Opinion

Comey's big interview was a masterclass in civics

The former FBI director's sit-down with George Stephanopoulos probably disappointed news junkies. But it might have had a huge impact on casual readers.

Former FBI Director James Comey's talk with George Stephanopoulos — his first televised interview after being fired by President Trump — was disappointing on the merits. For those of us who follow politics closely, he didn't say much that was new. But as television events go, it was pedagogically brilliant. And at this delicate juncture in American history, that may matter more.

In the interview, Comey comes across as a Forrest Gump figure with brains; he's careful to portray himself as someone who's worked with several administrations, and investigated everyone from the mafia and Martha Stewart to Whitewater and Bill Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich and Pincus Green. He engagingly describes a showdown with Dick Cheney et al over the legality of surveillance techniques that culminates in multiple figures (including then-FBI Director Bob Mueller) rushing to John Ashcroft's hospital bed. It's a complicated story, but he tells it well, slightly decentering himself. The interview weaves parts of Comey's biography into a much larger story about how America is supposed to work, how it's failed in the past and righted itself, and how dangerously it's listing now.

It's a very particular version of that history, to be sure. Comey is hardly agenda-free. But he puts forth a compelling account of government work that incidentally models — for casual viewers who might not have considered this before — what the concrete limits of being a human being in government mean in practice: You certainly don't discuss classified information with your wife, Comey signals, but her unsolicited advice to not become "the torture guy" might affect you. He draws a sharp distinction between this sort of thing and Trump's "hope" — expressed to Comey after ordering Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions to leave the room — that Comey will let the FBI's probe of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn go.

That's a fairly subtle point, but it's actually essential for anyone who's trying to understand these scandals but hasn't considered how the theoretical separation of the FBI from the White House must express itself socially. And that kind of synthesis has the potential to be enormously persuasive to someone who doesn't quite understand what's happening — or who just doesn't get why the president talking to the FBI director alone seems shady.

So no, the Comey interview didn't offer much that was new (with a few exceptions). But novelty might be overrated in this climate; it often compounds the confusion it's intended to combat. Newshounds are understandably hunting for the next big story or the major pull-quote. Early reports on Comey's interview, for instance, focused on his statement that Trump is "morally unfit" to be president. And sure, yes, that's noteworthy. But this exhausting emphasis on interpersonal drama (which this president foments — his habit of taking everything personally is infectious) misses the larger purpose this interview served. I know I started off comparing him to Forrest Gump, but frankly, watching this felt like watching Mr. Rogers; it was that baldly educational.

(Cannily so. I mean, Comey casually introduces Bob Mueller as a tangential but vaguely heroic figure in a totally unrelated story!)

Whatever your opinion of Comey might be, what he did last night was rhetorically quite savvy. That early segment on his boyhood was a textbook example of how to remind Americans of everything that America used to be (mom's bad haircuts, dads who made a point of being home for dinner every night). It steals Trump's empty nostalgia back from him and populates it with something that feels solid by comparison.

It's startling to realize that the crumbling Trump administration has accidentally enrolled Americans in a crash course in civics. This is more out of desperation than interest: As electorates go, ours tends to be a lazy, uninvolved bunch; historically speaking, the appearance (or even just the assertion) of competence satisfied us even when it really shouldn't. Those endowed with comfort and privilege didn't have to know what ambassadors did, or how the FBI typically deals with the Department of Justice, or what the general rules were for EPA administrators, or why a national security adviser probably shouldn't have had to retroactively register as a foreign agent for the Turkish government.

That's no longer the case. Suddenly, Americans exchanging insults with each other over Twitter and Facebook are having to learn the etiquette of how a president and an FBI director ought to interact. And why — despite the disregard Trump supporters profess for things like manners — etiquette genuinely matters when a command is (for example) made in the form as a request. To return to an event I mentioned earlier, when James Comey was in charge of the FBI, which was investigating Flynn, Trump allegedly said to Comey, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."

The stakes of this conversation are enormous: One case for obstruction depends on how you interpret it. Trump's defenders will maintain that he meant nothing by this. What could be wrong, they exclaim, with hoping? It is normal, they contend, for the president to "hope" out loud (to the man responsible) that someone who lied to the FBI would escape justice.

That's likely why Comey told the story he did about his reluctance to go after Martha Stewart on the grounds that she was a celebrity: He was teaching a lesson about why it's crucial to punish people who lie to the FBI, and why it's important to do so across the board. He prosecuted an African-American minister who lied to the FBI, he recalls:

"Why would I treat Martha Stewart differently than that guy?" And the reason would only be because she's rich and famous and because I'll be criticized for it. The truth matters in the criminal justice system. And if it's going to matter, we must prosecute people who lie in the middle of an investigation. [Comey]

Comey is making a practical (and punitive) as well as a philosophical case for truth-telling. The point, for a public that has had to quickly learn an awful lot about the expected relationship between the DOJ, the FBI, and the White House, is to hear a story that compares how other administrations did things and how this one is doing them differently. And why that matters. Comey sees himself as a pedagogue. And he's pretty good at it: Reflecting on that conversation about Flynn, he carefully destroys Trump's last possible defense — that he was a "novice" who just didn't know he was acting inappropriately — by very reasonably pointing out that if Trump had no idea it was inappropriate to "hope" Comey would drop the investigation, he wouldn't have sent Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions out of the room before he asked.

Look: In moments of chaos, the media's obsession with novelty might be maladaptive. People want reassurance. They want roadmaps. So if the idea is to actually get the public to take things in, the newshound's approach probably won't work. Anyone who's ever taught knows that the average person processes things differently than the expert, and the average American lacks the time and the interest to assimilate each new piece of breaking news into a coherent story of an administration in crisis. Nor, crucially, is anyone asking them to. That doesn't mean breaking news doesn't matter. It does mean that the average American's impression of the political situation is piecemeal, anxious, and catastrophically lacking in context and detail.

That may be inevitable at a time when a single day contains multiple news cycles, but it also presents an opportunity that Comey embraced. Whether the chaos of this administration stems from constant distraction or malicious misdirection is unclear. What is clear is that people are groping desperately for a synthesis of some kind — any kind — and that's exactly what he delivered.

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