James Comey, a modern Greek tragedy

As Americans, we tend to divide our prominent public figures into two main categories: hero and villain.  Would that life were so simple.  It has not been, not even in ancient times.

Ancient Greek tragedy is a genre of classic literature, one from which we might learn some important lessons about the powerful people who rule over us, or at least who try to do so.  The Greek playwrights often depicted their main character as a great hero, but beset by one fatal flaw, which, in the end, brings him to doom.  Well might they have predicted Comey's rise and fall.

Recently fired FBI director James Comey's case is confusing to many, because he fits the profile of an able, competent man, whose eventual ruin contains many elements of classic tragedy.

I have no accomplishments in life that can compare to Comey's, so I will not sit on the sidelines and snipe at him.  Even his failings were much greater than mine can ever be, at least in the field of power and politics, because I have never been able to compete in that arena of life.

That said, one cannot help but ask, how does one rise to the station he did, that of the chief of the most prestigious law enforcement bureau in the world, only to be cut down mid-stride by a dismissal letter that he never saw coming?

That is the heart and soul of tragedy: the inability to see what, in retrospect, should have been obvious all along.  Comey was able, for a time, to play both sides against each other, which, as every double agent knows, can be a deadly game, especially after both sides turn against you.  Comey should have known that. 

Comey was not thrust unwillingly into the spotlight.  He sought it, and when the opportunity presented itself, he willingly, perhaps eagerly, seized it.

The perfect storm came together to undo him.  There was the outrageous calamity of Hillary Clinton, thinking herself above the law in national security matters.  There was Comey's boss, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, agreeing to meet surreptitiously with Clinton's husband in a secret meeting that, by unlikely chance, was exposed to the public.  Three villains (Lynch and two Clintons) set into inexorable motion the plot elements of our tragic play.

Comey saw himself as both hero and innocent victim in the unfolding scandal.  No doubt he still thinks of himself as having been caught up in events that swirled out of control, through no fault of his own.

He was never humble enough to accept his role as a minor actor and to remain in the shadow of stage left, with all the other bit actors.  How could he?  He was, after all, the great and mighty heir to the legendary and dreaded J. Edgar Hoover.  Comey thought of himself as a successor to him, who had scolded President Kennedy on his unseemly conduct with the commoner, Marilyn Monroe, and had done so with utter impunity, because Hoover (according to legend) had the goods on everyone who could fire him.

In that same tradition, Comey no doubt had, and perhaps yet has, a dossier that could embarrass the Clintons, and perhaps even lead to their criminal indictment.  Almost as certainly, he has one on Trump, and on the president's close associates.  Was he playing both sides?

This is the James Comey who boasted in a speech that we would be "stuck with" him for the next six years.  This is the Comey who in congressional testimony asserted, with theatrical flourish, that he had made no mistakes.  He went so far as to say that, if asked to reprise his script, he would repeat his actions.  He would once again lay out a compelling case to indict Hillary Clinton for her clear violations of law, and then, assuming the role of another actor (actress), the attorney general, that he would recommend against bringing that very same indictment.  He tried to have it both ways – a compelling predictor of tragic failure.

Many of us wondered how a man with so illogical a thought process could have ever achieved his position, much less held it beyond inauguration day.

Perhaps the playwright was awaiting a more climactic moment.