I left my apartment before dawn to see the man who just might save us all.
At least, that’s according to a handful of the dozens who’d already staked out the Barnes & Noble off New York’s Union Square since before my alarm even went off at an ungodly hour on Wednesday morning. Their mission: get their hands on a signed copy of former FBI Director James Comey’s new book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership; secure a wristband for admission to an event with the big man himself a full 12 hours later; and perhaps find deliverance from a nation ruled by a man who doesn’t understand “ethical leadership,” “norms,” or how long a tie should be, like James Comey does.
Not long after my arrival—around 6:30 a.m., when the line was already long enough to stretch past the Sephora next door despite a balmy spring morning where the temperature hovered around 40 degrees—the people around me started chattering out of anticipation (or boredom). One, a retired postal worker named Jose, who lives in Harlem, was first and foremost concerned with how the books would be doled out. How many would each customer be allowed to buy? Would there be any signed copies left by the time our collective ordeal ended? These questions, soon answered, would prove a wretched motif that would haunt me for the rest of the day, if not the rest of my life.
Asked why he would want to stand out in the freezing cold to get a book by a man who once gave waterboarding detainees a hearty thumbs up, he told me he has a healthy interest in autographed books—particularly ones “that the person has actually touched”—and American history. (When I later purchased my own signed copy, I felt dismayed on his behalf to find Comey’s signature, which the signed-book scalpers in line assured me was a hot commodity these days, was affixed to the title page with a sticker, casting serious doubt on whether Comey himself had his mitts on our books.)
“I like history,” Jose continued on. “This is history.” He went on to tell me about attending a recent book signing at the same store with Chelsea Clinton, where her kids were in attendance. He said the little rugrats were running all over the place, and he helpfully managed to catch one of them, grandfather-like, but then thought, “Oh no, I’m in trouble!” with her Secret Service detail.
A man who’d stepped just barely out of line but was clearly eavesdropping on our conversation jumped in to correct the record: ACTUALLY, Comey doesn’t have Secret Service detail because he was fired, you see, but he does have his own private security. Thanks for your help, fellow #Resist-er.
As you approached the front of the line, the frequency of people toting tripod-like collapsible chairs rose sharply. This was not their first rodeo: Many people told me they’d also braved the pre-dawn, waiting-in-line ordeal for the release of Hillary Clinton’s book. At the very front of the line, indisputable in her position as Number 1, sat Kate, a mother of four young children who came in from New Jersey. She sheepishly admitted to me that she’d paid a proxy spot-holder—dispatched through an LLC, “Google it” she said—to hold her position since midnight the night before at a rate of $20 an hour, and arrived herself at the “more civilized hour” of 6 a.m., Eastern Standard Time. It was still a full two hours before the store opened, and her lips were turning blue.
When I asked about Comey’s recent media blitz—which the arbiters of taste over at The New York Times observed is cheapening his brand among some of his supporters—Kate said she tended to agree.
“The reason we all like Comey is he’s got that sort of sweet, folksy, nerdy thing, so hearing him make jokes about the president’s hands, or even just discussing the”—her voice dropped to a conspiratorial volume—“Pee Tape, is just sort of….I don’t love that,” she said.
The former FBI director might be imperfect, she said—after all, he helped tank Clinton’s 2016 campaign in the 11th hour when he reopened the email probe—but he’s the “closest thing we have at the moment” to an all-American hero. She amended herself slightly, declaring Comey a “typical tragic hero, someone who tries to be good but loses sight of what he should be doing.” Yes, that’s Jim Comey, our Prince Hamlet—or, for what he did to Mother, maybe our Oedipus Rex.
Kate and I dramatically disagree on this point—it’s clear, to me, that what Comey thinks he should be doing now is moving a shit ton of merchandise, a plan he’s so far achieving quite well—and I told her so. She responded that, like so many behind her in that line outside Barnes & Noble, she followed a trajectory not unlike the stages of grief before finally forgiving Comey’s sins and allowing him back into the fold.
“I think the appearance of being good is more important than actually getting it right, if that makes sense,” Kate said. It did not, so I politely ended the conversation there. It was barely 7 a.m., after all.
