People who appear before Congress are playing characters. They may be stepping into roles as wise jurists who set aside their personal feelings when confronted with the awesome responsibilities of the law, or as survivors of harassment or violence who were robbed of their autonomy but not their immense dignity. On Thursday, Comey needed to play an iconic FBI agent: a family man in a dark, well-cut suit, who holds his personal rectitude dear and the rectitude of the bureau he serves even dearer, seeing its mission as synonymous with the well-being of the country.
Comey’s task was complicated by the nature of the events he had come to Congress to describe. His tense relationship with President Trump raised the specter of the Comey predecessor who invented the FBI’s public image even as he violated his stated values. J. Edgar Hoover promoted his upright vision of what an FBI agent should be in pop culture, as on the show “The FBI.” And behind the scenes, he manipulated, intimidated and harassed American leaders for half a century.
“I was worried very much about being in kind of a [J. Edgar] Hoover-type situation,” Comey said of his January meeting with Trump to brief him on a dossier that supposedly included information that the Russian government might have used to blackmail the president-elect. “I didn’t want him thinking I was briefing him on this to sort of hang it over him in some way.”
Comey couched his performance in language that was plain, both in the sense that it was clear, and that it had a certain old-fashioned, squeaky-clean quality. The strongest oath Comey uttered was “Lordy!” He talked about setting “a good example for kids.” Three times, he insisted that there should be “no fuzz on” the idea that Russia had intervened in the 2016 election, a phrase that dates back at least to the poet Ezra Pound’s radio addresses during World War II. Here, and in an exchange with Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) about Henry II’s execution of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket, Comey’s references appeared to be that of another era.
And Comey spoke about the Russian attacks on America’s electoral systems in terms that hailed back to President Ronald Reagan’s channeling of the Puritan minister John Winthrop.
“We have this big, messy, wonderful country where we fight with each other all the time. But nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans. And that’s wonderful and often painful,” Comey said in perhaps his most emotional statement of the hearing. “It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, which I hope we all love equally. They want to undermine our credibility in the face [of] the world. They think that this great experiment of ours is a threat to them. So they’re going to try to run it down and dirty it up as much as possible. That’s what this is about, and they will be back. … We remain that shining city on the hill. And they don’t like it.”
In making his points, Comey relied on the same understated style and trust in his listeners that characterized his written statement to the committee. One estimation of an actor’s talent is in his ability to control his face. By that measure, James Comey is not a man whom you would want to see on the other side of a poker table. As photographers crowded around him to take his picture before he was sworn in, Comey’s face remained utterly still, his mouth turned up slightly at the corners without expanding into anything that could be properly called a smile.
Throughout the hearing, his eyebrows became his most expressive tools. Comey’s brows rose together into his forehead as he expressed his surprise and confusion over Trump’s initial rationale for his firing. They slanted with concern as he acknowledged that he was “honestly concerned [Trump] might lie about the nature of our meeting.” They rose again as Comey said that he took the president “at his word, that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” and described the shock his colleagues felt when he told them about his experiences with the president. And they lifted as Comey responded to questions about what he might have said to the president had he not been so stunned by their interactions, admitting that he didn’t claim to be “Captain Courageous,” in another one of the hearing’s literary references.
Of course, most icons aren’t as perfect as they appear from a distance. The FBI that Comey so venerates has plenty of tarnish on it, most of it placed there by the actions of FBI agents and directors themselves. But for two and a half hours on Thursday morning, James Comey did his best to prove that there is some shine left not just on his own reputation, but on that of the bureau he served.