You don’t have to be a political junkie to have been interested in former FBI Director James Comey’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. And if you are a member of the presentation community, you might have found it utterly fascinating. And illuminating. And educational.
This was the best reality television of the week (sorry Bachelor fans) and I don’t want to gloss over that, because it is actually germane to the topic at hand. You’re not going to find this kind of high drama on our political landscape very often; in fact, some commentators believed that you’d have to go all the way back to the Watergate hearings of the early 1970s to top today’s event. What did he know? When did he know it? Did he really call President Trump a liar? And just how far out could he stick his neck with the entire country (and surely Russia) watching?
How many of you have had to speak in public with those kind of stakes? I’m not raising my hand.
I’m not going to bury the lead here: I was enormously impressed with Comey’s performance. This man has had few friends of late, with both major parties reserving fury and outrage for him over his 11th hour announcements during election season. Then he was allegedly courted, threatened, and fired by the president of the United States. And finally, asked to appear before this panel to explain himself. That would be a tough career, let alone a few months.
And yet he appeared willingly, no subpoena, entered the room without an army of handlers, had no attorney seated next to him whispering in his ear, and spoke from no carefully-crafted written speech. His voice never wavered, never quivered, he showed no signs of impatience or exasperation (even when Senator McCain was asking him stupefying and incomprehensible questions), and he dodged very few questions.
Was he telling the truth? His remarks were so consistent and delivered with such confidence, I would conclude that either yes, he was, or that he delivered the most exquisitely-prepared lies in history.
It was his dearth of emotion that sold me. Despite obvious and uneven bias on the parts of the various senators who questioned him, his demeanor never changed. These television shots might seem boring, but boring is good in this context. Boring suggests a man who has been around the block, is unphased by the acrimony he has endured, and is at peace with his narrative.
His flat delivery was appropriate to the setting, but that doesn’t mean that he was devoid of passion. He recognized the right time to cut through partisan lines and he did not miss the opportunity to show what he really cares about:
“We have this big messy wonderful country where nobody tells us what to think, what to fight about, what to vote for except other Americans. But we’re talking about a foreign government trying to shape the way we think, vote, and act. That is a big deal. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats. They’re coming after America, they want to undermine our credibility in the face the world…And if any Americans were part of helping the Russians do that to us, that is a very big deal.”
Comey’s change in pitch during this passage was subtle but significant. When you start from a monotone baseline, any change in meter is noticeable, and when he said “that is a VERY big deal,” the room fell silent. He owned it.
Takeaway: Credibility can be earned several ways. When the stakes are high, consistency and evenness are like gold.
Tone aside, Comey came out swinging. In the first 45 seconds, he accused President Trump of defaming both him and the FBI. “Those were lies, plain and simple, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them, and that the American people were told them.”
Comey made the deliberate decision to not dance around these questions, and I predict that will be among the most memorable aspects of his testimony. While stopping short of calling our president a “liar,” he refused to hide behind such hollowed-out phrases as misspeak or misrepresent. No, he went right at it:
Senator Warner: “What was it about that meeting that led you to determine that you needed to [document the conversation]?”
Comey: I was alone with the president of the United States, talking about matters that touch on the FBI’s core responsibility. I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting. That led me to believe I must write it down in a very detailed way.”
These are not the words of someone trying to dodge a question. These are the words of someone who wanted to make an emphatic mark on the public record, and in doing so right out of the gate, he spoke truth to power in a way that practically measured seismically. This was all done with that even, flat, emotionless tone of voice.
Takeaway: Don’t risk your key message getting lost because you hope to build suspense. If you have something to say, say it!
Almost as remarkable was the ways in which Comey expressed his human foibles, and with this he wisely waited until deeper into his testimony. The opportunity came with the question of why Comey allowed himself to be left alone with President Trump when Trump expressed to Comey that General Flynn was “a good guy” and that he hopes that the FBI would go easy on him. I don’t think that Senator Dianne Feinstein intended to throw him a softball; this lioness of the left was ready to publicly crucify Comey last October when he “handed the election to Donald Trump,” as she put it at the time.
Feinstein: “I know the oval office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you?”
Comey: “Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation, the only thing I could think to say was to agree that ‘he is a good guy.’ Maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance. Maybe if I did it again, I’d do it better.”
Feinstein: “You told the president, I would see what we could do. What did you mean?”
Comey: “It was kind of a cowardly way of telling him we’re not going to do that.”
This was a perfect display of vulnerability. Well into the second hour, Comey had already established his character and integrity; now was his opportunity to make himself relateable. Who among us wouldn’t be intimidated in the Oval Office? Who among us would be able to fashion an appropriate answer in the moment? This is the kind of thing that would have you formulating responses while lying awake at 3:00a. This is why, to all Seinfeld aficionados, George Castanza turned his car around, drove back to the airport, and flew back to Ohio so he could deliver the retort that he had just thought of five hours later.
Comey admitted not just a professional error in judgment, but a personal failing. He wasn’t strong enough. He was cowardly. I don’t know James Comey well enough to conclude that this was intentional, but either way, he scores points with me. Either his instincts for currying sympathy were exceptional, or his tactical decision was brilliant.
Takeaway: Audiences don’t want perfect presenters; they want people with whom they feel a connection. Few things accomplish that more than contrition and remorse.
There aren’t too many politically-aware American citizens who were not furious with James Comey last fall. His performance this week has invited everyone to see him from a different perspective. That is an impressive accomplishment.