Comey compares Trump to forest fire
MICHIGAN CITY – James Comey, former director of the FBI, opened the 65th season of Purdue University Northwest’s Sinai Forum before a packed house at the Stardust Events Center at Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa on Sunday.
“The Ethical Leader,” the title of Comey’s talk, was nonpartisan, but he spoke candidly of his politics during the Q&A portion of the evening.
Comey began by describing the character traits of what he believes to be an effective leader: someone who possesses the right balance of both toughness and kindness; and confidence and humility.
He recalled working as a stock clerk for grocery manager Harry Howell during his high school years, along with several other teenagers, and recounted the times his former boss figuratively “kicked us in the pants, but in an environment where we knew he cared about us.”
Toughness and kindness, each by itself, is dysfunctional, Comey said; but a leader can inspire greatness from those who follow him when the right balance is struck between the two.
“Somehow, this manager of ours made us care deeply about the grocery business and made us want to be good at it,” he said.
Working as a federal prosecutor under former U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey later in life taught Comey a lesson in balancing confidence and humility.
He remembered having interviewed with a news reporter, and the horror he felt when the reporter mistakenly referred to him in the article as the U.S. attorney. Comey said he was worried Fahey would be angry about the mischaracterization – but she simply laughed.
“She had enough confidence in herself to let me shine while she tried to guide me,” Comey said.
And as he rose through the ranks, eventually being appointed the director of the FBI by former President Barack Obama in 2013, Comey carried with him the lessons he learned in leadership from both Howell and Fahey.
“The most important thing a leader does is…,” Comey started several times throughout his speech. He ended the sentence, at different times, with actions including “shut up and listen” and “be watched.”
“I think I became who I am, you became who you are, through thousands of watchings,” Comey said.
And the examples a leader sets, he said, shape the culture of an organization.
During the Q&A portion of the presentation, Comey discussed the leadership style of President Donald Trump, who fired him from his position at the FBI in May 2017.
Comey called Trump’s attacks on the justice system “dangerous,” and said the success of the FBI depends on the institution being believed.
“I’m so concerned about the assault on truth and the rule of law by this president,” Comey said.
He compared Trump to a forest fire, but said he’s optimistic because growth inevitably occurs in the wake of such a disaster.
Comey also denounced “my former party” Sunday, saying he feels Republicans “have traded our values.”
Although he contributed the maximum donation allowed to the campaigns of former Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney, Comey said Sunday he hopes the Democrats win in the next election.
And he cautioned young Democrats against flocking to “the socialist left” – not because he hates socialism, he said, but because socialism won’t win enough votes in the next election.
Inevitably, Hillary Clinton’s emails were another topic discussed during Q&A. Comey told the audience much of his role as director, especially during that time, was “weighing one bad decision against a worse one.” He continued to stand by his decision to announce the investigations into her emails when and how he did.
When asked about his own future in politics, Comey said, “I’m never going to run for office. I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up beyond this.”
And he said he’s confident Americans will return one day to sharing a core set of values – “truth, rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of religion” – likely sometime after Trump finishes his presidential term.
He reminded the audience of the surge in Ku Klux Klan membership after World War I and McCarthyism after World War II; and assured them that progress is on the horizon for the country.
“We are going to be OK,” Comey said in closing. “You’re part of that. Thank you for doing your part.”
The next installment of the Sinai Forum will feature renowned photographer Platon on Oct. 7 at PNW’s Westville campus.