Comey and Stormy: TV bookends to a pair of character studies

James Comey's ABC News interview, like Stormy Daniels', is all about locking down their parts in any future scripts

By Melanie McFarland
Published April 16, 2018 7:03PM (EDT)
James Comey (ABC)
James Comey (ABC)

Someday, likely sooner rather than later, some actor of note will be called upon to play former FBI Director James Comey. Another will win the part of Stormy Daniels. The producers will obsess over how closely costume and make-up (and in Comey’s case, maybe a bit of forced perspective visual trickery, given his 6’8” height) capture their appearance. The talent will contort themselves in an effort to become these people, copying their speech patterns and distinguishing inflections, as well as how they move, to show us what these traits indicate about who they really are.

Those details are important, but they are not the main point. What matters as the stories of Comey and Daniels unfold will and should be how well, exactly, their central intent comes across. In the future, that will be up to screenwriters. Right now that saga is being written by broadcast news departments in a way that feels like we’re watching the outline of some surreal, anxiety provoking miniseries.

Comey seems to get that, and ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos was keen to play along with that script in Sunday night’s hour-long conversation.

For if his story is going to be scripted someday — and inevitability it will, given the existing frenzy over his book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership” — he wants to make it plain that he’s not the bad guy or the clear hero. Instead, as he told Stephanopoulos, this is his effort to be seen as “a deeply flawed human surrounded by other flawed humans trying to make decisions with an eye, not on politics, but on those higher values.”

He also admits that his stubborn devotion to those values cost him more than his job. Liberals blame him for tilting the election in Donald Trump’s favor by announcing his reopening of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server usage in the last days of October 2016. Conservatives blame him for his role in the ongoing investigation into Trump’s campaign and possible collusion with Russia.

Stephanopoulos asks, “What did it feel like to be James Comey in the last ten days of that campaign after you sent the letter?”

“It sucked,” Comey responds. “I walked around vaguely sick to my stomach, feeling beaten down . . . I felt like I was totally alone, that everybody hated me.”

Let’s be clear: Referring to the flaming circus that passes for our national politics as the season or series finale of America was funny, in a gallows humor kind of way, the day after the election. Nowadays it’s a hack move worthy of a lazy tweet that would barely garner a snort. So, too, is likening Donald Trump’s disastrous administration to “the greatest reality show ever.” Not even “Fear Factor” resulted in the loss of civilian lives in countries far away or American citizens serving in the military or the poorest people in our own cities simply trying stay alive.

However, we are in the midst of a crisis of national identity, and politics, that is defined and being steered by television. The medium has always played its part, mind you. For example, we accept as inevitable that our best known political figures will one day be dramatized. Every presidential administration holds within it the possibility of tens of feature films and miniseries, bursting with real life characters and impactful incidents waiting to be recreated in a screenplay.

In the majority of these characterizations, the president is the imperfect sun around which historic legislation orbits or scheming antagonists flail, or he’s a tangential figure to a story about a key person or people of significance in a defining chapter in our time; think Jeff Daniels playing late FBI agent John O’Neill in Hulu’s “The Looming Tower,” for example.

Rarely, if ever, have we encountered a president like Trump, who is so dedicated to creating his own version of reality as to become a flesh and blood version of a fictionalized entertainment figure. Only in his story is he the conquering hero, the stable genius, the best president ever, and anyone speaking against that script is a fake, a villain and a fraud. The media grants our ineloquent commander-in-chief so much airtime that anyone within his circle, or range of fire, gains some version of celebrity status. Or, as Comey might refer to it, a “stain.”

Presently the punditocracy and a number of politicians cannot decide if Comey is a hero or a liar. But we already know how to categorize Daniels — a writer, director and actor in the adult film industry who is frequently summed up in any report that mentions her affair with Trump as a porn star.

Photos tend to feature her busting out of low-cut dresses and flashing an artificial smile, an image contradicted by the woman we saw on that “60 Minutes” telecast and in other mainstream media appearances. Her button-down shirt and clipped description of her encounters with Trump, and her refusal to play the part of victim, are evidence of her media savvy. Daniels wants to be more than merely an adult entertainment fixture.

She’s also a businesswoman, though, which is why she gave Cooper and the “60 Minutes” audience what they presumably came to see, a blow-by-blow account of sexual relations with the sitting president and reality star.

Along the way, she also indicated that she may have been threatened with physical harm on top of receiving a $130,000 payment to purchase her silence. Funds, by the way, that could be interpreted legally as an in-kind donation to the Trump campaign, pairing a possible election law violation (if it's found that the payment was meant to preserve Trump’s viability as a candidate) with possible obstruction of justice.

And that is the thrust of why her story is important — not her ability to describe the president’s privates, or anything having to do with their single encounter. It’s the legal implications of everything that came afterward.

ABC’s Comey interview contained its own fleeting moments of salaciousness, although as a piece of journalism, the special was a by-the-numbers enterprise, a standard profile of a subject whose main interest is as a witness to and casualty of an outrageous presidency. By reflecting the book’s narrative thread without much close critical scrutiny or rebuttal, it followed the standard prime-time hour format, pulling less than an hour’s worth of juicy bits out of a five-hour interview.

