WASHINGTON -- While trying hard to be aware of the dangers facing us in "the swamp" here in our nation's capital, I have been busily perusing the literary reviews of former FBI Director James Comey's already famous book, the better to be prepared against the night crawlers and itinerant crocodiles our leader has warned us against.
Somehow I had the idea that the tell-quite-a-bit book, "A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership," was about our president, Donald J. Trump, and would help me navigate the swamp. But I'm beginning to think I was wrong. The book seems to be more revelatory of Comey himself -- and, above all, what he brings out in people.
In one review, Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada sarcastically finds a "sort of geek chorus" in Comey's continued talk about "ethical leadership." He finds an "often preachy and sometimes profound collection of principles that he believes should govern those who govern." And in another part: "Comey isn't just the kind of writer who quotes Shakespeare, but the kind who quotes himself quoting Shakespeare."
Now, the Post, as good as it is, has always had a tendency toward the smartacre, so it is not perhaps surprising that Michiko Kakutani's review for The New York Times comes across as more serious.
She writes: "The central themes that Comey returns to throughout this impassioned book are the toxic consequences of lying; and the corrosive effects of choosing loyalty to an individual over truth and the rule of law."
But later in the full-page treatment, she even dares, in a lovely, lingering paragraph, to compare the president and the director in terms of the mafia Prosecutor Comey once fought -- and whose habits he richly compares in his book to Trump's:
"Put the two men's records, their reputations, even their respective books, side by side, and it's hard to imagine two more polar opposites than Trump and Comey: They are as antipodean as the untethered, sybaritic Al Capone and the square, diligent G-man Eliot Ness in Brian De Palma's 1987 movie 'The Untouchables'; or the vengeful outlaw Frank Miller and Gary Cooper's stoic, duty-driven marshal Will Kane in Fred Zinnemann's 1952 classic 'High Noon.'"
These same obvious differences of ethical character are notable because this book is a rather clear and unbending exposition of the moral principles that should be taken for granted in both our private and public lives -- but are not. CNN, MSNBC and FOX News have had daily conflicts over the worth of the Comey book in their tiresome panels of experts, which dominate all those TV news programs without real news.
So, what is there to learn, not only from the Comey book, but from the reactions and reviews of it?
First, this is a serious book, with much to absorb, if we would. It is an autobiography of James Comey -- an intellectual train ride over his personal mountains and through his moral canyons. He is, yes, preachy, but about the right things (quoting Reinhold Niebuhr, for instance, saying "the Christian must enter the political realm" in order to keep "the strong from consuming the weak").
Some analysts have complained that he personalized his observations of Trump: the white circles under the president's eyes from his suntan goggles, the fact that Trump never laughs, and his strange responses to the Steele dossier's claim that he had two models urinate on each other in his Moscow hotel room for his pleasure. But these things can tell us a great deal about his presidency.
Second, much of the criticism is, of course, from the right, from the Trump quarter, from those who would embrace The Donald even if he seduced their own wives. To this group, Comey is a showboating, publicity-seeking liar -- and the less heard of him, the better.
But the criticism from the liberal media is more disturbing. In some papers and on TV, I see in men and women who are supposed liberals, many of them Democrats at heart or in practice, a visceral dislike of Comey. Why?
The left dislikes Comey because he is too moralistic, because they think he robbed Hillary Clinton of the presidency, and because he can understand Reinhold Niebuhr. But mostly, they can't stand all that sober faith-based talk about basic old American values. It just isn't fashionable in Democratic left circles today to talk the way Comey does.
Yet, in whatever is to come and whatever we will need to face, it is exactly James B. Comey's principles that we will need to re-embrace. Memorize them, for when the time comes.