Comey TV: Never a dull moment

A Goldman Sachs stock trader at the New York Stock Exchange watches former FBI Director James Comey as he testifies before a congressional committee in Washington.

Lordy, I hope there’s an HBO movie.

First, I have to thank New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik for putting me out of the misery of trying to place former FBI director James Comey’s voice, by pinpointing Bob Odenkirk’s character in AMC’s Better Call Saul, Jimmy McGill

There aren’t many 6-foot-8 actors available to play the towering former FBI chief, and in the end, Comey’s performance at Thursday’s hearing of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee is likely to fall to someone more like Tom Hanks, whose ability to project sincerity without being syrupy is what’s called for here.

Because from a TV perspective, Comey, who’s also a former prosecutor, was his own dream witness: seemingly relaxed, folksily patriotic, and perhaps most important of all, playing it down the middle.

It wouldn’t have been hard for even casual viewers to tell  Republicans from the Democrats from their questioning (a good thing, too, since most of the time, the networks’ quote-heavy chyrons blocked out the identity of the questioners after a moment or two). One group sought to downplay the possibility that the president had obstructed justice, the other to play it up.

Comey, who’d be questioned again in the afternoon on classified matters, wasn’t helping either side posture, reminding senators at one point that the investigation into Russian interference was “about America, not about any particular party.”

He prefaced several answers with, “I could be wrong,” a disclaimer that carries particular power in a town where it’s seldom heard.

Another, even more self-deprecating disclaimer, “I don’t want to sound like I’m Captain Courageous,” added to the sense that Comey was positioning himself against a president who doesn’t believe in displays of humility, even those that might be classified as humble-bragging.

“Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” was almost certainly the quote of the day, an allusion to Trump’s May tweet: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

“If he did [have tapes of their meetings], my feelings aren’t hurt. Release all the tapes,” Comey said.

Beyond that, TV-friendly soundbites included, “If any Americans were part of helping the Russians do that to us, that is a very big deal,” and “I’m not going to sit here and try to interpret the president’s tweets.”

Other thoughts on Thursday’s Senate show, which was carried live on both broadcast and cable news:

  • Sen. John McCain, (R., Ariz.) appeared confused by Comey’s statement that the email investigation involving Hillary Clinton had been concluded last summer but that the Russia investigation was ongoing. To borrow a line from Comey, I could be wrong. But I think live TV might not have been his friend.
  • Anyone who thought the televised hearing would be undercut  by Wednesday’s release of Comey’s formal testimony couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did the written part of the test win a rave review from Sen. James Risch (R., Idaho), who called Comey’s presentation “as good as it gets” in terms of legal writing (maybe he’ll blurb a book for him?), but the oral portion was colorful. “I worried it would be like feeding seagulls at the beach,” he said when asked why he hadn’t leaked directly to a reporter. At another point, he noted that in accepting the president’s last-minute invitation to dinner, he’d had to break a date with his wife. These kinds of details may not matter legally, but they make for good television.
  • Sen. Angus King, the independent from Maine, seemed particularly excited by Comey’s Henry II-Thomas Becket reference (“It rings in my ears like,  ‘Will nobody rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ ”), and it’s always nice when people get to use what they learned in school in the real world. Comey, according to Wikipedia, majored in chemistry and religion at the College of William and Mary, a combination that doesn’t surprise me in the least.

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