Review: A Higher Loyalty

Comey Higher Loyalty Book CoverI loved this book. If you followed the hype around the release of A Higher Loyalty you will probably think it is a revenge memoir aimed at Donald Trump. It’s not.

Across 312 pages, James Comey provides a compelling, fast-paced, and at times deeply personal account of his journey from being a junior prosecutor in the Southern District of New York all the way to the US Deputy Attorney General and finally to being the Director of the FBI.

Along the way, Comey describes the leaders who have shaped his career and his approach to leadership – from Harry Howell (the tough but kind-hearted manager of the convenience store where Comey worked as a teenager) to the various US presidents he served under.

This is a book of two halves. The first half traces his upbringing and early career in the law. This includes a nail-biting account of Comey coming face-to-face with the Ramsey Rapist who had broken into the Comey family home in 1977 when only Comey (then aged 16) and his little brother Peter were home. The first half of the book also tells the story of Comey’s role in the successful prosecution of the Gambino Family, one of New York’s most notorious crime families.

The second half focuses on the latter parts of his career for which Comey has become most well-known – investigating Hilary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as US Secretary of State as well as Comey’s turbulent relationship with President Trump which, as we all know, ended in one of the most public, most talked about firings in political history.

The more I read, the more I liked Comey. He comes across as a man dedicated to public service, with a deep belief in the rule of law, and an unwavering commitment to upholding high standards in public office.

More than anything, this book is a call to action for ethical leaders. At various points, Comey provides genuinely thoughtful lessons on what makes a good leader, drawing from his own career, his successes and failures, and from the men and women he served under.

For political junkies, it helps that the book is also laced with juicy insider accounts of some of the biggest scandals and stories in modern American politics. This includes the prosecution of Martha Stewart for lying to investigators about alleged insider trading – at the time, Martha Stuart was one of the most well-known (and wealthiest) celebrity television personalities in America. It also documents Comey’s role in the prosecution of Scooter Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff who was found guilty of leaking classified national security information to the media.

It also includes Comey’s account of the infamous 2004 late-night race to George Washington Hospital between Comey and senior officials from the Bush Administration in which the former had planned to ambush the hospitalised US Attorney General (John Ashcroft) to force him to approve a presidential order to reinstate a wide-reaching domestic surveillance programme. Thanks to a tip-off, Comey arrived first at the hospital and sat at Ashcroft’s bedside until Andy Card (Bush’s Chief of Staff) and Alberto Gonzales (White House Counsel) arrived. After an intense exchange of words, the men left without the approval they sought (they later claimed they were only visiting Ashcroft to say hello and wish him well).

Perhaps the most interesting stories Comey tells in the book are those which involve the current US President. Not because they portray him as a bully and an egomaniac but because of the clear contrast in character and behaviour of Trump compared to the men who held the office before him.

Comey clearly has a deep respect for Barack Obama which shines through in the book. The Obama that Comey describes is a man of poise, integrity, social intelligence, and high intellectual capacity.

President Trump, on the other hand, is portrayed as a man who demands blind loyalty, wants to win at all costs, and who lacks even basic social skills – one fascinating insight that Comey notes is that he never, not once, saw Trump laugh in any of their interactions (Comey adds that he even searched the internet for examples of Trump laughing but couldn’t find any!).

The Trump vs. Comey narrative has been written a thousand times already so I won’t repeat it here. What is worth saying is that this book is not about that. Don’t avoid this book because you think you’ve already read enough about the Trump/Comey feud. To do so would be to miss out on a genuinely thoughtful memoir of a man who has important lessons to teach about integrity and leadership. And boy do we need more of that.

I don’t know what’s next for James Comey and the book offers few hints. Personally, I hope this isn’t the end of his public service. Comey clearly has a lot to offer and US public life would be far richer with him playing an active role.

It would be impossible for him to return to a public role under the current Administration so, until there is a change, I hope at least he will produce another book or two!

 

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Here’s what I know

Tom Hanks Oscar Speech 1994 PhiladelphiaAs the 2018 Oscars approaches, I wanted to make a nomination of my own: best Oscar’s acceptance speech. Step forward Mr Tom Hanks.

In 1994, the big film of the year was Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (a rare Spielberg film in which Hanks was not involved!). It won 7 Oscars that year including best director and picture, from a total of 12 nominations. But the film’s leading man, Liam Neeson, missed out on the award for best actor to Tom Hanks. The performance that won Hanks the Oscar was his portrayal of Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia, a story about a lawyer with HIV who sues his former firm after it fires him because of his illness.

