The umpires


James B. Comey has written the Washington Book of the Moment, but he clearly does not want “A Higher Loyalty” to simply be one more Washington book of the moment. This is no “Game Change” or, God forbid, “Fire and Fury,” insider tales gauged by the scores they settle, nuggets they unearth and screenplays they elicit. One look at its austere cover and ponderous subtitle and you know this is meant as a lasting, highbrow work — a big-think story of values and institutions clashing with tribalism and self-interest in Washington.

Running through the book, a sort of geek chorus, is Comey’s doctrine of “ethical leadership,” an often preachy and sometimes profound collection of principles that he believes should govern those who govern. “A Higher Loyalty” is the brand extension of James Comey: the upright citizen turned philosopher, the lawman as thought leader. “Values — like truth, integrity, and respect for others, to name just a few — serve as external reference points for ethical leaders to make decisions,” Comey writes. “Ethical leaders choose a higher loyalty to those core values over their own personal gain.”

I am certainly not the first to make this observation, but Comey effuses self-regard. Unethical leaders, like Donald Trump, value loyalty above “truth, integrity, and respect for others”. Ethical leaders, like James Comey, adopt the opposite mentality. So far, so good. But Comey’s is a narrow conception of ethical philosophy. It is not enough to speak truth to power, to be a man of integrity, to abide by the Golden Rule: one must also be a neutral arbiter. Carlos Lozada, author of the Comey book review excerpted above, quotes Comey talking about “serving institutions I love precisely because they play no role in politics, because they operate independently of the passions of the electoral process.” Politicians warp the truth for self-serving reasons; Comey claims to be above all that.

The perspective is remarkably similar, if not identical, to two other sets of actors in the political sphere: journalists and judges. Let’s start with the first. Jay Rosen, a media critic who works for NYU, popularized the phrase “The View from Nowhere”, describing the attempts of journalists to present themselves as post-partisan, neutral observers:

In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.

What’s interesting about this trifecta is that each of the objectives are in tension with one another. Positioning oneself between polarized extremes (“clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right”) does not serve as a prophylactic against charges of bias; it merely ensures that such charges will come from both sides, not just one. It doesn’t guarantee “universal legitimacy” or “authority” either. If that were the case, CNN would truly be the most trusted name in news, as opposed to the channel that people watch out of boredom at the airport or the doctor’s office.

A recent example of the perniciousness of the View from Nowhere is the New York Times’s social media policy. In essence, this new policy forbids journalists from expressing any views that might even be construed as political, all in an effort to preserve the New York Times’s reputation:

In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts the Times’s journalistic reputation.

Our journalists should be especially mindful of appearing to take sides on issues that the Times is seeking to cover objectively.


If you are linking to other sources, aim to reflect a diverse collection of viewpoints. Sharing a range of news, opinions or satire from others is usually appropriate. But consistently linking to only one side of a debate can leave the impression that you, too, are taking sides.

By this standard, I suppose, Trump was being neutral at his Charlottesville press conference when he claimed that “both sides”, the Nazis and the “bad dudes on the other side”, were equally to blame for the violence that day.

What’s strange to me is this: the people who believe most strongly that non-partisanship is an intrinsic value are also the people who obsess over politicians’ opinions about them. The same social media policy quotes New York Times reporter Peter Baker:

It’s important to remember that tweets about President Trump by our reporters and editors are taken as a statement from The New York Times as an institution, even if posted by thosewho do not cover him. The White House doesn’t make a distinction. In this charged environment, we all need to be in this together.

The Times and Comey are rather similar in this respect. Despite their protestations, they are not driven by “truth, integrity, and respect for others”. The only respect they care about is what others give them; their animating passion is their own overweening self-regard. Dean Baquet at the Times wants to preserve what’s left of the Times’s “universal legitimacy”. James Comey wants to do the same for the FBI. And both actors seem to believe that the route to such legitimacy is to insulate oneself from political criticism through careful posturing. In the Times’s case, this is a matter of withdrawing from the public sphere, of expressing no opinion in case anyone is offended. In Comey’s case, this consists of a weird sort of political prognostication:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But do you think that the F.B.I. would be in better shape today, the institution you love, would be in better shape today if you had simply put out that one line statement, “We decline to prosecute”?

