But whether you think he is a heroic truth teller or a self-aggrandizing grandstander, and there are arguments for both, what is indisputable is that he is also something else
James B. Comey is currently a lot of things: ex-director of the FBI, ex-U.S. attorney, author, moral crusader, “slimeball” (according to President Donald Trump) and so ubiquitous that he is impossible to ignore.
But whether you think he is a heroic truth teller or a self-aggrandizing grandstander, and there are arguments for both, what is indisputable is that he is also something else: a 21st-century embodiment of a 20th-century archetype rooted deep in American mythology.
The ultimate G-man. With all the associations and expectations that image implies. If the Trump administration is its own reality show, Comey represents a character from a different Hollywood tradition. And if the goal of his book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” is to define what “ethical leadership” looks like — well. He’s providing an answer in more ways than one.
Even though he is no longer, actually, a G-man — not since being fired by Trump last May. But oh boy, has he been dressing and acting the part in his appearances on George Stephanopoulos’ “20/20” special, “Good Morning America” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
And he is only going to get more omnipresent, thanks to a media blitz that includes appearances on “Today,” “The View,” “The Rachel Maddow Show” and CNN, and a book tour that lasts until May 25, with stops in New York; Chicago; Portland, Oregon; Washington; and Los Angeles (among other cities). Demand for some of those events is so high that tickets are being resold on sites like StubHub for hundreds of dollars.
Comey stares out from small screens and promotional pictures everywhere — trailers, social media and reviews. He is steely eyed, often glancing upward, as to a higher goal, or resolutely ahead; dark, brush-cut hair just beginning to be smudged with gray; the squareness of his jawline matched only by the squareness of his shoulders, his 6-foot-8 frame often draped in layers of true blue.
Even in interviews, he rarely smiles (though there were a few grins with Colbert). His under-eye pouches speak of sleepless nights worrying about the soul of the executive branch and the burdens of doing the right thing. Warner Bros. couldn’t have cast him better if it had tried.
The look is in many ways the culmination of a cinematic romance with bureaucratic iconography that began in 1935 with James Cagney’s film “'G’ Men,” and continued through Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness in Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables.” Comey fits neatly within this predetermined, easily read lens. It’s both comforting and slightly unnerving to see how closely he resembles the fictive embodiments of his role. Life imitating art imitating life.
The names may be different, but these men represent a common character, whose seriousness of purpose and consistent moral code are conveyed through seriousness of mien and consistent dress code.
In many ways, these men have formed our fantasy of the ultimate upstanding lawman who subjugates his persona to his ideals and his institution by assuming the uniform of lore. At a time when casual Friday and the rights of the individual to self-expression through clothes are on the rise, it’s a clear pledge of allegiance to a different convention.
It’s a character Comey has been honing for years, since he took the oath of office as FBI director in 2013, and immortalized in his testimony before Congress last June, when he appeared in a dark suit, pristine white shirt and dark red tie, caught forever in multiple cameras and the watching imagination.
Even when he takes off his tie, as he has for his recent TV appearances, or swaps the jacket for a collared shirt in a dark shade, as he did for his Twitter page and his author photograph, as if to acknowledge his role as a private citizen, his clothes still convey sincerity and sobriety. There’s nothing really casual about them.
On Colbert’s show, he wore a black shirt and matching trousers with a gray jacket finished in black buttons: Johnny Cash, the lawyer version. You can take the G-man out of the suit (and the job), but not the suit out of the former G-man.
This has the Pavlovian effect of giving his words a believability (at least for those who buy into the cultural stereotype). It helps counteract the (understandable) perception that he is limelight seeking and self-promotional, because even as he stands out there on his own, he is connected to a much bigger tradition. And it’s an effective visual counterpart to the efforts of the White House and the Republican National Committee to label him as “Lyin’ Comey.”
In the drama of opposition, where Comey is increasingly casting himself, and being cast by others, as the mission-driven antipode to the president, his appearance acts as a kind of supporting argument.
On the one hand is Trump, whose hair is an elaborate construction to hide a bald spot, whose skin is shaded to disguise whatever its true pallor may be, whose clothes billow around his body as if to conceal the girth beneath. On the other is Comey, whose optics imply discipline, self-control and lack of guile.
In case you missed it, he drew attention to the point himself, noting to Stephanopoulos and in his book that when he met Trump he was struck by his “impressively” coifed hair that “looked to be” all his own (but maybe it wasn’t), his too-long tie and the white pouches under his eyes, perhaps from goggles worn while fake tanning. (Former President Barack Obama, he writes, looked “thinner” in person.)
Then there’s that now-famous story about Comey’s attempt to use his blue suit to blend into the Blue Room’s blue curtains to avoid an awkward encounter with Trump, of whom he was already suspicious. It didn’t work, of course. But it did prove he understands the value of clothing as camouflage — and, indeed, communication.
In the book he also acknowledges that he chose a gold tie for his news conference about the Clinton emails precisely because, as neither red nor blue, it wasn’t “displaying either of the normal political gang colors.” And that when he first took office at the FBI he wore a blue shirt to distinguish himself from the previous director, Robert S. Mueller III, a devotee of white shirts, and signal a new era. (Comey said as well that he tried to encourage a more casual dress code, but — well, everything is relative.)
The question now is whether, in becoming the avatar of the ultimate G-man, Comey will herald its renaissance or, by the time his tour is finished and the final page has been turned, its last gasp?
Depends, I suppose, on whether the Netflix adaptation is far behind.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.