In accepting the Oscar, Hanks delivers what is in my mind the best acceptance speech ever. I won’t dissect it here but I will make two brief observations:

Firstly, Hanks starts his speech with the phrase “Here’s what I know”, which is an absolutely brilliant opening to any speech! It leaves no room for ambiguity. It is a clear, punchy, declarative statement which says: Listen, I’m going to tell you how it is. I’m about to speak the truth from the heart, my heart. And he does.

Secondly, This is the earliest use of the phrase “the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels” that I can find. Most people familiar with this phrase will know it from the TV series The West Wing where it was made famous by President Josiah Bartlet as he pays tribute to the victims of a terrorist attack (that episode first aired in 2002, a full eight years after Hanks made this speech). Hanks uses the phrase to devastating effect here to memorialise the victims of HIV AIDS who “number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight”.

Do watch Hanks’ speech. It’s beautiful, mesmerising, and very powerful.

 

TRANSCRIPT:

Here’s what I know. I could not be standing here without that undying love that was just sung about by, not Bruce [Springsteen], but Neil Young. And I have that in a lover that is so close to fine, we should all be able to experience such heaven right here on earth. I know also that, I should not be doing this, I should not be here, but I am because of the union of such filmmakers as Ed Saxon, Ron Nyswaner, Kristi Zea, Tak Fujimoto, Jonathan Demme — who seems to have these [Oscars] attached to his limbs for every actor that works with him of late. And a cast that includes Antonio Banderas, who, second to my lover, is the only person I would trade for. And a cast that includes many other people, but the actor who really put his film image at risk, and shone because of his integrity, Mr. Denzel Washington, who I really must share this with.

I would not be standing here if it weren’t for two very important men in my life, so… two that I haven’t spoken with in a while, but I had the pleasure of just the other evening. Mr. Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher, who taught me to act well the part, there all the glory lies. And one of my classmates under Mr. Farnsworth, Mr. John Gilkerson. I mention their names because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age. I wish my babies could have the same sort of teacher, the same sort of friends.

And there lies my dilemma here tonight. I know that my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names. They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all. A healing embrace that cools their fevers, that clears their skin, and allows their eyes to see the simple, self-evident, common sense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all and was written down on paper by wise men, tolerant men, in the city of Philadelphia two hundred years ago. God bless you all. God have mercy on us all. And God bless America.

Source: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

http://aaspeechesdb.oscars.org/link/066-1/

Budget 2017: Time to (re)invest in Universal Credit

Being the Chancellor of the Exchequer is probably like winning the lottery, just without the enjoyable bits.

Sadly, I’ve never won the lottery but when I do (after I’ve shaken off the hangover) I imagine that old friends and acquaintances will surface to ask if they can have a few hundred quid.

This must be a daily occurrence for the Chancellor, only with bigger sums. “Can I have £7billion for transport infrastructure?” “I need £4billion for the NHS.” “Can you lend me £50billion for housebuilding?”. And so on.

Fielding those requests is no easy task. How nice it would be to say yes, yes, and yes. But the Chancellor’s job, more often than not, is to say no. Much like a parent in a toy shop being asked “dad, can I have this, can I have this…” albeit with fewer subsequent tantrums (you’d hope).

And so, in that spirit, I’ll throw my hat into the ring to encourage the Chancellor to increase funding for Universal Credit (UC). In doing so, Philip Hammond would put right a mistake made by his predecessor.

In 2010, the introduction of Universal Credit was a radical and much needed reform to a floundering welfare system. Iain Duncan Smith once described the welfare system as being a combination of a safety net and a trampoline – because it should catch people when they fall on hard times but (in his words), “it should also propel them back upwards”. At the end of the Labour government in 2010, the welfare system was doing the first part of that but failing miserably on the second.

Prior to 2010, the UK’s spending on welfare had increased year-on-year for nearly a decade but the system was failing those it was trying to help. By the time Gordon Brown left Downing Street in 2010, 1.4 million people in the UK had spent 9 out of the last 10 years on benefits; almost one in five households had no one in work; and the number of households where no one had ever worked had nearly doubled. In short, the expanding welfare system had done little to move people into work.

Enter Universal Credit. Introduced by the coalition government, UC has been described as “the most radical reform to the British welfare system since Beveridge”. The main aims of UC were to simplify the welfare system (by merging several different benefits into a single payment) and to ensure that work always paid better than remaining on welfare (i.e. to remove the financial incentive of remaining on benefits for long periods).

