James Comey wants everyone to think he’s a good boy.
A really good boy.
Critics of the FBI director fired last year have scoured Comey’s new book, “A Higher Loyalty,” for signs of any animus or pettiness on the part of the author toward Donald Trump, the president who canned him.
Such signs can be found, but there are fewer of them than one might expect from the media coverage accompanying book’s release a few days ago.
To be sure, there are quick references to Trump’s small hands, his raccoon-in-reverse eye sockets whitened from hours on the tanning bed and the architectural exertion that is the president’s coiffure.
But they come late — more than 225 pages into the book’s 276 pages — and Comey doesn’t linger over them.
That’s because, however much those passages may have enraged the president, Comey’s book isn’t about Donald Trump.
It’s about James Comey and his lonesome quest to validate his own rectitude.
Comey’s critics refer to this as his “sanctimoniousness,” his desire to elevate himself above others by establishing a holier-than-thou posture. In the book, Comey balks at this assessment.
Up to a point, he’s correct to do so.
He does not think he is better than others because he knows more than they do.
Rather, he wants others to understand the discomfort, even pain, he feels in pursuit of truth or justice or some other higher calling. His tale is one of a man who aspires to be pure of heart suffering in the service of a great or noble duty.
Time and again in the book, Comey writes of instances in which he is the only one around attuned to a moral imperative. Over and over – even with presidents he says he likes, such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama – Comey in his telling must take a lonely stand in defense of virtue.
Disaster may follow in the wake of some of Comey’s actions or decisions, but, he implies, he cannot be held responsible for the consequences that followed them because he experienced such anguish along the way. His travails inoculate him from moral accountability.
Comey thinks this separates him from Donald Trump.
He’s wrong about that.
Comey’s self-absorption is almost as great as that of the president with whom he now clashes. Their strains of narcissism differ in nature and degree, but both men seem to spend most of their time swimming in the seas of themselves.
Trump’s obsession is with his bottomless appetites — for attention, perhaps for sex, definitely for validation as a mighty, mighty man. He hungers to be a kind of pagan god, one the people worship and fear in equal measure.
Comey’s preoccupation is the state of his virtue. In a guilty world, he wants to be the one innocent man. He seeks affirmation, over and over, that he has washed clean any stains upon his soul.
He writes in “A Higher Loyalty” about the bruises left upon his conscience by youthful lies about a fictitious college basketball career and standing silent while others bullied college classmates. He healed the wounds to his sense of self, he suggests, through acts of contrition that were almost theatrical in nature.
If Trump aspires to be an awe-inspiring deity, Comey seems to long to be Job, a man whose suffering allows God to challenge the devil.
Though it’s easier to sympathize with Comey’s lust to be virtuous than it is Trump’s campaign to make lust a virtue, the ultimate effect of each men’s compulsive soul-gazing (in Comey’s case) or navel-gazing (in Trump’s) is the same.
Both think the unique nature of their beings absolves them of responsibility for any damage that follows in their wake.
Donald Trump and James Comey.
One glories in being a bad boy.
The other wants everyone to think of him as a good boy.
Their private dramas ensnare both them and the nation they, bad boy and good boy, say they love.
JOHN KRULL is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFilecom, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.