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Comey, I Salute You!

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Trump pressing Comey’s flesh the day after his inauguration. Photo: Andrew Harrer via Getty Images

Last week’s congressional testimony by James Comey was fascinating to anyone interested in politics, human relations, or, to the point, language. A monograph could probably be written about President Trump’s use of the word hope in his remark (in Comey’s recollection), “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” and in fact another Lingua Franca blogger may explore that in a few days’ time. I’ll limit myself to observing that Trump’s phrasing had a distinct Mafioso ring to it, as did something else he told Comey: “I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing, you know.” Comey testified that he had no idea what Trump meant by “that thing,” but to me it couldn’t help bringing to mind La Cosa NostraItalian for “our thing.”

There was more Goodfellas feel: the way Trump on one occasion cleared the room so he could be alone with Comey, and the video — endlessly shown on the cable news networks — of the president grabbing Comey for an embrace and whispering in his ear. At least Trump didn’t move in for a kiss.

On Twitter, Marc Caputo summarized the hearings in mobspeak:

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Moving on, Comey, in both his prepared statement and testimony, showed himself to be a quirky, sometimes innovative user of the language. His much-commented-on “Lordy, I hope there are tapes” prompted NPR to send out a communique to all staffers on the spelling of the first word. I wondered where Comey picked up the seeming Southernism — presumably not the streets of Yonkers, where he grew up. Maybe Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. reruns.

Another bit of testimony sent me straight to the reference shelf:

There should be no fuzz on this whatsoever. The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. And it was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that.

But none of my dictionaries, even slang dictionaries, had an entry for fuzz in this context. Google Books directed me to 1990 Senate hearings in which a former NASA administrator, James Beggs, testified, “NASA is fully as responsible as Perkin-Elmer for the mistake that was made. There is no fuzz on that, as we say in the trade. We are fully responsible. We had the oversight responsibility.” So: an expression meaning something that’s absolutely clear, possibly originating in either military or industrial use. (Beggs graduated from the Naval Academy and served seven years, but came to NASA after a long career in commerce.) By June 9, four people had posted similar definitions on Urban Dictionary.

Another high point came when Sen. Angus King, independent of Maine, questioned Comey, resulting in the kind of quote-dropping oneupsmanship you’d expect to overhear at a Mensa meeting.

KING: But when a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like “I hope” or “I suggest” or — or “would you,” do you take that as a directive?

COMEY: Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

KING: I was just going to quote that. In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and then, the next day, he was killed — Thomas Becket.

Actually, the most common form of the quote is, “Who will deliver me from this turbulent priest?” But Comey and King were close enough for government work.

But what interests me most about the Comey testimony isn’t anything he said, but something he didn’t. In his statement, he described Trump’s saying to him, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Comey’s reaction: “I didn’t move, speak or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.”

The situation spoke to a common, maybe profound, human problem: What do you say when the person you’re talking to says something you feel is inappropriate, strongly disagree with, or even think is morally wrong? The answer is never easy. Many Twitter commenters, and ultimately a New York Times op-ed by Nicole Serratore, noted the similarity of Comey’s experience to, in Serratore’s words, that “of a woman being harassed by her powerful, predatory boss. There was precisely that sinister air of coercion, of an employee helpless to avoid unsavory contact with an employer who is trying to grab what he wants.” In being silent, Serratore noted, Comey “wanted to avoid granting any favor while avoiding the risk of direct confrontation — a problem so deeply resonant for women.”

To me, the scenario brought up a situation journalists often deal with: how to respond when an interview subject says something sketchy or even hateful. You feel a little soiled keeping your thoughts to yourself, but honesty has its own repercussions, as Oliver Stone recently remarked about his evidently less than rigorous questioning of Vladimir Putin in a series of interviews that begins airing tonight on Showtime: “I challenged him the best I could. I felt like, if it goes any further, he could have ended any one of those meetings — he could have said no after the first visit, no reason given.”

The issue animated the fraud suit filed by the convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald against Joe McGinniss, the writer he’d chosen to document his case. As detailed in Janet Malcolm’s book The Journalist and the Murderer, even after McGinniss had concluded that MacDonald was guilty as sin, he egged him on in interviews and acted like he agreed that MacDonald was being railroaded. (After a mistrial was declared, the two sides settled out of court.)

The traditional strategy in such situations is to say something noncommittal, like “There you go,” or just make a grunt or  interjection like “ah” or “umm-hmm.” And at one point, when Trump asked for a public declaration that he wasn’t under investigation, Comey responded with the supremely noncommittal, “I’ll see what we can do.” A bartender I used to work with told me his go-to response to nutters and moan-and-groaners was, “Live and learn.” And a friend likes to say, to every remark for which no clear response is suitable, “I salute you!”

When presented with Trump’s demand for “loyalty,” the 6-foot 8-inch Comey chose to say nothing at all. At the hearings, Sen. Diane Feinstein pressed him on this, and his response was to me the most human, and moving, utterance of the day.

FEINSTEIN: Now, here’s the question: You’re big. You’re strong. 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: It’s a great question. Maybe if I were stronger, I would have. I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took it in. … I — I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.

Correction (6/12/2017, 1 p.m.): Because of an editing error, the original version of this post contained an error regarding the history of “no fuzz on that.” It was not Vice Admiral Richard Truly whose quote we linked to via Google Books, but that of the former NASA administrator James M. Beggs, and the hearing in which he spoke was in 1990, not ’91. Moreover, Beggs’s military background consisted of only seven years, making the phrase’s military origin less certain. Many thanks to Ben Zimmer for pointing out our mistake. The post has been updated to reflect the corrections.

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