The Comey in Me

This could have been me.

This was the week of Comey.

I listen to a lot of podcasts as I'm driving to and from school, taking a walk, working out, doing chores, running errands, anything that doesn't suffer from having my brain taking in information at the same time. Many of those podcasts are political, and those that aren't explicitly political are still newsy enough to bring in politics from time to time. For the last week, they've been dominated by James Comey, either discussing the contents of his new book or interviewing him about it. Much of what I've heard has been critical of the choices he made to reveal information about the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state, and not to reveal information about the probe into Russian involvement in the Trump campaign. The case can be made that these two decisions turned an election that should've been an easy win for Clinton into a narrow victory for Trump, thus throwing the entire nation into the chaos of the Trump Era.

In his book and many interviews, Comey has been steadfast in his conviction that these decisions were made correctly given the information available to him at the time. It's not that he's happy with the results: his book is primarily an indictment of Donald Trump, a corrupt, dishonest, narcissistic bully who, in a truly just nation, would've been behind bars years ago for running an international money laundry for war criminals and racketeers, and doing it so ineptly that only a far greater ineptitude on the part of white collar crime enforcers has prevented exactly that outcome. No, Comey is no fan of our current President, and to the extent that his actions made his election possible, he will rue them for the remainder of his life. The case he makes, both in print and in interviews, is that however the election came out, he really had no choice. His integrity demanded he inform Congress, and the American people, that Clinton had been sloppy in her handling of classified communications, and that, as the election drew near, more emails had been discovered. On the other hand, the rules of the agency he served kept him for being transparent about the gathering clouds over the Trump campaign. Regardless of whether these decisions contributed to the outcome, he stands by them.

Listening to Comey, and to the commentators I subscribe to as they excoriate him, I've felt an uneasy kinship: I get it. I know why he did what he did, and much deeper than that, why he can't apologize for it. Ends do not justify means. The ends of keeping a liar out of office did not justify lying about his misgivings about that liar's opponent, and once the precedent had been established for keeping Congress informed, did not justify concealing new information about the investigation, no matter how inopportune the timing of that revelation. It's a corollary to the maxim Clinton imperfectly applied to her campaign of "when they go low, we go high": no political outcome is worth giving up one's principles. Or, to quote a political philosopher from the first century, "What does it profit [people] if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?" (Luke 9:25)

Like Comey, I have an almost pathological dedication to integrity. I've made decisions based on principles that have led to results I wish I could reverse: hurt feelings, lost opportunities, years of sadness and pain. I've made these decisions because ethically, morally, I could see no alternative. A lie here, a concession there, could've prevented suffering for myself and people I cared about, and might have kept others from exacerbating the hurt with their own choices. And yet, I really didn't see an alternative: act in any other way, and I would be untrue to myself and all that I stand for. Tell a white lie, fudge a result, play a political game, and however great the benefits to all involved in these situations, I would've been haunted by the decision to abandon principles, to justify means with ends.

This dedication to integrity has a price. It's one of the main reasons ministry turned out not to be the right profession for me: successful pastors are politicians, doling out truth sparingly, withholding it when it may, in their opinion, hurt more than it helps. It's why, for all my fascination with politics, I could never be a politician: progress is an incremental thing, achieved through half-measures, compromise, and quid pro quo. I'm too much the Eagle Scout to abide the chicanery essential to political success, however desirable the outcome might be.

The price of such integrity is a career of missed opportunities. For Barack Obama, it was a Presidency that, while scoring higher than any previous administration I can remember in ethics, accomplished little on the policy front, and ultimately ceded Congress to the foxier GOP. For James Comey, it was a likely permanent fall from grace: I can't imagine him heading up a federal agency again, with all the bridges he's burned.

And here's the worst part: as much as I insist on my own integrity, and Comey insists on his, I don't think either of us faults politicians for holding themselves to far less rigid standards of conduct. I understand and accept that political progress comes incrementally. To ultimately achieve universal health care, a given in every thriving democracy but ours, we first had to cobble together the chimera that is Obamacare. We'll get to socialized medicine eventually, but it will be through pruning and refining the transitional system that is the only lasting accomplishment of the Obama Administration. Similarly, it took decades of half-measures like civil unions to arrive at marriage equality for same-gender couples. The legalization of marijuana is also coming one state at a time. Civil rights expansions never happen as rapidly as they should, given the clear language of our founding documents.

There are times when people of principle stand in the way of progress. As one United Methodist district secretary told me, "Sometimes people have to die for the church to move on." My own principles are conservative in their fixation on truth-telling. That appears to be James Comey's problem, as well. Others are stuck on principles that American culture is outgrowing: racial and sexual purity, gender roles, traditional family values, the role of religion in public policy, the right to gun ownership, how open the borders of our nation should be. I can see a time when white nationalism will have withered away once and for all, but it may take the death of a political generation for that to happen. As the millennial generation matures and comes into political power, I can't imagine politicians like Trump ever again ascending to power.

Getting there any sooner will necessitate compromise. And that's why we have politicians, people who, unlike James Comey or yours truly, can make choices that will lead to incremental progress, can avert their eyes in the face of moral compromise that really doesn't need to be broadcast, can occasionally fudge a fact or two, or simply neglect to share one that the world is better off not knowing about--at least until the election is over.


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