The Bland Philosophy of James Comey’s Twitter Feed
One of the bizarro lessons of our bizarro time is that inside every taciturn lawperson is a tweeting fool who longs to go wild with emoji, memes and subtweets thick with innuendo.
These days, when notable squares—Preet Bharara (joined February 2017), Walter Shaub (joined February 2017), Sally Yates (joined June 2017), Renato Mariotti (joined July 2017), John Brennan (joined September 2017)—exit the discretion of a law firm or a government office, they strap on their dancing shoes and head to the Twitter disco. And off they go, posting selfies and threads, joking about the banality of bots, unpacking l’Affaire Russe and, of course, sniping at Alan Dershowitz. It’s now hard to remember Twitter before the newly liberated JDs and ex-agency heads arrived. Their passion for the weirdness of the platform is precious, and useful. I hope they never go away.
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One of the more intriguing lawman-newcomers to Twitter is James Comey, an American citizen so pious he once taught Sunday school. While some of the nation’s other high clerics, disinhibited by the pounding Twitter beats, goof around, rib one another, advertise themselves and pounce on every table scrap from the news banquet, Comey has chosen to play the platform a little bit differently. Once or twice a week the former FBI director expresses himself in pensive photos and sententious needlepoint quotations about the importance of leadership, justice and goodness. He is a man using Twitter not to connect but to disconnect—to position himself as singularly wise, a sermonizer in possession of a privileged relationship to truth itself.
In fact, what might be called “Justice Twitter” has found in Comey its bleeding deacon. And whatever Comey posts—especially his favorite Bible passage, about justice coming down like an ever-flowing stream—is seized on like a splinter of the true cross, and evidence that maybe, maybe, maybe America’s deliverance is nigh.
But let’s go back a bit.
It’s not that Comey declined to tweet before he became @Comey of the needlepoint aphorisms. Instead, back when he was the unfired FBI chief, he posted anonymously as @projectexile7 and then, when Trump pink-slipped him, as @FormerBu. Both @-handles came with the name Reinhold Niebuhr, an homage to the liberal Protestant theologian and political philosopher, Comey’s longtime intellectual hero. In 1982, as a senior at William & Mary, Comey wrote a thesis on Niebuhr and the televangelist Jerry Falwell, arguing that because humans are too selfish to emulate Jesus’s infinite and self-sacrificing love, they must express love through the pursuit of justice. In Comey’s analysis, Niebuhr and Falwell were both on the right road. Even his intellectual roots are bipartisan.
Niebuhr is famous for having composed the Serenity Prayer, that AA-meeting closer about having the wisdom to distinguish between what we can change and what we’re stuck with. But his corpus also includes Moral Man and Immoral Society, a 1932 treatise on individual versus collective sin, and the imperative of each one of us to resist the corrosive influences of political factionalism. To this day, this subject preoccupies @comey. Indeed, the book’s title alone might describe Comey’s relation to Twitter. Unlike Shaub, Mariotti and Bharara, Comey rarely replies to others, or retweets them. Instead, he processes grandly through the platform like an archbishop through a packed cathedral. He appears not to notice the other 329,999,999 of us.
The first tweet on Comey’s current account is his least Comeyesque. He posted this juvenilia on March 30, 2017, before he came out as himself and changed his handle, though it’s retroactively attributed to @comey. Back then, he was still running the FBI, and his tweet, though suitably cryptic, is more fun than his post-firing tweets have been. It a link to FBI’s recruiting site illustrated by a photo of Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy overlaid with blocky white letters that say “I’M NOT EVEN MAD / THAT’S AMAZING.”
A Ferrell meme might be too coarse for Comey now, but it’s useful that he left this subtweet, which was construed by obsessives as a coy response to an article in Gizmodo by Ashley Feinberg the previous day. Feinberg, having heard that Comey at a security conference had let slip that he had a stealth Twitter account, used her digital investigative skills to track him to his nom de guerre and hidey hole. Comey’s amazement, presumably, is at Feinberg’s resourcefulness in finding him. Linking to Fbijobs.gov is a not-unclever way of suggesting—no doubt in jest—that the ingenious Feinberg come work for him.
Beginning in October, Comey, sacked and now posting under the handle @FormerBu, started finding a more expansive and personal Twitter voice. He now tweeted photos of mundane, tranquil scenes from places so patriotic as to be clichés: West Point, the Statue of Liberty, Gettysburg, the cornfields of Iowa. Even if he was the enemy of the American president, he was a friend to America, he seemed to be saying. As many anti-Trump Americans have found, this can be a fine needle to thread. At Little Round Top, where the warrior-intellectual Joshua Chamberlain (a Republican!) led his Maine regiment in the famous downhill bayonet charge against Confederate troops, Comey said he was thinking about “leadership and values.” These happen to be the subjects of his forthcoming book, A Higher Loyalty. At another stop on his October jaunt, he tweeted a photo of some birds that got him “thinking about Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer.” Birds are nonpartisan. And these birds indeed seemed sober.
Iowa, where Comey is not from, seemed to carry some thick nostalgia for him, as he noted it was “good to be back.” Finally, on October 23, Comey, still under the Niebuhr name, posted a photo of himself. Twitter went wild! There he was, all inimitable and incorruptible 6’8” of him on a stretch of road looking out at the splendid plains of our great nation. Comey is “taller and funnier in person,” according to his Twitter bio, which is weird because he’s damn tall in non-person. There he was, then, presiding over amber waves of grain, presiding like a kind of Paul Bunyan, over America itself. And if there was something uncanny about the image—it looked, to be honest, not a little bit photoshopped, and who was behind the camera?—it was definitely James Comey. “Goodbye Iowa,” he wrote. “On the road home. Gotta get back to writing. Will try to tweet in useful ways.”
Tweet in useful ways?