The day after the Treaty of Paris was signed, General George Washington walked into the Maryland State House and surrendered his commission — and command — to the Congress of the Confederation. “Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of action; and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take any leave of all the employments of public life.” He could have been king and he chose to become a farmer once again. He did so in observance of the Roman Mos Maiorum, the “custom of the ancestors.”
These were the unwritten rules of conduct and code that every Roman was expected to live by; faithfulness, piety, tradition, discipline, self-control, virtue and dignity. By no stretch of the imagination were these values consistently upheld, yet people still fought for them. Washington lived his life according to them. Our democratic republic, in many ways, is based on them. Every American president and public servant is expected to uphold them. That was before 2016 — before every unwritten rule of politics, policy, conduct, and campaigning was broken. Before the two most unlikable presidential candidates in polling history become their parties’ nominees. But what of the public servants who still held to these convictions? Or at least tried to?
When then-FBI Director James Comey woke up on July 5, 2016 he had to know his career was over. The statement he would give that afternoon, announcing clearly the factual failings of Clinton’s email security and the fact that they didn’t merit an indictment, would ensure his time in public office was at an end. With two years of his term left, he would never be appointed to another government position — no matter who won. Were it Clinton, she would never permit him to stay after his choice to publicly chastise her. Were it Trump, he wouldn’t keep him because, in his eyes, he had “saved her” from indictment. Comey has joked in interviews since then that he was doomed to “piss off” one side or the other, yet somehow he found a way to “piss off” both. This point is exactly what makes Comey unique.
The former FBI director has become the Schrodinger’s cat of the district’s consultant class. He is both the unjustly dismissed hero who refused to capitulate to Trump and the rogue moralizer who guaranteed his victory. The man who doomed Hillary’s campaign while simultaneously saving her from prison. A dangerous agitator, serving the will of Clinton, Obama and the deep state shadow government as well as a pompous ass loyal only to his own self-righteousness and virtue. Even his book, A Higher Loyalty, Truth, Lies, and Leadership, and the subsequent book tour was hotly anticipated as the reckoning of Trump, mainly by those who only months earlier considered him to have “no credibility.”
Now, the book tour is complete, Trump is still standing and the media has moved on. Most gave up trying to understand Comey and have defaulted back to the standard “he was a hack” or “he was a fool,” depending on party affiliation and, from what I can tell, tessomancy. Many people consider it a failure as the book didn’t produce the “smoking guns” or deep indictments — that it never promised to produce. Since 2016, D.C. has a habit of anointing various actors as heroes to challenge Trump, then condemning them when they fail. Yet to understand Comey, it’s necessary to view him and his book as an honest assessment of a man attempting to be honorable during one of the most dishonorable times — not as a weapon in a war against Trump.
It’s a pity so many Trump supporters dismiss Comey on sight as his book gives the most succinct and clear explanation of how the architect of Hillary Clinton’s demise was none other than Hillary herself. As Comey explains his reasoning for his controversial decision to reopen the investigation:
“In 2014, Clinton had turned over to the State Department about thirty thousand emails and deleted about thirty thousand others as personal….the Midyear (investigation) team had never been able to find Secretary Clinton’s emails from her first few months as secretary of state…if there were so-called smoking-gun emails…those emails were likely to be at the beginning of her tenure at State….but we never found those early BlackBerry emails….(Anthony) Weiner’s laptop had thousands of emails from the AT&T BlackBerry domain.”
The disgraced Anthony Weiner wouldn’t consent to his laptop being searched; meaning a search warrant was necessary. Once a judge approved it, there was a “likely” probability that the warrant would be leaked. By not saying anything after saying definitively the investigation was over, this would be “an affirmative act of concealment, which would mean the director of the FBI had misled-and was continuing to mislead-Congress and the American people.” Both Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and Attorney General Loretta Lynch were informed that he was planning on sending the letter and both, though making it clear that they disagreed, declined to meet with him, suggest alternatives, and both said it was “his call.” The letter was sent, the campaign was lost, and the finger-pointing began.
Progressives consistently claim that it was Comey’s letter that doomed her campaign. “If only he hadn’t sent that letter she would have won,” but basic heuristics and prospect theory, (with the help of Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project) show us how flawed that assumption is. People choose that decision and the moment her campaign died, but the basis for choosing it is entirely arbitrary. You could just as easily say; “if only Clinton didn’t set up a private server,” “if only Clinton didn’t delete those 30,000 emails,” “if only Weiner wasn’t a scumbag,” “if only Clinton was polling better,” “if only Clinton went to Michigan,” “if only Trump wasn’t the nominee,” “if only CNN didn’t give Trump so much free coverage,” this can, and does, go on…. The greatest irony is that, by blaming Comey’s letter for her loss, we are in effect, saying the greater evil is not the improper acts, but the investigation into the improper acts. Hardly a good standard to set. For those who say Comey sent the letter for personal gain; what did he gain?
Comey is still dismissed as overly smug, pious and sanctimonious. His constant appeals to morality have been ridiculed by most DC Insiders and that might be the saddest thing to come of this. He does moralize and writes extensively about the necessity of integrity, honor, and personal values, but is that so terrible? When did honor become hokey? Maybe the reason all this talk of principle feels like pomposity is because it’s so alien to us.
The age we live in is not one of ethics or principle. It is the pragmatist who wins. Michelle Obama’s famous proclamation “when they go low, we go high,” less than two years old, is considered an anachronism. Comey’s crime is that he articulates those unwritten rules — the codes of honor we once believed in — and, when he does, the D.C. consultant and commentator class rolls its collective eyes and asks instead for calumnies. In this world, Comey was dead on arrival, and so will every future servant who still holds the mos maiorum sacred. As Christopher Tietjen’s of Parade’s End soberly remarked;
“You see in such a world as this, an idealist -or perhaps it’s only a sentimentalist-must be stoned to death. He makes the others so uncomfortable….He haunts them at their golf.”
Andrew Shirley is a historian and a political consultant.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.
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