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!



Hillary vs…?

Hillary2016Which two movies provide the best insight into how the coming US Presidential Election will play out? This was the question posed by Jacob Heilbrunn, Editor of The National Interest, at a recent Legatum Institute discussion.

Political movie fans might suggest Primary Colours, the anonymously authored account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign against George H. W. Bush. Or perhaps The Ides of March (2011), the tense political thriller which sees an idealistic Ryan Gosling get caught up in the dirty side of politics while working for a presidential candidate played by George Clooney. But Heilbrunn offered neither of these.

Instead, Heilbrunn cited Election (1999), the little-known indie movie that sees a tenacious and devious Reese Witherspoon running unopposed for school president, stopping at nothing to get what she wants. This, said Heilbrunn, provides insight into what Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency might look like.

The second movie, for Heilbrunn, is the recent Kingsman (2014) in which an elite spy agency recruits a young, unrefined, untested street kid into their training programme (think James Bond mixed with Johnny English). The agency mirrors the GOP while the established central character (Colin Firth) represents Jeb Bush—the safe and obvious choice. The young, untested recruit could be any number of Republican candidates including the like of Ted Cruz, the maverick libertarian Senator from Texas who, among other things, wants to abolish the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and introduce a flat tax rate.

Following Hillary’s official announcement earlier this month, it would seem inevitable that she will secure the Democratic nomination, potentially unopposed (very few Democrats will want to stand in front of the Clinton juggernaut). When it comes to predicting who will secure the Republican nomination the smart money is on Jeb Bush. Bush has huge fundraising capability combined with a formidable infrastructure of advisors, supporters, and donors—the Bush ‘machine’ is perhaps only rivalled by the organisational infrastructure of the Clintons, which makes for a potentially fascinating showdown, one which will be very well-funded on both sides.

But is Jeb Bush a shoe-in? Not necessarily, says Heilbrunn. Another likely option is Scott Walker, the current Governor of Wisconsin. Walker is most well-known for facing-down the labour unions in his state and for surviving a recall vote in June 2012, only the third vote of its kind in US history.

Another reason why Bush is not a certainty comes down to a complexity of the US Presidential election process in which would-be candidates have to appeal to two separate groups of voters.

On the one hand there is the party “base” (what in the UK we’d refer to as the grass-roots). The Republican base tends to be very socially conservative and more activist in its approach and holds a lot of power when it comes to selecting the party’s nominee. “The lunatics aren’t quite running the asylum but they are very close to the keys”, explained Heilbrunn.

Then there is the national electorate who are less conservative and more populist in nature. This presents a conundrum for GOP candidates who, if they want to secure their party’s nomination, need to present themselves as ultra conservative in order to win the base, only to row-back to the centre ground thereafter. This is a problem that former Republican nominee Mitt Romney knows well after struggling to convey authenticity on several high-profile policy issues during his own campaign.

The same problem exists for Jeb Bush. He advocates policies which don’t sit comfortably with the base of his party, most notably in education where Bush advocates Common Core—the introduction of national academic standards which requires an active role for the state in education—and on immigration where Bush wants to offer immigrants a path to legal status if they “work … don’t break the law, learn English, and contribute to society”. In light of this, Heilbrunn was asked how he thinks Bush is planning to win over the base of the party with policies like these tied around his neck? Simply put, he’s not, was Heilrunn’s surprising answer: “Bush’s aim is to survive the primaries…mauled.” And this certainly reflects reality given how Bush is showing no sign of amending his positions on some of these more unpopular issues.

Back to Hillary. Heilbrunn discussed how a Hillary Clinton Administration may differ from the Obama Administration in which she served for five years, as well as how much she would differ from the man who sat in the Oval Office between 1993-2001 (with whom she shares a surname). Heilbrunn offered a suggestion of a divide within the Democratic Party with those who favour a return to the ideals of the first Clinton Administration marked by a robust foreign policy, traditional social values and, of course, a strong economy. This group stands in contrast to those Democrats who are generally more socially liberal; favour a reduced role for the US abroad in terms of foreign policy, and who played such a vital role in electing Barack Obama in 2008.

One of the most intriguing questions about a Hillary presidency is what role Bill Clinton would play in her administration in his capacity as First Man (or is it First Gentleman…or perhaps just Mr President…?) To this, Heilbrunn offers a tongue-in-cheek response: if Hillary becomes president, one thing will certainly be true: “Bill will have a greater role than her staff would like”.

This article first appeared here.

JFK’s Right Hand Man

I’ve just finished reading Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, the memoir of Ted Sorensen, one of JFK’s closest advisors. It’s a superb book, beautifully written offering an insight into the mind of a truly brilliant man who Kennedy described as his “intellectual blood bank”. Here are a few thoughts on Sorensen, JFK, and a quite superb political autobiography.

