Comey’s Masterclass in Controlling Your Own Story
Forget Twin Peaks, The Handmaid’s Tale, or the NBA Finals, the epic drama of our times was today’s congressional hearing before the US Senate Intelligence Committee. Viewing parties were held across the country in offices and bars, the hearings were live-tweeted, and millions were glued to their screens to find out who would emerge as unlikely angels or demons during this historic moment.
In today’s hearings, FBI Director James Comey took total control of his narrative. He came with a well-prepared message, and he delivered it consistently and clearly, despite the slings and arrows lobbed at him by Senators with their own agendas. He repeated time and time again, this “wasn’t a partisan issue,” but a matter that should concern all Americans dedicated to keeping our experiment in democracy alive.
Comey has transitioned from his role as an unreliable narrator into that of the reluctant hero. Once described by Bill Clinton as the person who “cost her [Hillary] the election,” after Comey’s firing, he has reappeared as the charismatic, humorous, man in charge that got him appointed to the FBI in the first place.
Comey did his part to appeal to Americans emotionally. What American can say that they aren’t proud of the free-thinking, democratic ideals, and pursuit of greatness that our country was built on?
In setting himself up as the protector of American ideals, Comey made anyone who tried to speak against him the enemy of the state, or at the very least, positioned them as duplicitous opportunists. No one better exemplified playing into Comey’s hands than Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). According to the transcript from the Talking Points Memo:
“He asked for your loyalty,” Rubio asked. “And you said you would be loyally honest.”
“Honestly loyal,” Comey corrected him.”
It might seem like a minor correction, but in this moment, Comey asserted that he never agreed to “loyalty,” but to instead keep the FBI and their integrity intact, by keeping his investigation separate from the influence of the White House. In so-doing, Rubio’s line of questioning took on an air of Mephistopheles — he would say whatever pleased the devil, and employ turns of phrases to gaslight the American public if it would please his master.
The question of integrity and trust has consistently plagued the new administration of the White House, from Kellyanne Conway’s use of “alternative facts” to the press secretary consistently releasing information that contradicts previous statements made by the White House or the tweets of the president himself. The American public finds itself in a difficult situation where it is asking itself: who can I trust? And this question is exactly what Comey wanted us to be asking ourselves.
From my years in journalism and content, I’ve learned that there is nothing worse than when the public loses faith in you — everything that you say and every action that you take from that point onwards is colored by a distrustful lens. Re-establishing credibility is not only a tremendous undertaking, but every stumble and fall that you make in the future is then used against you, as evidence of why you cannot be trusted.
Today, Comey’s testimony re-established credibility in his voice. He came to the hearing informed, releasing his prepared remarks a day ahead of time, and adding to the public’s anticipation of what else would be revealed during his hearing. He was never flustered, nor did he contradict himself. His narrative was clear: he was asked to discontinue his investigation into former U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Russia, and he found this to be troubling.
Comey’s testimony set itself starkly apart from official White House statements. While Comey had his talking points, he often used humor, like when he stated that in hindsight, he would have preferred to have had dinner with his wife than with Trump, and his statements were refreshingly human. He was able to think on his feet because he was telling the truth, and by doing so, he inspired the public’s confidence in him.
Another lesson in storytelling from Comey’s testimony was how to make your statements bulletproof. The media can often distort quotes in order to fit their narrative, or turn statements into a story that they believe their readers want to read. Comey left the media no room to do this; in part, by correcting any false statements on the Senate floor, and by keeping his statements short, specific, and very tight, so they could not be taken out of context.
In today’s congressional hearing, Comey gave a masterclass in how to recuperate gracefully from a damaged reputation and how to be in control of your own narrative. He became a character that we were all invested in, because in the story that he spun, we saw ourselves.