James B. Comey, the former FBI director who was fired by President Trump almost a year ago, has written a memoir, released this week, called “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.” If you somehow don’t know this, then I’m afraid I have bad news: You’ve died.
The rest of us, meanwhile, had the opportunity to watch Comey — a 6-foot-8-inch, 57-year-old man wearing the finest open-collared dress shirts, suits and sport jackets available in the big-’n’-tall department — work his way through the well-worn digestive tract of mildly interesting, often disappointingly rushed television appearances timed to the splashy release of a political tell-all.
It’s a prescribed path of calculated, hype-tending interviews that says less about the author and more about us as a voracious media culture. Comey says he’s written a book about leadership-by-example, while frankly reexamining his own shortcomings. He hopes the book invites Americans to reconsider values over partisan politics.
That’s very nice, but give us a break and a Hi-Liter pen and watch just how quickly the 21st century can make work of a 15th-century piece of technology — a book. Watch as it chews it down, extracts whatever news and protein it needs from it, and then excretes it out the other end in a matter of days.
Comey offered himself up to the typical forms, starting with Sunday night’s “exclusive” prime-time sit-down with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, then wending his way Monday morning to slightly cheerier, less probing treatment on “Good Morning America,” which is co-hosted by Stephanopoulos.
From there (with other interviews in play, including radio, podcasts and such), Comey shifted to the casually comedic late-night aura on CBS’s top-rated “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on Tuesday night, before offering himself to a capably prepared, thoroughly on-point Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday morning, finally landing a couple of hours later at what may have been his best appearance of all, a rambling but humanizing conversation on ABC’s talk show “The View.”
Stephanopoulos should go back and study Comey’s time with Guthrie and the women of “The View” to see how it’s done. Guthrie, who had little time or interest in Comey’s aspirational hopes for his memoir, asked if he had really taken the time to parse the 2016 election results and the daily polls that dictated its final outcome, to see if his actions as director had cost Hillary Clinton crucial votes in certain districts. (He hasn’t.) “The View” hosts, particularly Meghan McCain (who came loaded for bear in a vivid, GOP-red jacket and seriously pulled-back hair), treated their viewers as intelligent news consumers who didn’t need help understanding Comey’s background or story.
Still, no matter how carefully or thoughtfully Comey may have considered the words of his 300-page book, a ride on the TV circuit can decontextualize, snip and misinterpret any or all of it, including his account of how and why the FBI decided to reopen its investigation of Clinton’s email use, as well as his uncomfortable encounters with Trump that included a dinner for two in the White House, during which the president tried to extract a promise of loyalty.
Comey’s interlocutors fleetingly seemed to understand exactly what he’s trying to say, both as a former official and as a writer. In each appearance, Comey seemed comfortable with his role as a man who still hasn’t figured out what the right thing to do was at some of his most desperate moments.
Listening to Comey talk is like listening to anyone recount a situation where they should have said this, or wished they’d done that. Whether he’s explaining it to Stephanopoulos or Colbert or Whoopi Goldberg, Comey leaves a viewer grappling with nuance and legal consideration, coming across as a guy who thinks of a better comeback hours after he’s left the room. Though he appeared game, comfortable and rehearsed in his appearances, it still made for some unsatisfying TV.
The biggest letdown was also advertised, weeks ago, as the biggest get — Stephanopoulos’s exclusive chance to beat out his competitors and probe Comey’s book first and deepest. Of course, with these sort of books in this kind of news-o-sphere, it never turns out that way. Advance copies leak out, embargoes are broken; by Sunday night, most of Stephanopoulos’s thunder had been stolen.
ABC News should have been more prepared for that, spending less of its hour on remedial primers and dramatic buildup and more of it in direct conversation. The interview took five hours to conduct, but a viewer watching the special would hardly know it. The piece opened in a mess of frantic edits and never calmed down enough to actually seem informative or organized; halfway through, it turned dull, playing like a big interview about a big interview. A viewer could almost sense a roomful of news execs standing just out of frame, breathing down Stephanopoulos’s neck.
The next morning’s “GMA” appearance seemed like a compulsory hangover; Comey remained bright, but there was already the sense of a world moving on. The morning shows, with their chronic attention-deficit issues, are an easy place to lose focus. But Stephanopoulos was able to extract another talking point that Comey would cling to the rest of the week: When President Trump tweeted (as everyone knew he would) Monday that Comey should be in jail.
“That is not normal, and that is not okay,” Comey said. “First of all, he’s just making stuff up, but most importantly, the president of the United States is calling for the imprisonment of a private citizen, as he’s done for a whole lot of people who criticize him. That is not acceptable in this country. . . . I hope people read the book and see why the rule of law is such an important value in this country. . . . The president doesn’t decide who goes to jail.”
Tuesday night’s Colbert appearance was naturally giddier, as the two men toasted over paper cups of pinot noir — the beverage Comey writes about sipping on a flight home from Los Angeles, after he learned he’d been fired. Colbert peppered Comey with more or less the same questions as everyone else: the Clinton email decision (and fallout); what the former director may or may not know about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s ongoing investigation into the Trump White House.
And for some inane reason, most of Comey’s TV interviewers wanted to know why he included descriptions of the president’s skin tone and hair and hand size — all of them implying or stating that they felt Comey had crossed some line of decency. At first, Comey gave a perfectly good answer: It’s a writer’s job to describe, to take a reader into the room with the characters. (After Comey pointed out to Colbert that the Trump description occurs in one paragraph in the middle of the book, Colbert responded by ripping out the page.)
But by Wednesday, when “Today’s” Guthrie and “The View’s” hosts were still asking Comey if he regretted describing Trump, he caved and said he might write it differently if he had the chance.
“There’s always the paperback,” said “View” host Joy Behar, implying that he could or would remove it in future printings.
Now hold on, America. This may very well be the most important thing that comes out of having James B. Comey on all these TV shows: Are we actually suggesting that Comey is the first person to ever describe our president’s skin color and hairstyle? Or is he just the first person who isn’t allowed to?
Does anyone really want to live in a country where we no longer have the freedom to describe Trump as ORANGE? Watching Comey take the heat for this, I felt as if yet another essential American value has been undermined, one attributed to Alice Roosevelt Longworth: If you can’t say something nice, come sit by me.