On the morning of Friday 20th January 1961, after a night of heavy snowfall and in the shadow of a close-run election, John F Kennedy stepped on to the inaugural platform and spoke words that both defined and inspired a generation. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” This was more than rhetoric. His words ushered in a new era of optimism and a new generation of political awareness. Kennedy’s inaugural address is perhaps the most famous, most replayed, most quoted piece of political rhetoric from the past 60 years. Reading it afresh today, more than half a century later, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its impact.

JFK’s inaugural address might be the closest thing you’ll find to political poetry. “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” is the best known line but the speech includes other gems such as “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate” and “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich”. These words, although spoken by JFK on that cold January morning, almost certainly originated from the pen of Ted Sorensen.

Counselor CoverAlthough Ted Sorensen is often credited as JFK’s “speechwriter”, he was a lot more than that. Finding the appropriate description of Sorensen’s role in Kennedy’s life is difficult, such was the closeness of the two. His job title in the White House was the rather generic “Special Counsel to the President” which can mean anything and everything. Kennedy’s brother Bobby, who served as JFK’s Attorney General, says simply: “If it was difficult, Ted Sorensen was brought in”, while the New York Times obituary of his life describes Sorensen as JFK’s “political strategist and a trusted adviser on everything from election tactics to foreign policy”.

Counselor is the story of Sorensen’s life rather than JFK’s presidency, although the years spent campaigning for and then serving in the White House certainly dominate the pages. The book breezes through Sorensen’s early life providing some detail about his somewhat sheltered upbringing in Nebraska, including earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska, and then graduating first in his class at law school. By the time he first made the journey to Washington in 1951, at the age of 23, Sorensen says of himself: “I had never drunk a cup of coffee, set foot in a bar, written a check, or owned a car.” Less than 10 years later he was, the Wall Street Journal notes, “the third most powerful man in the American government.”

Sorensen and JFK first met in 1953 when, eighteen months after making the journey to Washington DC from his home town of Lincoln Nebraska, Sorensen was hired as a researcher by the newly elected senator from Massachusetts.

Sorensen pic

Ted Sorensen

Although the book is a little light on Sorensen’s early life, it provides more detail about his post-Washington years in which he spent four decades as a successful international lawyer for New York firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. This work took him all over the world and included encounters with an eclectic cast of charismatic and inspiring world leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Charles de Gaulle, former President of the DRC, Mobutu Sese Seko,  Egypt’s former President Anwar Sadat (whom Sorensen describes as the “most intriguing” person he’s ever met), and Israel’s former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (whom he described as the “most visionary”.)

Counselor also documents Sorensen’s own experience as a political candidate in 1970 when he ran as a democrat in the New York Senate seat previously held by Robert Kennedy. But Sorensen admits this was “a mistake”, describing how he believed (naively, it turns out) that by seeking public office he could simply continue the JFK legacy. “Frankly, it was an act of hubris on my part”, concedes Sorensen.

The pages of Counselor are soaked with loyalty and admiration towards JFK (it’s even been described as a “love story” by one reviewer). Sorensen’s loyalty remained undiminished long after JFK’s presidency was brought to a tragically premature end in Texas in 1963. In one candid section towards the end of the book Sorensen asserts that none of the nine people who have held the office of the Presidency since 1963 come close to his former boss.

In another example of both loyalty to JFK and ambivalence to those who followed, Sorensen admits for the rest of his life whenever he referred to “The President” in writing, in conversation, or otherwise, there was only one person he meant.

Ever since JFK delivered his inaugural address in 1961, questions over its true authorship have been raised. It has been suggested on more than one occasion that Sorensen is the source and inspiration behind all of Kennedy’s finest rhetoric. Sorensen addresses those questions head-on in Counselor and, perhaps unsurprisingly, remains loyal to his former boss referring to the speech “a collaboration” and even insisting Kennedy was the “true author”.

Sorensen remained active and intellectually alert into old age although his latter years were dominated by health issues following a massive stroke in 2001 that took away most of his sight – and could have been worse. Writing Counselor seems to have been a cathartic exercise for Sorensen who admits that it helped keep him alive for the six years it took to write following the stroke (he died two years after publication). It seems to have also brought closure: in the final pages of the book, Sorensen says that he believes the writing of the book signifies the conclusion of his service to JFK.

Ted Sorensen has been described as the speechwriter’s patron saint. This is an appropriate epithet. It’s certainly true that for aspiring writers, Sorensen’s name towers above others. But even a cursory look at his professional life shows that he was far more than a speechwriter. Counselor is a fine account of his distinguished life. Moreover, it offers an authoritative behind-the-scenes assessment of a presidency that electrified the nation. I have no doubt that Counselor will stand through the ages as one of the definitive accounts of JFK’s presidency, written by someone who lived and breathed every minute.

