Book review: “A Higher Loyalty” by James Comey


The “handshake” shown here is described in the book.

I received my copy of the bestselling memoir A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by former FBI director James Comey on Thursday and  finished it this morning.   It’s a fast read, but it may change you.

Comey describes the chain of events that led to his firing from the FBI in May 2017.   But more than that, this is an autobiography.  He also describes his childhood, high school years, his early years working in law enforcement (including exciting cases involving high profile mobsters and the Gambino Crime Family).  There’s also the very personal story of the loss of his infant son, Collin, an event he believes infused him with more empathy for the heartbreaks and losses of others — and made him a better FBI agent.

The book moves fast partly because the pages are packed with dialogue, some of which is humorous.  Here’s an excerpt of one of the conversations Comey had with Trump, at a private dinner meeting Trump had arranged for the two of them at the White House. I think this excerpt shows both Trump’s own ignorance and disdain for intellectualism.

“On my plate, I had found a large cream colored card describing the entire four course menu in cursive script. Salad, shrimp scampi, chicken parmesan with pasta, and vanilla ice cream. The president began by admiring his own menu card, which he held up.

“They write these things out one at a time, by hand,” [Trump] marveled, referring to the White House staff.  “A calligrapher,” I replied, nodding.

He looked quizzical. “They write them by hand,” he repeated.

Comey is being vilified and projected onto by his enemies right now, accused of everything Trump himself does every day.   I believe Comey, and not just because he’s on “my side” politically.   I believe him because he’s believable.   He’s an observant writer who notices the nuances of body and facial language, and appears to be a shrewd judge of character.  He also appears to have a high level of empathy, judging from the way he writes about others and his own reactions to them.   I cannot imagine a Donald Trump being capable of writing or thinking the way Comey does, or even noticing a fraction of the things Comey does.  Comey’s observation skills and empathy, combined with a lifelong passion for the truth, is what made him a great FBI agent and allowed him to rise to the top of the organization.   Yet he always remained humble, even shy and self-doubting at times (yes, he really did try to hide inside the blue curtains at the White House!)   His success never went to his head, and his priorities always remained on seeking the truth, never on bolstering his own ego.

Comey is being attacked by some people for telling the truth, something that narcissists like Trump hate because it exposes them for who they are.   In fact, Comey seems to have been selected specifically by Trump as a target for emotional and mental abuse.   People like Trump can sniff out potential scapegoats (usually very empathetic or observant people who can smell out the truth) from a mile away, and Comey, for his part, was uneasy around Trump from Day One — but like most of us who have been in abusive relationships, he initially wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt.    As a shrewd FBI agent though, he never actually did — he only promised Trump “honest loyalty,” not the sort of mobster-loyalty Trump wanted from him.

Comey spends some time early in the book talking about what character traits he believes a good leader needs to have: toughmindedness is great, but it needs to be balanced with qualities of empathy, honesty, and integrity — values that are lacking in Donald Trump, who cares only about loyalty to himself and projecting a fearsome image of strength.

For all its darkness, A Higher Loyalty ends on a positive note.  Comey compares the Trump presidency to a forest fire.   Forest fires are destructive and deadly, but they are also necessary and happen naturally on a cyclical basis.   Forest fires make it possible for new life to grow — seedlings and new plants that had been crowded out by the old trees before finally have room to emerge and flourish.    While Trump might be a destructive force of nature, he may be a necessary one:  in his wake, people are waking up and demanding real change.    The rot that had been present but hidden for decades is finally being exposed, young people are making themselves heard, and I have no doubt that in time, Trump (and Trumpism) will go down in flames and our democracy will emerge better than it was before, with new values or old values that had been forgotten.


8 thoughts on “Book review: “A Higher Loyalty” by James Comey

  1. Thank you for the review. I have not read the book, but feel I understand the situation better now with reading your post. Hugs

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    • I was still pretty angry with him for possibly throwing the election to Trump, but he explains all that in the book pretty well. There were extenuating circumstances.

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      • I heard him on one of the talk shows. He felt under pressure and sure that no matter what it would be wrong somehow. The only thing he knew for sure was he had to do something. Hard place to be in when you do not know what tomorrow will bring and what you should do. Hugs

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  2. I haven’t read the book, but one of the things that he has made very clear in interviews (including an excellent one on NPR’s Fresh Air) is that when it came to the decisions he had to make about the Hillary/DNC email investigation, there were no good choices, only more-or-less bad ones in uncertain circumstances, and that he could not, at the time, also talk about the Russia/Trump investigation which was still secret and in progress.

    An incident that he talked about in that interview was the situation in which he tried to hide against the curtains, but was called over by Trump across the room and unwillingly pulled into a hug in which Trump whispered in his ear, which was very uncomfortable and confusing. He said that later, his wife made sense of it for him, telling him that now he knew how a woman often feels in dealing with such a man as Trump. In that way, it was his #MeToo moment.

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  3. I finished it last week and also read his memos/testimony over the weekend. I admire his integrity and writing style. I didn’t know anything about his past, just about the Hillary thing and getting fired by Trump. I also like his sense of humor. 🙂

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