September 01, 2018 Advance Sheet

The Tragedy of James Comey: A Lawyer’s Tale

The former FBI director's story provides lessons for all lawyers.

Robert E. Shapiro

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It is customary in modern times to refer to almost any great sadness as a “tragedy.” Any experience with a significant quantum of undifferentiated misery, whether from death, loss, or physical or mental suffering, is deemed sufficient to meet the requirements of the term. The media, always on the lookout for drama, grabs our attention almost daily with this kind of “tragedy,” no less heartrending for being commonplace. And those suffering the effects seem almost too eager to play the expected role. Today’s pain and misery becomes tomorrow’s eyewitness account or true-life testimony fit for a Today show vignette.

For the ancients, by contrast, a tragedy was a far less common and considerably more complex phenomenon. It featured unusual people in unusual predicaments whose thoughts and actions somehow provided singular insight into, even instruction about, the nature of human life. Not least of these was the imperfectness of human judgment and the uncertainty of a world populated by gods or dominated by fortune. So Sophocles’ tragic tale, Oedipus Tyrannus, portrayed a man of great brilliance and power defeated by his “hubris,” which misled him into believing he could, through his own very great intelligence alone, think at the level of the gods and escape an oracular utterance that he would kill his father and marry his mother. His very attempt to avoid his supposed fate actually made it come true. The lesson lay not just in the insufficiency of human (as opposed to divine) intelligence, but perhaps also in the grave danger of believing in prophecies in the first place.

At first blush, the report of the Justice Department’s inspector general (IG) about the handling of the Hillary Clinton email controversy by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would hardly seem to measure up to such lofty standards. Indeed, the report immediately fell afoul of the kind of banal partisan bickering that has become a staple of contemporary American politics. Amidst the already tawdry public sniping between President Trump and former FBI Director James Comey, the president labeled it a vindication of sorts, suggesting it somehow exonerated him in the Russia probe, which it did not even purport to address. His opponents, meanwhile, saw it as proof that the FBI was not guilty of political bias because of the report’s conclusion that many of Comey’s decisions were “not unreasonable,” even though it also blasted many of his subordinates for being far from so professionally scrupulous.

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