Thursday, June 8, 2017
So, here’s my Jim Comey story. I think it’s important because it gives a little window into the type of young man he was. I have no reason to believe he’s changed.
First, a little background: forty years ago, before I became one of those liberal “elites” who attended a northeastern college, worked as a purveyor of “fake news” (what some might call a journalist) and became a card-carrying Democrat who voted for Mike Dukakis, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, I was a good Catholic girl growing up in Allendale, New Jersey.
A Republican bastion, the Allendale of my youth was small-town, patriotic, completely white and overwhelmingly Christian. Only 25 miles from New York, you couldn’t get a bagel in Allendale back in the 60s. At Christmas, we would pile into the station wagon (the type with faux-wood side panels) at night to check out the lights on everyone’s houses, counting on one hand the “unlit” homes. Eggs and milk were delivered to your door; the Holiday Observers (local dads in straw hats) came knocking for contributions to offset the costs of the annual parades and fireworks displays, and every night when I said my prayers I would end with, “And Dear God, please don’t let it rain on the Fourth of July.”
That’s because the Fourth of July was the best day of the entire year in Allendale. But I digress ….
We were groovy, Vatican II Catholics. We did home masses with friends where, for the Eucharist, a young priest would rip a loaf of Italian bread into pieces, heap it on a plate, and pass it around while someone’s mom played the guitar and sang a Cat Steven’s song. The Church I was raised in was less about rules and more about community. It had everything to do with post-mass Sunday brunches with hordes of other kids and families and very little to do with the Baltimore Catechism. And when I was a teen, it had to do with retreats.
These were weekend-long sleepovers where scores of Catholic youth from various parishes came together to have fun and talk about Jesus. It was definitely the kinder, gentler version of Catholicism: lots of discussion about compassion and charity; not so much about sin and damnation. You barely slept, you ate TONS of high-carb foods, drank GALLONS of sugary beverages (we called it Bug Juice), sang, hugged, and made dozens of new best friends overnight. All sorts of friends. I French-kissed a boy for the first time at a Catholic retreat (a cute Italian fellow from Hasbrouck Heights) if that gives you some sense of what these things were like.
By junior year in high school I was old enough to attend SEARCH, which was a Catholic retreat for older students. I piled into a car with five others from my high school, Northern Highlands Regional. One was a senior named Jim Comey.
I knew Jim the way you know a popular boy a year ahead of you: from an admiring distance. He was a class officer, a standout basketball player, and an academic star. He had a ton of friends … all fun, talented and cool … and a reputation for being funny. I don’t remember the conversation on the drive to retreat, and once there I lost track of Jim. These things were huge, and they encouraged students to separate from their hometown groups.
I didn’t see him again until the closing mass, which is where this story (finally) has a point.
A closing SEARCH mass is a bit of a show. Parents and family are invited, filling metal seats in the back of an auditorium. A priest conducts mass in the front, while at his feet, on the floor, sit all of the freshly-minted SEARCHers. We generally have our arms around each other. Everyone is exhausted and sugar-hyped. Most of the girls are crying because they are about to separate from the best friends they have ever made in their entire lives (in only 36 hours!) Into this highly emotional, hormonal mix add: one microphone. This is where the priest invites everyone to “share,” what the weekend has meant. After you speak, he drapes a largish wooden cross, strung with leather, around your neck.
Well. You can imagine. Those who weren’t teary before are positively sobbing at the mike. I remember standing there myself, intending to be stoic and utterly dissolving into a weeping mess. I might have said something to the effect of, “I love you all! I love Jesus!” before glancing at the back of the room to my parents’ shocked expressions. (Years later they confessed to me that it felt like their daughter had just been initiated into a cult.) When I resumed my position on the floor, I realize I was within earshot and eyeshot of Jim and his friend from our high school, Joe (who also happened to be the President of the Senior Class.)
You know that face Director Comey makes when he’s testifying? He’s speaking emphatically, and almost looks a little (okay, a lot) angry? That was the face Jim was making as he spoke into Joe’s ear. Joe was urging him to go up to the mike … and Jim was having none of it.
Absolutely. None. Of. It.
“Give me a break!” I heard him hiss. “You don’t love these people! You scarcely know them. In a week, you won’t be speaking to any of them. They are appealing to your emotions, not your mind. It’s ridiculous!”
At the time I remember being shocked and thinking Jim Comey was the biggest grouch I had ever met. I couldn’t believe that in the midst of this massive lovefest he was intellectualizing. As it turns out, in that entire auditorium filled with young people, and in the company of one of his closest friends who encouraged him otherwise, Jim was the only person to refuse the microphone.
Which, when you think about it, is pretty amazing.
SEARCH was no cult; it was actually pretty harmless. And Jim was right: it only took a few days for the fervor to wear off and all of us to forget each other’s names and slide right back into our old lives and comfortable worlds.
But here’s what that experience revealed to me about the young Jim Comey: he was impervious to peer pressure. Even when it came from institutions he believed in (his church) and people he trusted (his friend, Joe.) It’s easy to say no to our enemies and to reject ideas we disagree with: much harder when the thing that doesn’t ring true is familiar and safe.
Here’s the other thing it revealed: he trusts his inner moral compass. He relies on intellect to weigh right and wrong; he strives to be dispassionate when confronted by the mob. And while you might not like him for it, or even agree with his conclusions: his decisions come from an honest place. Jim Comey embodies integrity.
Today, millions of people are going to stop what they are doing to hear what Jim Comey has to say about his interactions with Donald Trump. His comments may … or may not … be significant. My guess is they will be far less dramatic and far more carefully parsed and legalistic than anticipated.
But they will be honest.
I’m not the only one in Allendale who feels this way about Jim. Here’s a piece USA Today did with others who know him: