Book review

James Comey’s explosive book about Donald Trump has the choir boy taking on the neighbourhood bully

But where are India’s own James Comeys?

James Comey, the fired FBI Director, likens US President Donald Trump to a New York mafia boss and eviscerates him in his part memoir and part setting-the-record-straight autobiography, A Higher Loyalty. A consummate insider, Comey offers a ringside view of perhaps the most tumultuous and unhinged American presidency. His account comes after the completion of Trump’s first year and close on the heels of Michael Wolff’s wicked and scandalous, Fire and Fury. The former FBI Director’s revelations are cathartic and portray a dissolute and deeply flawed President. And perhaps, in minor measure, seeks redemption for his perceived role in Hillary Clinton’s loss and Trump’s ascendancy.

Comey’s book is pure Americana: it traces an almost mythical journey, where a middle-class choir boy-turned-law-enforcer takes on a bare-knuckled, trash-talking, boorish, real estate mogul in a heroic David-meets-Goliath battle. All themes central to political and public life find themselves as characters in this political thriller. An invocation of the spirit of the Founding Fathers of America; an exhortation and adherence to ethical leadership and family values; theology as a moral force and a clarion call to conduct oneself with humility and decency; and a summon to honour the spirit and letter of the Constitution.

Why this book was written

This book would never have been written had Trump not glibly alluded to the presence of tapes recording conversations between Comey and him. Prior to that, Comey was licking his wounds and preparing for life outside of government. The potential presence of tapes winds up Comey. Questions arose.

Could a special prosecutor be appointed to investigate the hidden tapes? Could the Department of Justice subpoena them as evidence? Comey gathers his nerves, requests his friend, Columbia Law School professor, Dan Richman, to release a memo to the press authored by him in an attempt to communicate his version of events. While doing so, Comey, invoking a higher commandment, quotes Thomas Jefferson: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Comey’s infuriation with Trump was trigerred by the latter’s pursuit with an objective of leaning favourably on the Russia investigation; of absolving Trump of any wrongdoing, “letting go of Flynn” (Trump’s National Security Advisor), and implicating Clinton instead. And therein lies the rub. Trump cannot lean on an ongoing Federal investigation. This is construed as obstruction of justice and constitutes a criminal offence. And Trump apparently oversteps that code several times. After one particular call, Comey tellingly remarks to a colleague “the President called to say wassup”.

Trump continues to harangue Comey to drop the Russia investigation. The FBI Director holds his ground, which further enrages Trump, who eventually fires Comey during a field visit to a Los Angeles FBI office (he learns of the news from a TV ticker). The humiliating dismissal order commanded Comey never to step on FBI property again.

Turning point

The firing was a poetic moment. In many ways, Comey’s entire career was a preparation to cultivate a response to Trump’s transgressions. When the highest authority of the land violates a principle, how does one bring the perpetrator to book, even if that person happens to be the President?

Comey censures the incumbent US President in blistering prose throughout the book. Savour the description of the first meeting in Trump Towers: “As I was sitting there, the strangest image filled my mind. I thought of New York Mafia social clubs, an image from my days as a Manhattan federal prosecutor in the 1980s and 1990s. The Ravenite. The Palma Boys. Café Giardino.” Comey alludes to Trump, Mike Pence, Reince Priebus, Mike Flynn and Sean Spicer as the Cosa Nostra. He is convinced that Trump is enacting the Mafia playbook by getting him to become an amica nostra, a friend of Trump and Team.

One moment in Comey’s meeting with Trump was particularly lurid and macabre. It fell on him to communicate to Trump that Putin may possess video recordings of Trump cavorting with Russian hookers in Moscow. Comey realised that a video leak would irreparably damage the American Presidency. Prior to leaving for Trump Towers, Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security warns Comey in a chilling tone: “Please be careful. Be very careful.”

When Obama learnt that Comey was to break the hookers story to Trump, he furrows his brow and looks away into the distance. Even he is unable to allay Comey’s utter discomfort. The book is priceless for this chapter alone, a masterclass in observant writing fused with a sense of history. Comey paints a grim and sombre mood and felt a “strange out-of-the-body-experience” while revealing the dossier’s details to Trump.

How Comey became Comey

So, how did Comey become the conscientious person he appears to be? While his stand-off with Trump is now urban legend, his character-shaping back story is more compelling, each successive chapter of a boy-scout-with-a-spine shaping the man he eventually moulded into.

In their early childhood, Comey and his younger brother were accosted by a notorious serial killer. Comey, held to the barrel of a gun, teams up with a neighbour, calls in the police who launch a man hunt. Character-building is fortified when he discovers philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who enunciated an obligation to seek justice in a flawed world and believed that could be best sought through the instrument of government power.

Comey’s finest boss was Harry Howell – not a president or an attorney general, but a store manager – from whom he learnt about managing teams, nurturing kindness and being made to feel important. His mother, when dying of cancer, pulls out a note that Comey wrote as a child after being admonished. It precociously said: “I am sorry. I will be a great man someday.”

Comey opens himself to scrutiny and confesses to the weaknesses of being “stubborn, prideful, overconfident and driven by ego”. He is acutely aware that “ethical leaders do not run from self-criticism and don’t hide from uncomfortable questions”. He adds, “…(D)oubt, I’ve learned is wisdom. And leaders who never question their judgements are a danger to the organisation and people they lead. In some cases, they are a danger to the nation and the world”.

Reading Comey is like witnessing a pastor urging his flock to discover their moral axis in the service of a greater common good. But I experienced a strange emptiness after I put down the 277-page book. Where are the Indian Comeys and why is there a vacuum in Indian government and civil society? There are stellar individuals rendering outstanding public service, who are often shackled by the perniciousness of the Indian state.

So, the question begs itself: do strong institutions produce patriots, men and women with rectitude, who can withstand the malevolent influence of despots and bullies? Comey’s fortitude was in no small measure aided by the presence of strong and independent institutions. Recall the sketch of Lady Justice, the exemplar of moral agency of the US judicial system, fending off Trump who was metaphorically seen assaulting the Statue of Liberty.

Or, can well-meaning women and men, in the absence of institutional bulwarks, labour against the odds and forge a better nation and civil society? The jury is out on this.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, James Comey, Flatiron Books.


Venkat Eshwara is Vice President, Development, Ashoka University.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.