A Patriarchal Loyalty

When James Comey’s memoir, A Higher Loyalty, came out, I was actively opposed to thinking about it—far too painful. But then, sometime this spring, I was listening to a podcast (probably TrumpCast) interviewing Comey and I missed my subway stop: That never happens.

He was so interesting, so soothing, so smart and confident, that I couldn’t stop listening. I still blame him for playing a role in Clinton’s defeat in 2016, but he was compelling enough (and had a very pleasant voice) that I decided to listen to his memoir on audiobook.

Comey’s personal story is incredibly moving and hearing him read his well-written memoir in his own voice was worth the time. I had several good runs this spring listening to him talk about leadership, about the stress and strain of being in a 24-7 job, about the assistant who knew to alternate his daily sandwich between turkey and tuna. I loved and still wince at the powerful metaphor he offers for trust as a reservoir. A pool of water that it takes for ever to fill and only a moment to poison, spoil, or drain. Indeed. 

A commentator guessed that he must have been intending to write a book on leadership for some time and I share the sense that this must be right. Each chapter begins with a moving epigraph from Comey-favorite Reinhold Niebuhr and others on the topic. I often wished, mid-run, that I could stop and think through the significance of this or that idea from one of these epigraphs.

Still, while I wasn’t exactly hate-listening, and while I came to like him a lot as a person, and while it became clear to me that, were he part of my life, I would probably like and admire him a lot, what was the problem?

What was the problem?

For me, it all came down to the way that he praised his wife, Patrice. Don’t get me wrong: she sounds like a wonderful person. He writes tenderly and movingly about how she coped when their infant died, how she understood how to break the terrible news to each of their young children—who was too young to see the dead child and who needed to say goodbye. He writes with compassion, too, about how supportive she has been about the several moves that his career has brought upon their family.

But when men praise their wives again and again for support and then, in the same volume single out women (Martha Stewart, Hillary Clinton) as having crossed a line, having gone too far, the ugly, deep-seated force of patriarchy is rearing its head.

(In parenthesis, let me add: I know, Martha Stewart’s insider trading was absolutely illegal and her response to it was wrong, stupid, and inadequate. As for Hillary Clinton’s emails, given what we have learned since 2016 about the terrible email and texting habits of powerful people of her generation and mine regarding electronic communication, I don’t even see her misdeeds as rising to the level of notice, to be honest.)

My point is this: as you look at men in power, look at how they treat women. Look at how they treat the women whom they like, whom they love, whom they purport to respect, whom they admire. And then, look at the women they attempt to bring down. The men of the current administration are acting to restore patriarchal power. This effort succeeds because good men—and I do think James Comey is, on the balance a good man—still see women as primarily supporting figures to men. Until that changes, we will have to keep fighting.