The 21st century has put to rest Marx's dictum that history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce. It was a farce when former FBI Director James Comey went in the span of some six months from being regarded as a selfless public servant who refused to cave to right-wing pressure and charge Hillary Clinton over her damned emails to being excoriated as a crypto-fascist spook who swung the election to Donald Trump to becoming the unofficial leader of the #Resistance after the president fired him last year. Now the saga continues, and this time it's a Y.A. fantasy novel.
The question is which sort of Y.A. fantasy novel. Does it belong to that subgenre, the rise of which I find more than a bit creepy, in which desperate teenagers fight for their lives in mazes in order to win a prize promised by the dystopian corporate overlords (i.e., the 2016 election)? Or is it one of those books in which a talented adolescent confronts a mean wizard? Certainly it is easy to imagine Lord Voldemort encouraging one or more Russian witches to urinate on some mythical item and later trying to convince Harry Potter that he hadn't done it. In any case, the most important generic criterion of having a bland but noble white protagonist onto whom we can project all our hopes, dreams, and anxieties has certainly been met.
How many books has Comey himself even read, not counting his own? I would put the figure as high as two, unless all the individual volumes from Harry Potter are to be counted separately, in which case it must be around eight or nine. That leaves only Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, whom our hero claimed in a recent New York Times interview as one of three writers, living or dead, he'd like to invite to a fictitious "literary" dinner party. He goes on to suggest that this COO of a rapacious tech company is comparable to Martin Luther King, Jr., in her influence upon the American imagination.
Somehow it is only the third or fourth most embarrassing thing in the interview.
Even though we are pretty sure he has only seen the movie, we could have already guessed that Comey's favorite literary character is Atticus Finch. But did he really need to say it? Worse, though, was his bald-faced attempt to convince his auditor that he is a fan of Reinhold Niebuhr's long, calm, boring books about Being a Good Citizen and God and that sort of thing. No one, not even in the halcyon days of Ike's presidency, has ever read any of them, at least not all the way through. The fact that he named his Twitter account after this extremely dated figure tells us that Comey is the sort of person who wishes that circa 1955 Time magazine were the standard by which all of American culture is judged.
These observations are prompted, of course, by the imminent publication of Comey's memoir, a book that exists to be scooped out and teased and tweeted about by unfunny television hosts. No one who is literate would ever dream of opening it. I say this not only because it will be atrociously written, but also because the excerpts quoted in various highbrow newspapers have already told us everything we need to know about the book and its author.
"Anyone claiming to write a book about ethical leadership can come across as presumptuous, even sanctimonious," Comey writes near the beginning, as if by acknowledging at the outset that the ensuing 300 pages of A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership are full of groan-inducing priggishness. In the excerpts he writes a tut-tutting sort of public-relations English: Everything his enemies do is "concerning"; the dilemmas in which he and his fellow public servants find themselves leave them "tortured," the poor things; the answer to every crisis is for good people to be "principled," by which he seems to mean being the sort of person who drones on about having, well, principles. In what will almost certainly prove the book's most characteristic passage, President Obama tells a sobbing Comey that of course he still likes him.
"Boy, were those words I needed to hear ... I'm just trying to do the right thing."
"I know," Obama said. "I know." [The Washington Post]
Comey's contempt for the rest of us here is staggering. What does it feel like to be the sort of person who expects experienced readers to believe that the above exchange actually took place? Imagine what it must be like to think that getting paid millions of dollars to take a year and write a gossipy self-help tome ("neither a pure leadership book nor a pure memoir," he has helpfully explained, but a "a story-driven book that teaches in a subtle way") full of unverifiable micro-revelations concerning a well-known vulgarian's crude habits and patterns of speech and obsessions with his own image is a profile in courage. If he really believes that the future of our democracy depends upon the revelation of certain details in this book, why did he wait to release them until now? If it doesn't, why not dial down the urgency a bit?
One more point. You would think that a book that aspires to the tradition of anodyne mostly forgotten mid-century Christian apologists for democracy would contain fewer references to urine. Because a few of us care, like the author, about principles we will refrain from naming the waste material we think he's full of.