James Comey's memoir, A Higher Loyalty, sits deservedly at the top of the best seller list. Naturally the press comment on the book has focused on his six-month relationship with President Trump--almost leaving out, among other things, his long account of the investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of her own email server while Secretary of State. My readers, I know, count on me for different kinds of perspectives than those they get from their news feeds, and I do not intend to disappoint them. Born at the very tail end of the Boom generation, in December of 1960, Comey's career put him at the heart of a number of critical developments during the last 30 years. He worked in the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York (then Rudy Giuliani) from 1987 to 1993, served in the office of the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia from 1996 to 2001 (after a brief stint with a Senate Whitewater Committee), became US Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 2001 and was Deputy Attorney General from 2003 through 2005. Then he went into the world of private law firms and the Bridgewater Associates hedge fund, emerging, according to Wikipedia, with a net worth that has reached $14 million. (He does not mention this in his autobiography and talks a lot about the strain of raising a large family on a government salary.) In 2013, Barack Obama surprisingly appointed him as FBI Director, and the rest, as we say, is history. I may discuss some of the lessons of that experience next week.
Comey dealt intimately with each of our last three Presidents. He has a lot to say about them all, and about some (though hardly all) of the major achievements and crises of their administrations. That is where I want to focus, because the book set me thinking, once again, about how we need to think about the last very turbulent 18 years of American history.
Serving as Deputy Attorney General under John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, Comey found himself in the middle of two huge constitutional crises: the Bush's Administration's attempts to continue an illegal NSA surveillance program instituted in the wake of 9/11, code named Stellar Wind, and the Justice Department's efforts to withdraw its endorsement of the torture of Al Qaeda detainees. These were issues that the leaders of the Bush Administration cared about very deeply. Reading Comey's account, I was reminded of their ruthless determination to change US law and US foreign policy, and of how much lasting damage they did to our country.
The people behind both Stellar Wind and "enhanced interrogation" (hereafter "torture," its right name), were Vice President Cheney and his counsel, David Addington--with President Bush, it seems, in their wake. After 9/11 they convinced themselves that black sites and torture were both necessary and effective tools in the war on terror--overruling the views of the more experienced FBI, CIA, and military intelligence, who knew that while torture might get prisoners to say whatever you wanted them to hear, winning the prisoner's trust was the only way to learn the real truth. The problem, of course, was that the Bush leadership didn't want the truth--they wanted evidence to back up their post-9/11 world view, which held Saddam Hussein responsible for 9/11 and favored war to eliminate non-existent weapons of mass destruction. To get the memos they needed from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Council, these men--led by Addington--adopted the view that the Executive Branch was the rightful judge of its own powers. This view has a long history--Thomas Jefferson, for instance, enunciated it in retirement--and John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel confirmed to me that it informed his and his colleagues' work when I met him years later at an academic conference. George W. Bush, echoing Richard Nixon, echoed it in a meeting with Comey. In 2005, after Alberto Gonzales had moved from the White House to the Justice Department, Comey and some of his colleagues tried to convince him to refuse any further authorization for enhanced interrogation. They failed. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that the use of torture was unconstitutional. But when Barack Obama became President, he simply declared that the United States would no longer use these techniques, while taking no action against those who had done so. That amounted to a statement that the US would use torture on prisoners only under Presidents that wanted to do so--and now a woman who ran a torture site under Bush is poised to become the Director of the CIA.
Comey talks rather guardedly about Stellar Wind, the NSA's surveillance program that was eventually revealed by Edward Snowden. He indicates quite clearly that in practice, it went further even than had been authorized or than has ever come to light. Cheney and Addington were behind it as well, and when Comey and his colleagues tried to stop it, Cheney told him that he, Comey, would be responsible for the deaths of thousands. The White House successfully scared the New York Times out of publishing stories about the program during 2004, ensuring that the American people would not be able to vote on it in the next election.
