When ex-FBI Director James Comey travels to Northwest Indiana on Sept. 9 to speak at Purdue University Northwest’s Sinai Forum, it’s not his goal to change anyone’s mind or personal political leanings, he said.
Instead, he hopes he challenges people about the definition of ethical leadership and to urge people to value the “touchstone of truth” over policy and politics.
“I don’t care what people’s views are on guns, or taxes or immigration. I think it’s important we have a variety of views and we argue with each other. That’s the nature of America. Our democracy is messy and wonderful,” Comey told The Times on Tuesday. “What I hope to encourage people to do is think about what’s above those policies and to focus first on those values that unite us as Americans: truth, rule of law, equal protection, freedom of expression, freedom of religion. Those are the things that make us who are we and we’re in a period now where those things are threatened.”
Since his abrupt firing as head of the FBI in May 2017 by President Donald Trump over the Russia investigation, Comey became an overnight celebrity with a whirlwind tour for his New York Times best-selling book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” speaking engagements and teaching lectures at Howard University and elsewhere.
“Because I’m a giraffe, it’s hard to hide when I walk around,” the 6-foot-8-inches-tall Comey quipped. “I never wanted to be famous.”
It was first announced in April that Purdue University Northwest landed Comey as the opening speaker to kick off its highly regarded Sinai Forum series.
Since 1953, the forum has hosted countless prominent figures, celebrities and world leaders, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Cronkite, William O. Douglas, Oprah Winfrey and Mike Ditka.
Comey opens the speakers series at 4 p.m. Sept. 9 in the Stardust Event Center at Blue Chip Casino, Hotel & Spa in Michigan City.
His speech, “The Ethical Leader," will detail his experience in public service.
‘Excitement, intrigue’ ahead of Comey visit
Leslie Plesac, executive director of the Sinai Forum, said Comey’s story is one of the most compelling political stories of our time. She said she recently finished Comey’s book in anticipation of the event.
Tickets for this year’s Sinai Forum series are sold out and there are only a handful of single event tickets left for Comey, Plesac said. Purdue University Northwest students can attend for free, but must make reservations.
“There’s excitement, interest, intrigue, and we have had an extremely positive response from our students,” Plesac said.
Plesac said not everyone will agree with what Comey has to say, but she hopes the audience engages in healthy dialogue, particularly during the Q&A segment.
“The Sinai Forum, by definition, is to listen, to learn, to be challenged and to challenge. And we all share in the responsibility of mutual respect,” she said.
Comey said there will be time at the Sinai Forum to discuss the Trump administration and other current events, but he plans to focus on leadership values that extend beyond the current administration and offer hope to our younger generation.
“I want to offer a positive vision of what leadership should look like based on the mistakes I’ve made, the experiences I’ve had, the things I’ve watched and learned,” Comey said.
“Leadership is hard. And it can be exhausting for people and tremendously rewarding if done in the right way. There’s so much poison in the air, in social media, I worry that it turns off young people and causes them to withdraw from leadership in general.”
Touchstone of truth
During the forum, Comey will touch on his book, which largely focuses on his extensive career in law enforcement prior to his time at the FBI under Trump and how his approach to leadership was born out of his experiences under various leaders. Only a few chapters of the book are dedicated to his time with the Trump administration.
In Comey’s book, he writes, “We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized and unethical behavior is ignored, excused or rewarded.”
That line, he said, applies to much of society, and extends far beyond the Trump administration.
“When it comes to the Trump administration, what that (passage) highlights is the centrality in this country of truth as our touchstone. We have always judged our politicians by their distance from that touchstone,” Comey said. “All politicians lie and mislead. All humans do. But we’ve always insisted we measure our leaders by their distances from that central touchstone of truth. George Bush spoke falsely when he said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; Obama spoke falsely when he said you can keep your doctor if you like your doctor. And then they spent the rest of their terms, and the rest of their lives, explaining why that wasn’t a lie.”
Now, the country lives in a time where we have a president who “lies so often” that the touchstone is in danger of melting away.
“If we stop judging leaders by a thing called the truth and insisting, regardless of politics, that our leaders be tethered to that touchstone, we are in serious trouble,” Comey said. “I have special concern of the Trump administration because of the danger in lying becoming normalized.”
Clinton email investigation, FBI firings
Before Comey’s firing by Trump last year, Comey was a household name in the leadup to the 2016 election, when he came under fire for his handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
His fateful decision came Oct. 28, 2016 — days before the presidential election — when he penned a letter to Congress, detailing the existence of new emails that may be pertinent to the Clinton investigation. Critics said that correspondence and subsequent outfall may have affected the outcome of the election.
In his book, Comey talks about how this idea of “a higher loyalty” resulted in his departing from FBI institutional norms to do what he believed was the right choice despite being so close to an election.
“It was a nightmare to state the obvious. We found ourselves conducting a criminal investigation of one of two candidates for president in the middle of the most polarized and vicious presidential election campaigns in our nation’s history and I kept finding myself, it was really we, the leadership team at the FBI, at decision points where we couldn’t find a good decision,” Comey said. “We could only find bad and worse and there was no escaping making really hard decisions.
“Whether people disagree or agree about the decision, I hope people take the time to consider how the decisions were made, and the things we thought about it in making those decisions. And I’m very, very proud of that. We weren’t thinking about politics. We were thinking about values.”
The FBI this week fired Agent Peter Strzok over anti-Trump text messages as he helped lead the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
His firing came on the heels of the resignation of Lisa Page, with whom he exchanged text messages, and the earlier firing of Andrew McCabe amid accusations he lied to federal investigators about material disclosed to the media that harmed Clinton.
Comey said while each case must be looked at separately and on each of its own merits, the outcome of the investigation show the FBI’s commitment to accountability.
“McCabe’s case is very different from the Peter Strzok situation. But to me, both of them demonstrate the seriousness of which the institution takes truth and accountability. … In any organization of 38,000 people, you’re going to have misconduct to investigate," he said. "And I would challenge anyone to find an institution more committed to aggressively investigating alleged misconduct and holding people accountable than the FBI.”
Since Comey’s firing and book tour, he said the question he is asked most is some version of, “Are we going to be OK as a country?”
“And the answer is definitely, that the values in this country are stronger than any one leader or stronger than any administration. There’s no doubt that president’s conduct will do damage to our values and our norms, but they’re stronger than any one person. Our job is to make sure we do not become numb to it.”