The element of UC that helped people transition from welfare to work is ‘work allowances’ which is the amount a person or family can work before their UC payment is affected. Their UC payment will then taper downwards at a steady rate as they earn more from work. However, in his 2015 Budget, in an effort to find savings George Osborne announced a significant reduction to work allowances. The effect this had on UC was significant: it severely diminished UC’s overriding objective, to make work pay. In its assessment of the 2015 Budget, the Resolution Foundation concluded that “the incentive to enter work has been significantly reduced” and the changes will “make a difficult situation worse” for many low paid families.

It is here that Philip Hammond should intervene, a view supported by those who know and understand Universal Credit better than anyone.

Last week, the three main architects of Universal Credit each urged the government to take action on various aspects of UC including on the issues of work allowances. In separate interventions, the people who were chiefly responsible for introducing the policy each called on the government to use the Budget to change course.

Firstly, Dr Stephen Brien, the intellectual architect of UC who (literally) wrote the policy used an interview with the BBC to urge the government to amend its current policy on the 7 day waiting time as well as to introduce greater work allowances for claimants.

Secondly, the Centre for Social Justice, the think-tank chaired by IDS that published the original UC proposal in 2009, released a report to the Guardian that called on the government to cancel a planned raise to the income tax threshold (a Conservative manifesto commitment) and instead to re-invest £3.4bn in the work allowances that were taken out of the system in 2015.

Thirdly, Baroness Philippa Stroud (who served as special advisor to Iain Duncan Smith and who ran the CSJ before moving into government in 2010), used a speech in the House of Lords to urge the government to “abolish” the waiting period before a person is eligible to claim Universal Credit and to re-introduce the work allowances.

The waiting period, said Stroud, is “not a design feature of Universal Credit” meaning that it can easily be changed. Stroud added “I do not think it should just be reduced; I think it should be abolished.” In the same speech, she also echoed the call made by both Stephen Brien and the CSJ to re-invest in the work allowances that were removed in the 2015 Budget.

And so, what should be done? The government has ignored (rightly) the calls to pause or even reverse the roll-out of Universal Credit. At its heart, UC is a tool to fight poverty and contrary to popular belief it has been broadly successful: on average claimants of Universal Credit spend more time looking for work, are more likely to find work, and earn more than those claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance.

But UC was always intended to be introduced iteratively, or as Philippa Stroud describes it, with a “test and learn” approach. In other words, it will take time to get it right and it should be regularly reviewed and adapted if needed.

The Chancellor would be wise to remember this in his Budget. By strengthening Universal Credit, the government has an opportunity to direct much-needed cash to the poorest and most vulnerable in society. At the time of year when everyone is asking the Chancellor for money, this is one group he should say yes to.

Perceptions of love (and parenting)

An experiment for parents: go and tell your child that you love them. Then ask them why do they think you love them? Don’t prompt an answer. Don’t make any suggestions. Just ask them why — and then wait for the response.

I did this recently with my 5 year old daughter and was surprised and shocked by her response.

Backing up a little bit…I have three children and I tell them that I love them all the time. I praise them when they do well; I encourage them; we laugh together; we play tricks on each other; we hug and kiss; we read stories together; we eat together; we watch movies together and so on. Simply put, they know they are loved.

I was prompted to have this conversation with my daughter after speaking to a good friend of mine called Tim who talked to me about the unintentional expectations that parents place on their children. He explained that many children grow up believing sub-consciously that they are loved only in response to their achievements. Put another way, they believe they are loved because of what they do not who they are. Think about it: as a parent, when do you most often show love to your child and when do you give them praise? The answer is probably when they have done something notable. Something praiseworthy.

Three years ago, Harvard University undertook a survey of 10,000 students who were asked what they believed their parents cared about most for their life. The students were given three options to pick from:

  1. your parents care most that you achieve highly;
  2. your parents care most that you are happy;
  3. your parents care most that you are kind to others.

The results make for depressing reading: more than half (54%) of students picked ‘achieve highly’ as the thing they thought was most important to their parents. 27% said that their parents cared most about their happiness. Only 19% said the thing their parents cared about most was them being kind.

The findings are sad and troubling and they confirm that modern society tends to prioritise what David Brooks calls resume virtues as opposed to eulogy virtues. But what’s equally troubling is that parents don’t even realise what they are doing; they are conveying these values completely unintentionally (as my friend Tim had said). The findings of the Harvard survey explained that parents think they prioritise kindness but clearly this is not what their children are hearing. The survey concluded that there is a “troubling gap between what adults say and what students perceive about the importance of caring, kindness, and respect”.