JAMES COMEY: I don’t know. I’ve asked myself that a million times. It’s hard– hindsight is a wonderful thing. I’m not sure that it would have. And– here’s why I say that. Because we would’ve taken a tremendous amount of criticism for being fixed. The system fixed, no detail. And I still would’ve been dragged up to Capitol Hill all that summer to justify the F.B.I.’s work.

And so surely, I would’ve said something about how we did the work. And so I– I’d kinda be in the same place, except I’d be playing defense like a cornerback backpedaling. There’d be this tremendous hit the institution would take. I’d be trying to explain to people, “No, no, we did it in a good way. We did it in a good way.” And none of it, by the way, would change what I faced in late October. Even if we’d just done the one liner, we’d still have the nightmare of late October.

Notice how little Comey mentions the ethical values he purports to hold so dear, or the standard operating procedures of the FBI (which, presumably, are designed to uphold those values). Instead, what shines through are Comey’s worries about politics. The “tremendous amount of criticism” he might be subjected to. The prospect of being “dragged up to Capitol Hill”. “Playing defense like a cornerback backpedaling”. The “tremendous hit the institution would take”. And having to “explain to people” — specifically, politicians and voters — who would have been upset at his decision.

All of this reminds me of Chief Justice John Roberts, of all people. Roberts famously described himself as an umpire:

Judges and justices are servants of the law, not the other way around. Judges are like umpires. Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them.

The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules.

But it is a limited role. Nobody ever went to a ball game to see the umpire.

Now, I’ve watched plenty of baseball, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that umpires are not supposed to be swayed by the home crowd. The values of fairness and integrity are supposed to trump such partisan considerations. Comey would see himself as an umpire. So would Dean Baquet. Thus I found it curious that such high-minded views were tossed aside during the most politically charged decision of Roberts’s court, NFIB vs. Sebelius, the Obamacare ruling. Jeffrey Toobin reports:

Roberts was a conservative and lifelong partisan Republican. … Roberts had dual goals for his tenure as chief justice – to push his own ideological agenda but also to preserve the Court’s place as a respected final arbiter of the nation’s disputes. … A complete nullification of the health care law on the eve of a presidential election would put the Court at the center of the campaign … Democrats, and perhaps Obama himself, would crusade against the Court, eroding its moral if not its legal authority. … Gradually, then with more urgency, Roberts began looking for a way out.

For a Supreme Court Justice, there is no such thing as just “apply[ing] the rules” without “mak[ing]” them, or of having “no agenda” or “no platform”; for an FBI Director, there is no world in which one can “play no role in politics”; and for a major news organization, “taking sides” is unavoidable in present day politics. Justice and journalism impinge upon politics and therefore become political activities. The prominence of political criticism and institutional reputation in the thought processes of Roberts, Comey, and Baquet are perhaps the best evidence of this fact. (Ironically, even the analogy to an umpire itself is flawed: it is well known that umpires are swayed by the home crowd. Of course, we expect umpires to be impartial, but being cognizant of bias seems like a better route to impartiality than ignoring it altogether.)

It’s unclear if those who see themselves as umpires are trying to delude the rest of us, or whether they have merely deluded themselves. My guess is that John Roberts is part of the former group, and James Comey the latter. Focusing just on the “good faith” actors, then, I would tell Comey this: the View from Nowhere does not imply “viewlessness”. On the contrary, it is its own type of view: one that privileges avoidance of criticism and “personal gain” over “truth, integrity”, and the “ethical leadership” that we should all aspire to. Set aside the impossible goal of “universal legitimacy” and reckon with something more attainable: being fair and frank when you make a decision, not 18 months later in a tell-all book.


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