Do X or Not-X, you will regret it

Benjamin Wittes has a long piece on Comey and his book and the emailselectioninvestigationfuss. It’s not a review; he says it would be wrong of him to do a review because he’s not distant enough. It’s reflections on the book rather than a review of it. It includes anecdotes like having lunch with Comey at the FBI cafeteria shortly after Comey became director, and what happened there, and how that fits into the general story of how Comey shifted the culture of the FBI and what people there think of him.

He also takes on this whole question I was talking about yesterday: about having no good options and having the luxury of hindsight that participants don’t have.

My broad point is a simple one: One of the inherent features of no-win situations is that someone loses. Colleagues may understand what you did because they trust you. If you’re lucky, so may your boss. But when something terrible happens, the public will need to assign blame. This is inevitable, and assuming that burden is part of leadership.

Comey and the FBI were in a no-win situation. The no-win we ended up with is Trump. It’s a bitter pill.

Comey’s efforts to break down the cult of the directorship—its successes and its limitations—offer an interesting window into one of the larger themes he struggles with in this book: the effort to insulate the FBI from the perception of intervention in politics when it is investigating both major parties’ presidential nominees during an election campaign. This, perhaps unsurprisingly, turns out to have been even more impossible than eliminating the cult of the directorship. However earnestly one tries, the effort to act apolitically will be understood as politicization. The explanations one then offers of one’s conduct and thinking will be interpreted as ego-driven self-justification. The steps one takes to keep the bureau out of politics in such a situation—however sincere, however open—become politicization.

The problem reminds me of Kierkegaard’s famous passage on marriage:

If you marry, you will regret it; if you do not marry, you will also regret it. . . . Laugh at the world’s follies, you will regret it; weep over them and you will also regret that. . . . . Hang yourself, you will regret it, do not hang yourself, and you will also regret that; hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. . . . This, gentlemen, is the sum and substance of all philosophy.

That the steps designed to keep the FBI out of politics—and perceived as out of politics—will themselves be taken as political acts is not a reason not to undertake the effort. The effort itself is a sacred trust. But it is a reason to understand the inherent limits of the undertaking. Charge Hillary Clinton and you will regret it. Don’t charge her and you will regret that too. Explain your reasoning and you will regret it. Don’t explain your reasoning and you will regret it. Inform Congress of your actions immediately before an election, and you will regret that. Don’t inform Congress and you will regret that too. I don’t know if this is the sum and substance of all philosophy, but it is a good rule of thumb: The steps you take to remain apolitical will make you political.

I find that both eloquent and useful.

8 Responses to “Do X or Not-X, you will regret it”