One of the endorsements on the back cover is from Barack Obama who states that “Sorensen has written a book that will be cherished for generations.” I happen to think he’s right. I hope he is.

Sorensen’s life of service, idealism, and loyalty provides a shining example for aspiring politicians and political advisors. I can’t help thinking that US politics – characterised as it is by gridlock, partisanship, and short-sightedness – would be a far better place if there were a few more Ted Sorensens around today.

Marriage, Illegitimacy, and Social Norms

Last week I had the privilege of chairing a discussion as part of the annual Charles Street Symposium. The discussion was based on three essays, which considered the question, Why Do Societies Prosper? David Ruffley MP acted as the discussant for the session.

The first essay was titled More on the What and Less of the Why, by Bernardo Fazendeiro1. Bernardo argues that we are asking the wrong question and before considering why societies prosper we must first consider what we mean when we talk about prosperity. He concludes by stating that “taking a step back is more necessary than ever, so that we can deliberate on versions of the good, whatever that may be…”

The second essay titled The Ethics of Disutility was by Mats Ekman2. Mats’ considers whether it is morally right to force a person to maximise his/her own utility, ultimately concluding that it would be wrong to do so, arguing that “right” and “good” are separate qualities.

The third (and most provocative) essay titled Social Norms, Illegitimacy, and Liberty was by Carissa Mulder3. Carissa argues that “America is suffering from an illegitimacy crisis.” Drawing on evidence that compares the life outcomes of children from married families versus children from unmarried families, the essay argues that people from higher socio-economic groups are more likely to marry before having children compared to those from lower socio-economic groups due to the presence of social norms/expectations, which are absent among the lower class (note: the essay uses US data and focuses solely on the US).

Social norms can only exist if there are consequences for violating them” argues Carissa. “Conforming to these behaviours results in societal approval. On the other hand, people must experience negative consequences for violating these norms if they are to be effective.

In an issue as complex as this, it is far easier to diagnose the problem than it is to prescribe the right solution – a point that came through clearly in the subsequent discussion. The essay offers some suggestions (with examples) but struggles to reach a practical path for progress, partly due to the complexity of the problem and partly due to the limited space available (the maximum word count for essays was 1500 words). The following paragraph offers some broad-brush suggestions:

Elites should preach what they practise: present the picture of a married couple raising their biological children as the paradigmatic example of the good life; be explicit about why fathers are important; emphasise the benefits to children in terms of staying in school, avoiding abuse, avoiding drugs, and avoiding involvement with the justice system. People who are married and those delaying childbearing until marriage should be frank about why they are doing so. This should be done in a sensitive manner. But sheepishly muttering the truth, rather than explaining it in a straightforward manner, doesn’t make it any less true. It just means that those who most need a clear plan of life to follow will not understand it.

It may be tempting to see this essay – that essentially advocates marriage as a prerequisite for having children – as a classic right-of-centre, pro-marriage argument the like of which is familiar among American conservatism. With this in mind, it’s notable that the essay steers clear of the familiar anti-government, pro-individual liberty arguments that one might expect. Indeed the essay argues that the government can play an active role in providing a solution, citing the example of the US government’s “decades-long anti-tobacco campaign”, which has resulted in a dramatic fall in tobacco use, despite tobacco products remaining legal and available.

The essay concludes with a thoughtful discussion on some of the obstacles to establishing social norms. The section on virtue was particularly good: “Positive social norms often require the exercise of virtue—work, continence, delayed gratification. Virtue does not come easily to most of us. Developing virtue requires sustained effort and self-denial…So the first difficulty in establishing positive social norms lies in the difficulty of conquering ourselves.

As I have said, arriving at a practical solution to a problem such as this presents a huge challenge. The statistics on children’s outcomes highlight a serious problem requiring a serious solution. But it’s a big step to then say that marriage is therefore the right prescription for everyone who has children. Forcing (or indeed strongly encouraging) this could easily end up with a completely different set of social problems.

That said, there is a strong case for helping people understand that a two parent married couple offers the best environment for children. Providing people with the statistics on this will allow them to make informed decisions about whether or not to have children. As the essay makes clear, it’s about gradually changing social norms rather than introducing heavy-handed policies that might result in negative outcomes. In theory, this is all well and good. But devising a method to achieve it is incredibly challenging.

I encourage you to read the essays in full, which are available at the following link (Carissa’s begins on p 38).



