In life, as in literature, the more complex character is the more compelling and the more realistic. We may crave heroes, but we end up with humans. The cardboard figure of unblemished rectitude, who performs impeccably under pressure and is impelled only by the purest motives, gives way to a real person, with all the inevitable blemishes and failings that human nature is heir to.
So it is with James B. Comey, the fired FBI director.
The nation’s first introduction to Comey came a decade ago, with his dramatic account of racing to the hospital room of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to head off an effort to pressure the gravely ill Ashcroft to reauthorize a secret surveillance program.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Comey described the tense scene as top White House aides arrived at Ashcroft’s room in an unavailing effort to secure his signature. FBI agents, dispatched by, yes, then-FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, were posted outside the door to prevent Comey’s ouster as he faced down the president’s men.
This was Comey as superhero, able to leap up hospital stairs in a single bound. It was Comey as resolute public servant, leader of a brave band prepared to quit rather than waver in defense of the rule of law.
“I couldn’t stay, if the administration was going to engage in conduct that the Department of Justice had said had no legal basis,” Comey testified. “I just simply couldn’t stay.”
Comey, the sequel, presents a figure more nuanced, imperfect — and realistic. He may have an aw-shucks demeanor (“Lordy, I hope there are tapes”), but he exposed himself as a Washington operator and survivor, with all the bureaucratic maneuvering and sail-trimming that entails.
This Comey didn’t confront, he navigated, walking the treacherously narrow path between his desire not to alienate the new president and his mounting alarm at Trump’s heedlessness of proper boundaries.
Thus, according to Comey’s account, he found himself at an uncomfortably intimate dinner with the president in the Green Room, seeking to defuse Trump’s demand for loyalty first with stone-faced silence, next by acceding to the president’s oxymoronic “honest loyalty.”
As Comey recalled, “I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further.”
Less than a month later, left alone with the president in the Oval Office, Comey again ducked a direct challenge. As Comey testified, when Trump expressed his “hope” that Comey could drop the case against fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, the FBI director lunged for their common ground: “He’s a good guy.”
Asked why he did not rebuff the president, Comey offered, “Maybe if I were stronger I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in.” This was not Comey the brave but Comey the self-protective bureaucrat. He didn’t confront, but he did write a memo to the file.
Nor was this the first administration in which Comey chose his battles with an eye to political realities. When then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch asked him to call the Hillary Clinton email probe a “matter,” not an “investigation,” Comey testified, “I just said, all right . . . this isn’t a hill worth dying on.”
And then there is the matter of Comey’s bank-shot leak, from him to Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman to, anonymously of course, the New York Times — all in the service, Comey testified, of seeing a special counsel appointed. Not exactly the behavior of a Boy Scout, unless there is now a merit badge in Machiavelli.
That is not to say that Comey was wrong to get out the word about his chilling encounter. It’s just that his aura of by-the-book self-righteousness comes with a slightly less honorable tinge. Comey has managed to infuriate both Democrats — with his imperious decision to assume an outsize role on the Clinton, ahem, matter — and Republicans, a decade ago and now.
Listening to Comey’s testimony called to mind Benjamin Wittes’s account of a conversation when, Comey, still in his job, expressed “palpable” concerns about deputy attorney general nominee Rod J. Rosenstein, a career prosecutor who had managed to keep his political appointment under Republican and Democratic presidents. “Rod is a survivor,” Comey observed. As Wittes paraphrased: “You don’t get to survive that long across administrations without making compromises.”
Did Comey recognize something of himself? Once he was, or presented himself as, the archetype of unyielding probity, now he has morphed into something more complex — less heroic, more flesh-and-blood. This Comey is more flawed and, perhaps for that very reason, more believable.