Although his name has become a shorthand hiss across the political spectrum, fired FBI director James Comey doesn’t present as an inherently interesting guy. That seems to be part of his appeal.
Comey, whom Trump recently dubbed the “worst FBI director in history,” is a center-right believer in the innate goodness of America’s law enforcement institutions, and possesses the affable demeanor of a little league coach, or a generic provider-type leaning casually over a barbeque in an Old Navy commercial. If I were to write a script for a movie about the life of James Comey, which I would find unpleasant, it would include wholesome lines like “These brussels sprouts are delicious, Patrice,” and “Say hi to your mom and dad for me, kiddo.”
The most interesting thing about James Comey is how wildly attractive these generic qualities have apparently become to a certain swathe of anti-Trump America, even amidst his very mixed record on Bush-era surveillance and torture programs, decisions he made leading up to the 2016 election, and his feelings on mass incarceration and law enforcement in general. Reputationally, he is still seen by many as independent-minded and in possession of some semblance of a moral code, which, though not necessarily rare qualities in a human being, sets him apart from many of the other political celebrities we’ve met in the Trump era. Pounded daily by the juvenile chaos and corruption of the Trump administration, we appear to have invented ourselves a new daddy.
The book tour for A Higher Loyalty, Comey’s highly publicized autobiography, officially kicked off on Wednesday at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York City. People waited in line outside for hours to secure wristbands. As I made my way into the back of the event space, the growing crowd sat patiently in their seats while a singer-songwriter gurgled softly over the loudspeaker. I found my place behind the chairs, where a woman who was sitting on the floor quickly made it clear that I was impeding her view and would need to immediately sit down. I got up a few minutes later to stretch, then accidentally sat back down on top of her legs, which she had moved. She gasped at me.
My attention was mainly focused on this intensifying relationship until Comey came up the escalator, to wild cheers and iPhone flashes. It struck me as similar to a Lil Yachty meet and greet I’d once attended, except the crowd skewed about 40 years older and the subject of our rapt attention was a middle-aged white man recalling how he briefed Donald Trump on the pee tape. As he took the stage, my new friend pushed past me to take a selfie with Comey in the background.
“So why did I write this book? I was fired,” Comey said, to raucous laughter. But also, he explained, “I worry that today in our public life we don’t have a good picture of what ethical leadership should be.”
To a mind warped by the clownishness of the Trump era, Comey’s pleasant, didactic stodginess clearly fills some kind of structural vacuum, though his record includes items not entirely unaligned with the MAGA platform, such as internal allegations of islamophobia at the FBI and the personal belief that viral videos of police brutality lead to a spike in crime. With his bestselling book, however, the former FBI director is pandering, fairly successfully, to a sudden widespread lust for eating one’s peas. But even here, audience members would not find respite from the divisions of the day, because a media blitz enshrining normalcy isn’t a stand-in for actual normalcy, and Comey remains, above all, a flashpoint.
As he began to speak, a disturbance erupted in the back of the room that ended, rather mysteriously, with a woman yelling “FUCKING FAT SLOB!”, though to whom she directed that statement remains unclear. Later, after recalling various anecdotes and lessons from the book, Comey began to take questions. A heckler, revealed to be conspiracy theorist and former Project Veritas pseudo-journalist Laura Loomer, asked: “How is it ethical to brief the president on an unverifiable and salacious dossier?” The audience erupted into boos and yelling. She was escorted out, screaming, “You’re gonna get prosecuted, Comey, you’re gonna get locked up!”
“Good going, Laura!” a guy behind me hooted, holding a video camera. After quietly muttering to himself about Hillary’s emails, he, too, would eventually start shouting about Andrew McCabe, and was ushered out of the room by a fast-moving horde of besuited men.
Comey, a mild expression on his face, remarked good humoredly that he would switch to notecards. The audience laughed, order was restored. The questions remained friendly, warm as a bath: Comey’s biggest regret regarding the 2016 election, we learned, is that he wasn’t able to explain his actions better. If someone had to play him in a movie—well, he’d prefer that didn’t happen, but his kids like Kyle Chandler. He was “shocked” to have been asked for loyalty by the President of the United States. Someone next to me murmured appreciatively.
“Take comfort in law enforcement,” Comey instructed.
After the event ended, it was clear that some had achieved catharsis.
One attendee had initially been unconvinced of Comey’s merits, he told me, but “everything I heard was really decent tonight.” An Australian sex therapist, he was here on vacation; James Comey’s book tour had made the list of essential sights.
“It’s always interesting to see that there’s one voice out there in the wilderness who’s speaking the truth,” a woman told me as the audience filed out. She had enjoyed the event. “It’s exciting to be in the presence of that voice if you can be.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Laura Loomer is no longer with Project Veritas.