When the stakes rise, self-examination diminishes

Carlos Lozada at the Post reviews Comey’s book. He’s not besotted with him.

Running through the book, a sort of geek chorus, is Comey’s doctrine of “ethical leadership,” an often preachy and sometimes profound collection of principles that he believes should govern those who govern. “A Higher Loyalty” is the brand extension of James Comey: the upright citizen turned philosopher, the lawman as thought leader.

I’ve learned to be suspicious of people – or maybe I mean men – who need brand extensions or hope to be thought leaders.

Comey understands that side-by-side comparisons are not a true measure of leadership, that leaders should be assessed against their own best performances and highest aspirations. “Ethical leaders do not run from criticism, especially self-criticism,” he writes, “and they don’t hide from uncomfortable questions.”

So let’s pose one: Does Comey live up to the standards of ethics and leadership he outlines in this book?

Spoiler: Lozada says no.

Not entirely, at least.

When Comey cops to petty misdeeds, however, 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.”

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.)

Pause to contemplate what a tiny fraction of his audience was made up of thoughtful lawyers.

Comey’s own ethical leadership suffers most in the book’s treatment of his one-time boss, former attorney general Loretta Lynch. He criticizes Lynch for asking him to describe the FBI’s Clinton investigation as a “matter” rather than investigation — an “overtly political” request, he explains. Fine. But then he says that his decision to excoriate Clinton’s actions resulted in part from some unverified classified materials that emerged in early 2016 and that, if publicly known, “would undoubtedly have been used by political opponents to cast serious doubt on the attorney general’s independence in connection with the Clinton investigation.” He insists that he personally never saw Lynch interfere, but he remains “bothered” by the existence of this classified information that someday could be used to “question the independence of the FBI.”

Of course, it is also bothersome that the former FBI director would cite vague information to imply wrongdoing by the nation’s top law-enforcement official, with the very nature of the information making it hard for her to respond. The Washington Post has reported that in 2016 the FBI received a Russian intelligence document citing an email in which Lynch supposedly assured the Clinton campaign that the investigation would not go too deep, but that the document was unreliable. For Comey to suggest that the attorney general “appeared politically compromised” without offering supportive evidence does not seem particularly ethical. And it does not seem like leadership.

And that makes one pause to notice that in this account the people Comey has done the most unjustified harm to are…women. Is it just random that Clinton and Lynch are women, women doing or aiming to do pinnacle-type male jobs? Maybe. I wonder though. Lozada’s point throughout is that Comey didn’t interrogate himself enough.

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.” (Consider the egotism of being preoccupied by your egotism.) …

For all his contempt for Trump — he decries “the forest fire that is the Trump presidency” — Comey concludes that the president’s behavior, while disturbing and dangerous, “may fall short of being illegal.” But he’s not here as a lawyer or investigator, this is Comey the philosopher. He 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.”

Trump is the most severe example of that tendency in this book. But he is not the only one.

Oh well, all he did was hand the election to Trump.

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