1 Bernardo is a research associate at the Centre for Critical Thought at the University of Kent

2 Mats is a doctoral student at the Helsinki Swedish School of Economics

3 Carissa is the Special Assistant to Commissioner Peter Kirsanow of the US Commission on Civil Rights

Talk at the Brookings Institution

Last week I was in the US and spent time in Washington DC, Boston, and New York. I gave several talks and hosted various meetings including giving a talk and moderating a panel session at the Brookings Institution (video below).

The subject of the discussion was “Opportunity and Prosperity” and the four panellists were: Carol Graham (Brookings Institution), John Prideaux (The Economist), Richard Reeves (Brookings Institution), and Charles Murray (American Enterprise Institute).


This event page on the Brookings Institution website provides more detail about the event:

Recent Media Coverage

Nathan Gamester - Prosperity Index 2013 cropped

Over the last few weeks I have spoken to many journalists about the latest edition of the Prosperity Index. The global coverage has been extensive and so a full run down would be difficult. However, I thought I’d pull together a selection of articles either that I’ve authored or in which I’m quoted.

  • Four Major Changes to Global Prosperity
    Harvard Business Review (link)

It was Abraham Maslow who gave us that famous observation — “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  We all understand the implication: Anyone attempting to solve an ambiguous problem should start out in possession of a broad set of tools. It is curious, then, that we continue to fall into the trap of…

  • How Prosperous is the United States?  
    Foreign Policy, Democracy Lab (link)

The results are in! The Legatum Institute has just launched the 2013 Prosperity Index, a broad measurement of national success that looks beyond GDP. Norway tops the rankings (for the fifth year running) followed by Switzerland in second place and Canada in third. The United States ranks outside the top ten, placing 11th overall…

Continue reading

Republicans Can Learn from the CSJ

Commentary CoverBack in February I posted some thoughts on an essay published in Commentary Magazine by Mike Gerson and Peter Wehner called ‘How to Save the Republican Party’. At the time I also submitted a letter to the Editor of Commentary Magazine picking up on the suggestion that the Centre for Social Justice could provide a model for the US.

The letter has now been published in the June 2013 edition of the magazine and I have reprinted it here:

To the Editor:

IN THEIR superb essay, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner highlight the considerable challenges for Republicans. As the authors state, the current troubles are not simply the result of a communications problem. In some key areas, policy needs updating, too. The big question is how.

In the final section of their essay, Gerson and Wehner suggest that a British think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), could provide the answer for the GOP.

The CSJ has been one of the most influential think tanks in the UK in the last decade. It was founded by the former leader of the Conservative Party (and current secretary of state for work and pensions) Iain Duncan Smith, following his 2002 visit to a deprived housing estate in Glasgow where he saw firsthand the damaging effects of poverty. Duncan Smith and the CSJ focused their work on overcoming the “pathways to poverty”: family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependence, indebtedness, and addictions. What accounted for the CSJ’s success and what can the GOP learn?

First, all findings and recommendations from the CSJ are firmly rooted in evidence, including the use of thorough public polling. The 2007 report Breakthrough Britain, for example, included two waves of polling, which collected the opinions of almost 50,000 people. In an era of pontificating and punditry when evidence can be relegated below opinion, this approach is powerful.

Second, the CSJ is a superb example of how politicians and policymakers can make the most of their time in opposition. The result is that once the Conservatives were back in government, crucial reforms were pre-packaged and ready to go. This gave the party a huge head start on the current welfare reforms that are being introduced in the UK (led by Duncan-Smith).

Third, the CSJ is a conservative organization with conservative beliefs and principles. However, it has never been bound by partisanship or tribalism. When the Labour Party was in government, the CSJ was actively engaged in working together with Labour MPs to see their policies implemented. Perhaps the best example of this approach is seen in the 2008 report Early Intervention, co-written with Labour MP Graham Allen. This report led to all of the main party leaders’ signing up to the new social policy of “Early Intervention.” This willingness to reach across the aisle has given the CSJ a coalition of supporters from different political spheres.

If it is to change in any meaningful way, the Republican Party must resist the temptation to do what many political parties do following defeat: repeat more loudly the same failed policies under the assumption that the people simply didn’t hear the message the first time around.

The Washington D.C. think tank scene is highly competitive. If, however, there is space for one more, modelling it on the Centre for Social Justice would be an excellent starting point. And the good news is that work has already begun at state level. The Georgia Center for Opportunity seems to be following the CSJ model. Perhaps it will be only a matter of time before we see this scaled up to the national level.

Nathan Gamester
Legatum Institute, London


Commentary Magazine provides space for the authors of the original essay to also post their response to the published letters. Concerning my letter, Mike Gerson and Peter Wehner said this:

And we thank Nathan Gamester for his insightful letter on the Centre for Social Justice. We’re great admirers of the CSJ, and we believe there is much the Republican Party can learn from it.