I 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!