I could not read these accounts--including the story of how Comey and a very sick Attorney General Ashcroft headed off Gonzales's attempt to get the AG to approve an extension of Stellar Wind from his hospital bed--without thinking about how the same spirit dominated other aspects of Bush Administration policy, especially abroad. They immediately saw 9/11 as an excuse to change the rules of domestic surveillance and of prisoner interrogation--and also to change the rules of how the United States behaved abroad. Now we would undertake wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq, whether or not the UN and our NATO allies approved of them. If the facts about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction did not fit their world view, they would impose other fact. "We're an empire now," a high Bush official--almost certainly Karl Rove--told reporter Ron Susskind in 2004, "and we create our own reality," leaving the "reality-based community" struggling to keep up. Like so many other Boomers of every political stripe, the men of the Bush Administration sought to remake the world according to their vision of what it should be. And even though their assumptions were wrong and their policies disastrous--they succeeded. The wars they began in Afghanistan and Iraq still continue. The Obama Administration applied the supposed pro-democracy policy of regime change they had tried in Iraq in Libya and tried to do it again in Syria, with disastrous consequences. Guantanamo is still open for business, and Obama increased drone strikes, another aspect of our new endless war.
That was not all. Bush also cut taxes twice while spending $1 trillion on those wars. That left the government without necessary resources when the economic crisis of 2008 struck. The appointments of Roberts and Alioto to the Supreme Court led to the Citizens United and Heller decisions, both b 5-4 votes, which have profoundly changed American life. Cheney's energy task force seems to have put us on the road to fracking and energy independence. Whether we like it or not, the Bush Administration did what Lincoln and FDR had done before them--used a crisis to work towards a new vision of the United States. They could not, in fact, create a better world, because their vision was not based upon reality, but they changed the world nonetheless. And the two Administrations that followed have done remarkably little to undo the changes they made.
One of the more striking features of Comey's book is his great praise of his contemporary Barack Obama (nine months younger than he), whom, he tells us, he never voted for. Comey has thought a lot about leadership during his career, and he regards Obama as a superb leader because he had a knack for listening and for empathy. He was intelligent and self-confident enough to get information from subordinates and listen to opposing views. George W. Bush, Comey makes clear, preferred to bully subordinates into assent, and Donald Trump is of course almost totally impervious to facts. But Obama simply did not have Bush's determination to change the government and the world. He wanted to put partisan rancor aside, rather than use it to build a new Democratic coalition and a Democratic agenda. He decided not to turn the enormous anger over the financial crisis against the big bankers--and allowed the Tea Party to turn it against him. He thought he could appeal to values shared across the political spectrum--and he could not. The Congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration are busily unraveling what remains of his legacy.
The Trump Administration is busily undoing what is left of the New Deal and Great Society, removing old and new restraints on corporate behavior. It has also added a war on immigrants at home to an endless war on Islamic extremists all over the world, but that effort, to date, is nowhere near large enough to make a real dent in our illegal population of 11 million or so immigrants. It seems that we may emerge from this great crisis, as we did from the Civil War and Reconstruction, with a large minority of inhabitants without political rights. In the late 1800s those people were freed slaves; now they are illegal immigrants.
I saw clues scattered through Comey's book about why Boomer leadership has been such a failure. Boomer leaders are self-centered, narcissistic, and focused above all on their own political well being. Such was Rudy Giuliani, Comey's first government boss, of whom it was said among his underlings, "the most dangerous place in New York is between Rudy and a microphone." Such were the Clintons, and Hillary's reliance upon tribal lawyers and suspicion of outsiders did a great deal to bring her down in the end. Barack Obama--who is not a Boomer--was different, but he could not overcome the inertia of the Boomer political class. Focused on individual self-expression in their youth, Boomers have created an individualist paradise in which we can no longer work together across political or tribal lines. This is not unprecedented--the aftermath of the Civil War was quite similar. But its effects will last for a long time. Comey's book helps persuade me, once again, that the new transformation of the United States that Strauss and Howe predicted more than 25 years ago is nearly over. We are stuck with the world my generation made.