ABC made the full transcript available online, but the choicest cuts of meat already exist in headlines.

Could the meeting he testified to have had with Trump, in which he alleges the president asked him to drop his investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, be evidence of obstruction of justice? Possibly.

Does he feel Trump is unfit to hold the office of the President. Yes, Comey says, officially joining a very long list of people who share that opinion — but not for psychological or medical reasons. “I think he's morally unfit to be president,” he tells Stephanopoulos.

Does he think that the Steele dossier, the primary source of allegations about the video of Russian prostitutes urinating on a hotel bed, is legitimate?

“I honestly never thought these words would come out of my mouth, but I don't know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013,” Comey said. “It's possible, but I don't know.”

These tidbits are sandwiched in between standard profile material painting Comey as a man who paid the price of holding fast to impartiality. For example, his wife supported Hillary Clinton, he says, and she and their daughters took part in the post-inauguration women’s march. But he did not vote.

Early on, Stephanopoulos and Comey take viewers to his humble childhood home in Allendale, New Jersey. There, we see childhood photos of Comey in the 1960s. His upbringing was a version of the American ideal: he had loving, involved parents; his dad was always present; his mother cut his hair, albeit badly, he jokes.

Then his personal history takes a defining turn when he talks about a home invasion involving an armed intruder that broke in and terrified Comey, then 16 years old, and his younger brother.

“It gave me a tremendous sense of urgency and the preciousness of life,” he said. “It also gave me great, great empathy for the victims of crime.”

Combining these details made Comey look like a quiet, polite giant of a man placed in a terrible situation. A guy who cringed at Trump’s brazen display of gratitude after the election, seen in that famous clip of him grinning awkwardly as he crossed the room. As that clip ran, Comey, in voiceover, described his internal horror at that moment, remembering how he attempted to disappear into the blue curtains of the room and characterizing that odd half-smile as his horrified, “oh shit” expression.

Once you cool down from an initial and perhaps feverish viewing of Comey's interview, you may notice that he doesn’t tell Stephanopoulos much that he hasn’t stated on record, and few of the viewpoints he shared weren’t unexpected.

His comparison of Trump’s behavior to that of mob bosses he helped bring to justice must have tugged many an eyebrow closer to many a hairline, I’ll give you that. But honestly, Trump has been up front about his casual brutishness since the moment he descended that escalator to declare his candidacy.

No, the aspect of Comey’s character profile he’s trying hardest to burnish is his image of a man representing an agency caught in the middle of ideologically-driven power brokers angling for dominance. He wants people to understand the sanctity of what the F.B.I. represents.

Illuminating though it was to hear his side of finding out about his firing via cable news headlines, the part that best served that narrative is his refusal to apologize for the F.B.I.’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. This allowed Stephanopoulos to kind of, sort of, gently poke holes in the righteousness of his side of the story.

“Boy, you seem to be alone in that judgment,” Stephanopoulos says, in response to Comey's defense of the investigation. “You look at previous attorney generals for President Bush, for President Ford, for President Obama, Justice Department officials for President Clinton; they all disagree with you. They say this crossed a line.”

Comey says, “Yeah, I've heard a lot of that. And in fact, all that was put together allegedly to be the reason for my firing. What I would hope is that they would, by reading the book, come with me to October 28th. Come with me, and sit there with me . . . and tell me then what you would do.”

Asked if he questions that action, now that he knows it resulted in Trump's election, Comey replies, "not for a moment, because down that path lies the death of the F.B.I. as an independent force in American life. If I ever start considering whose political fortunes will be affected by a decision, we're done. We're no longer that group in America that is apart from the partisans, and that can be trusted. We're just another player in the tribal battle."

ABC’s Comey interview represents a significant score for its news department, putting it ahead of stiff competition with other news agencies angling for a piece of Comey’s media tour to support his book.

But it didn’t come close to matching the overnight viewership for the March 25 “60 Minutes” conversation between Daniels and correspondent Anderson Cooper; that interview drew 22 million, while the ABC News sit-down attracted just shy of 10 million live viewers, according to Nielsen.

Nevertheless, ABC intends to wring everything it can get out of this moment. Comey’s stop at “The View” is scheduled for Wednesday. And on Tuesday, the hosts get their first crack at Daniels live and in front of a daytime TV audience.

How the women of “The View” contend with Daniels versus their talk with Comey should make for riveting television in itself, because the public’s estimation (in addition to Whoopi Goldberg’s, Meghan McCain’s and Joy Behar’s) of what each represents is quite different, even if they are part of the same odd chapter.

Comey’s tale, at least, has a poetry that Daniels’ lacks. A stand-out moment in that ABC interview seemed made for a prestige cable feature: Stephanopoulos asks Comey what he did on his plane ride returning to the East Coast from California after he found out he’d been fired. He replies, “I drank red wine from a paper coffee cup, and just looked out at the lights of the country I love so much as we flew home.”

Danny Strong would do a tremendous job with that scene.

Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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