioned blunders began?
Tomorrow: Big stars give Comey a pass