Imagine sitting face to face with President Donald Trump when he asks for your loyalty. How would you respond? When former FBI Director James Comey faced that very scenario, he could hardly believe what he was hearing. It’s just one of many exciting stories in Comey’s first book: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.
Whether prosecuting mobsters and Martha Stewart (yes, really), serving as Deputy Attorney General for the Bush administration in the tense years following 9/11, or serving as FBI Director until being fired, Comey’s stories offer wisdom, suspense, sadness, and humour. Above all, they demonstrate Comey’s belief in longstanding principles like dedication to truth and the courage to admit when you’re wrong.
During Comey’s senior year of high school, one night changed his life forever. It was October 28, 1977. The Ramsey Rapist, known for his dozen attacks, was still on the loose. At home on a Friday night in Allendale, New Jersey, just south of Ramsey, were James and his younger brother Pete. The Ramsey Rapist likely thought that Comey’s sister was home (fortunately, she was not) when he broke in, armed with a gun. Comey was sure he was going to die but, with a bit of ingenuity and a lot of courage, he and his brother escaped physically unharmed. The psychological effects, however, would be long-lasting (he kept a knife in his room for years afterwards!).
Although Comey said he didn’t know it at the time, that night would indirectly influence him to pursue a career in law enforcement. Before jumping into law, however, Comey was studying to become a doctor. At med school, he took a course in the religion department and learned of the philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr’s writing on justice resonated with a young Comey.
“Slowly it dawned on me that I wasn’t going to be a doctor after all. Lawyers participate much more directly in the search for justice.”
During an apprenticeship working as an aide to a federal judge in Manhattan, Comey attended court cases and got a glimpse of prosecutors at work. In one case, the defendant was Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, the boss of the Genovese crime family in New York. As Comey recalls, “I was struck by lightning. ‘This is what I want to do with my life,’ I thought.” Comey hated bullies and being a prosecutor gave him the opportunity to protect people from bullies of all stripes, including members of the New York Mafia. By interrogating mobsters, Comey learned that loyalty to the “family,” or La Cosa Nostra (this thing of ours,) could lead people to lie and even murder.
It’s hard not to be reminded of the Mafia when reading about Comey’s private dinner with Trump and his startling request for loyalty. The attention to detail in this scene is superb. Comey describes the menu (it included shrimp scampi and vanilla ice cream for dessert) and the tense moment when Comey and Trump lock eyes while Comey decides how to respond to this most unsettling request. I felt like I was in the room with them, witnessing a pivotal moment in history.
Some people may object to Comey’s sensational story-telling, like his describing the white skin under Trump’s eyes, presumably from wearing tanning goggles. However, as Comey explained on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he was trying to make the book entertaining for the reader. I suspect that Comey’s years of explaining complex cases to juries helped make him an adept story-teller — I felt like I was reading a novel.
If you’re worried that James Comey merely heaps praise on himself, rest assured that he expresses regret too, like the time at boarding school when he became the bully he so despised, helping trash another student’s room. He also describes how, during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, he agonized over his decision to publicly disclose the reopening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, especially since he had already publicly declared the case closed. Many Democrats blamed that decision for Clinton’s defeat. I still disagree with Comey’s decision, but I now understand how he came to it and how hard it was.
Comey admits that he had initially resisted the idea of writing a book on ethical leadership as it can come across as sanctimonious. But he later decided that the current political climate was so extraordinary, and the risk to longstanding institutions like the Department of Justice so severe, that he couldn’t stay silent. It may seem that principled leadership in Washington is a thing of the past, but Comey brilliantly makes the case that a “higher loyalty” still exists. His book will convince even the hardened cynic that some people still value integrity over expediency.
After graduating from Ryerson University in 2009, Alex spent many years trying to figure out exactly what he wanted to do in life. Eventually he decided to focus on writing. He spends his free time following the latest political news and cheering on the Toronto Blue Jays.