While ostensibly the memoirs of the shortest-serving FBI Director of all time, A Higher Loyalty is really about two people. James Comey, and Donald Trump.
It takes us through his career as a New York prosecutor and Deputy Attorney General in the Bush administration, to his appointment as FBI Director in 2013, ending on his encounters with Trump and shock sacking. But while the closing chapters are its most widely-publicised, and cause of its bestseller status, much like documentary The Final Year, Trump’s shadow looms long throughout.
Comey chooses leadership as the theme, identifying the qualities of an ethical leader in those he has encountered; from his manager in a grocery store, to Presidents Bush and Obama. And these qualities are consistently and conspicuously ones the forty-fifth president of the United States does not possess.
In many ways this is a book designed to restore Comey’s reputation. He explains his more contentious decisions fully, while accepting that reasonable people could have made a different choice. He’s not necessarily asking the reader to agree with everything he did, but re-establish himself as a committed public servant who acted in the way he thought best based on the information available.
And he’s largely successful in doing this, thanks to the humility demonstrated by his capacity to view his own actions with a critical eye. What results is a picture of a rather tragic figure, who, in spite of his efforts to keep the agency he represented above the political fray, ended up getting drawn into a series of impossible situations.
In surprisingly well-written prose he is not afraid to show vulnerability and humour. He has a good eye for an anecdote, and the chapters covering his early career, including his time in New York when he took on the Mob and Martha Stewart, are as intriguing as anything that comes later.
It’s slightly ironic that the most-quoted passage is also literally the least interesting. In a book which offers a first-hand account of the inner workings of three presidencies, the paragraph which has been latched onto is the one which describes Trump’s appearance (orange skin, coiffed hair, long tie) – details which are immediately obvious to anyone who has ever viewed the man.
It’s a shame these bits had to be included, and are at the forefront of the publicity, since Comey actually offers a highly thoughtful reflection on the role of law enforcement and the nature of good leadership.