As I continued working the line, several people I approached declined to speak with me, either because they’re familiar with my far from Comey-friendly coverage on SplinterNews.com (highly unlikely) or because they didn’t like the idea of giving over their names and opinions to be mangled by the mainstream media (more likely). My fellow line-standers were well meaning, if a little too forgiving of the American intelligence community’s myriad crimes, and perhaps too excited to take selfies with a poster of Comey’s face hanging lifelessly in the store window.
When I purchased my book and got my wristband, I double-checked with the cashier when seating would begin that evening. He advised me that the event space was open right this moment, that some people would likely hang out all day to get primo spots for Comey, and there was a cafe on site.
I arrived back at my new home in Union Square nearly two hours ahead of the big show and wedged myself into a seat with my fellow book-grubbers, autograph hounds, and deeply concerned citizens.
As we edged closer to the moment of our collective release, the middle-aged women behind me discussed everything from whether they should boycott New Balance for supporting Trump (too comfortable to live without, they decided), whether our country’s appreciation for “civility” could ever fully recover (only if we act quickly, they agreed), the merits of various world economic systems (they concluded capitalism is “mostly fair” while communism remains “fucked”) and Meghan McCain versus the man of the hour (“best case scenario, we all die”; no disagreement there).
Finally, our prince had arrived: The crowd greeted Comey like a rockstar, beaming at him while offering a standing ovation.
Comey regaled us with down-home anecdotes about learning the keys to being a good leader working as a stockroom boy, compared our current political reality, which he helped usher in, to both Watergate and a forest fire—new growth comes after, he said soothingly—and said he really wrote this book “to be useful” and provide an example of what “ethical leadership” looks like for the kids, so they wouldn’t want to withdraw “from the public square.” He also managed to mention the Steele dossier without ever uttering the words “pee tape.”
The room hung on his every word as he recounted President Obama’s reaction to the news that he alone would brief the president-elect on that “salacious” dossier. To hear how that went, you’ll have to read the book! he said. For a man who’s positioned himself as a reluctant member of the anti-Trump resistance and who’s gone to great lengths to portray his motives for writing the book as honorable, Comey is quite the salesman.
The night wasn’t without controversy, but it was all manufactured, with security dragging out one protester touting a homemade banner and another who turned out to be Project Veritas shithead Laura Loomer. The audience, supportive as ever, was having none of these interruptions, drowning them in boos as security dragged them out. Behind me, an older man was rhythmically shouting “No, NO, N O!!!” getting louder each time, like he was watching his dog chow down on roadkill.
After the disturbance, which Comey suffered through with a benignly pleasant look plastered on his face, one of the chatty women behind me shouted: “We’re sorry, Mr. Comey!”
But in his infinite wisdom, Comey made it a teachable moment, telling his gathered apostles: “We should not be yelling at each other,” that we could disagree “without hating each other,” and that such lively debates were all part of the “great experiment” that is this country. I wondered whether he might also be referring to his former employer’s legacy of experimentation with spying on American citizens, blackmailing the agency’s enemies, and lobbying Martin Luther King, Jr. to kill himself.
We moved briskly into the question and answer portion, meaning that Comey read aloud from notecards that had been submitted and pre-screened before the show. (It should go without saying that mine didn’t make the cut.) Among the insightful questions Comey took were—I’m paraphrasing here—Is it hard to write a book? (Yes, can you tell? Hahaha.) What’s the deal with Trump? (The answer involved the phrase “contra our norms.”) What’s the FBI doing to curb hate crimes against Muslims? (Definitely a lot, every single day, and if you see something, you should go tell your local FBI agents or the cops.) And finally, the money shot: What do you regret about 2016? (Comey wished he’d had the chance to “explain himself” better, but on the whole seems to regret exceedingly little.)
All the while, the audience laughed at every vaguely humorous thing Comey said. Less than an hour after we began—14 hours after I embarked on this whole escapade—it was all over. More than a few onlookers remained inert in their seats, basking in the afterglow.
I emerged on to the street to a small band of protesting MAGA chuds, some hoisting InfoWars-clad signs branding Comey a liar who should be imprisoned while chanting behind a police barricade. They played their part and we played ours; Comey got to engage is the great charade of rebranding himself an avatar of honor and dignity. All was artifice, nothing was learned, the bleakness of our political moment was in no way transformed.
We all got what we came for.