Back to my conversation with my daughter. When I asked her why she thought I loved her, her first guess was “because I’m beautiful?” No, I said, have another try. “Because I’m clever?” Nope, try again. “Because I’m funny?” I stopped her after her third guess, more to end my own misery than hers.

Thankfully, my earlier conversation with Tim had pre-warned me that these answers were likely and so I was pre-armed with a response.

I told my daughter that those things about her were true – that she is beautiful and clever and funny. But, they are not the reason I love her. The reason I love you, I explained, is because you’re my daughter and I’m your daddy.

She looked confused but I carried on.

This is a fact that can never change; I will always be your daddy and you will always be my daughter and that means that I will always love you no matter how clever you are, how funny you are, or how beautiful you are. I just love you because you are you.

I kissed her good night and that was the end of our conversation. However, I’ve started deliberately replaying this conversation with my children from time to time so that as they grow up they are consciously aware that they are loved simply for who they are not what they do.

I share all of this for two reasons. Firstly, because this whole concept took me by surprise and, as a result, it has been playing on my mind for a while. I wanted to get it off my chest! Secondly, I am writing in the hope that parents who read it will go and tell their children that they love them, for no reason other than because they do.

I guess sometimes we all need a little prompt to tell the ones closest to us how we feel. And if that happens, if just one parent does that because of this post, then every single one of these 769 words were completely and utterly worth it!

Film: In Memory

Earlier today I stumbled upon the trailer for this short movie. At first it looks like a classic love story: romantic, atmospheric, beautifully shot, soppy script, etc. But the final 5 seconds of the trailer deliver a little twist…

Looks like it could strike a similar chord to other films about dementia such as The Notebook or Away From Her. What I liked about the trailer was its focus on the love story of the young couple rather than the older couple – making it a story about life and love rather than about dementia.

Anyway, I liked it so wanted to share.

The release date for the full (13 minute film) is February 11th. IMDb has more information as well as a behind the scenes ‘making of’ video: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5136522/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

And the website for the media company behind the movie has further details here: http://bedrock-health.com/healthcare-feature-films/

 

♫ Christmas Number Ones ♫

The X-Factor has just finished which means that the race for Christmas number one is on. There is s till a certain cachet attached to having a Christmas number one single.

In no particular order and for no particular reason, a few thoughts about Christmas number one singles…

 

1) Simon Cowell has ruined it for everyone. 
The past 10 years have been dominated by x-factor winners who have enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame and then disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Matt Cardle anyone? Shane Ward? Leon Jackson? (to name just three).

 

2) Very few of the songs are any good. 
You have to go back at least 13 years to find a semi-decent song (Sound of the Underground, 2002), and that’s a stretch. The early 90s produced quite a few decent Christmas number ones including a re-release of Bohemian Rhapsody (’91), Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You (’92), and East 17’s Stay Another Day in 1994. Personally, I would argue that 2 Become 1 (1996) was the last “good” Christmas number one but I’m sure plenty of people would disagree with me about that!.

 

3) Few are about Christmas.
From the last 35 years only five Christmas number one songs are actually about Christmas (and three of those are the same song(!) – Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas).

 

4) The ones that didn’t make it are better than those that did.
Check out the list of Christmas number two singles. They’re a much better collection of songs than the number ones. Starting with Uptown Funk in 2014 the list also includes Take That’s Patience (2006), and Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas is You (1994), and the timeless Fairytale of New York (1987).

 

5) Few do it twice. 
Only a select group of artists have had more than one Christmas number one. This illustrious list includes Cliff Richard (obvs), Queen, and Band Aid. Only The Beatles and the Spice Girls have done it three times in a row (1963/4/5 & 1996/7/8).

 

6) Revealed on Christmas Day.
Back in the day, the official weekly chart would be revealed on Sunday. The Sunday before Christmas would be the official Christmas chart. Now the chart has moved to Friday which means this year, we get the Christmas chart on Christmas day itself. The 2015 winner will be announced by Greg James on Radio 1.

 

7) The rise of the protest vote. 
One amusing side effect of the X-Factor’s dominance on the Christmas chart is that each year, someone, somewhere picks a random song and decides that this will be the ‘alternative’ choice. Quite who does this is not clear to me. Once the song is chosen, it is followed by a groundswell of support on Facebook, some decent coverage in the traditional media, and then occasionally, just occasionally, victory (see Rage Against the Machine, 2009).

 

Click the images below to view the list of Christmas number ones from the past 60 years.