10 | A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey

James Comey is a figure familiar to those who have followed any American political news since 2017, the former FBI Director famously and abruptly fired by Trump. Turns out, Comey was speaking at a diversity event, aimed to recruit Black and Latino Special Agents to serve in the FBI when he saw headlines on the news: “Comey Fired.” He learned his fate from television. How disrespectful and humiliating.

I didn’t know much about Comey prior to reading his political memoir, but Comey has been active, off and on, in public service since the 80s, serving as, among other positions, as part of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, as Assistant U.S. Attorney during the Clinton Administration and as both U.S. Attorney and Deputy Attorney General during the Bush Administration. During his early years, he helped prosecute members of Italian crime families, discussing how he came to realize how being a leader of a mob family is critically different from being an leader of a public institution. While in crime families personal and familial loyalty are the ultimate vow, one which violence, coercion, and even murder are used to test said loyalty in, the type of loyalty which Comey claims to espouse is loyalty not to a person or entity, but to the justice system and institutional values of the United States. I would agree with him, yet his seemingly wavering devotion to this ethical leadership irked me, as throughout the book, he painted himself as a paragon of righteousness. Every decision he made, regardless of how controversial, was right, was ethical and was just. Comey never admits of making a mistake or even admits to the possibility that he may have made one. He writes that no one wants a leader who isn’t sure about something. People want a strong leader who, at the least, has unquestioned confidence in his own ability to make tough decisions during stressful moments. Yes, I agree, I don’t want someone is a position of power to regret making a decision that affected people’s real lives in a negative way, yet I find the chasm between me and Comey to have widened as he never suggests a shortcoming. The paradox was obvious to me; Comey writes we’re all humans and make mistakes. What’s more is that we should be allowed to. Yet in his memoir, he assures readers he’s always done the right thing. Okay, so is Comey human like me?

Comey’s memoir is an important read during this chaotic political time. I appreciate that he did write his book after his firing because it’s important for people to understand who he is and what he stands for, in his own words. The writing is compelling for the most part, especially towards the end of the book when he share intimate details about his meetings with Trump. Throughout his prior dealings with Obama, he reiterates several times how important it is for the President and the FBI Director to never have a buddy-buddy relationship, for there to always be professional distance to ensure there is no influence and that if the President or his associates are to be investigated, the FBI remains a apolitical institution where justice always prevails. For Comey, this meant he would never have lunch with Obama or even play pick-up basketball with him. This was just plain inappropriate. However, just days within Trump’s swearing in, Trump asked Comey to have dinner with him, during which Trump says: “I need your loyalty.” Comey immediately draws parallels to what an Italian crime mob boss would say. Spoiler, pretty much the same thing. Comey describes a numbing horror that dawns upon him. Not only was this dinner unconventional, the President was asking for something completely immoral and unjust. Loyalty? You mean, to lie on his behalf or stymie investigations to render them ineffective or inconclusive? It’s very believable Trump did indeed say those words, probably not just to Comey. And when Comey didn’t do what Trump asked, which was to essentially bury the investigation of Michael Flynn, Comey was fired.

Comey ends his book with saying he chooses to be optimistic, saying that this forest fire will do significant damage in the short term, but will inevitably spurt growth down in the line. Now, I don’t this this metaphor is necessarily helpful- calling Trump a forest fire is to suggest this forest fire was a spontaneous event of sorts. Trump becoming president was spontaneous. People voted for him. There’s nothing about spontaneous about that. Furthermore, forest fires are natural occurrences, part of an ecological cycle that will ensure balance in the land. Trump is not balancing anything. He’s constantly pointing fingers, at the press, at Democrats, at other people. Every week there’s a terrible headline about something Trump or his associates have done clandestinely before or during his presidency. Look at how many Trump associates have been sentenced to prison or are currently under federal investigation. Look how much turnover there is his administration. There’s been no conclusion with his good buddy Shel’s paper buying and suppressing of damning stories about his encounters with adult stars. That story broke years ago yet there’s no resolution. So for me, his positivity doesn’t ring true yet. It’s just gets worse as people become apathetic and think “oh, that’s no big deal” because there’s so much that’s happened it has given the public amnesia.

While I admire and think Comey’s commitment to justice and serving the nation is honorable, I certainly think there are just too few people like him in elected office. At least, that’s how he made me feel. He writes about he was often alone in standing up and making the right decisions as awry political biases and allegiance marred politicians on both sides ability to make other “right” decisions. I understand “right” is relative but I’m sure most of us can agree that when something is wrong, like lying under oath, using a non-secure web domain to communicate classified information, asking to stop an investigation because you know someone is a “good guy.” Wrongdoings should be investigated and punishment should be deftly delivered. Sometimes it feels like a young child knows the difference between right and wrong better than grown-ass adults do.

6 | Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

What if justice is never served? What do victims and their families have to cling on to? The story is not only gut-wrenching, but also infuriating and alarming. I have cursory knowledge of the plight of many Native Americans in the United States gleaned from history classes in school, including some semblance of understanding about wars fought with European colonists, widespread disease they had no immunity towards, the Trail of Tears, forced relocation, decimation of their food sources and hunting grounds, forced reeducation by Catholic and Christian missionaries (including sexual abuse by priests)… but what happened to the Osage people in the 1920s was a whole new level of exploitation and utter transgression of human rights. This book reads like crime fiction, but it is not.

After the Osage were forced from their lands and confined to a small Indian Territory in Oklahoma during the 1870s, which Wah-Ti-An-Kah, an Osage chief chose because he believed it to be barren enough no white man would ever wish to claim it, they attempted to establish their way of life once again. However, just over a decade later, there were no more American buffalo left to hunt due to encouraged eradication by U.S. authorities. As Osage went hungry, there were systematic policies to force further assimilation. Allotment policies were created to destroy the Osage’s traditional communal land structures, and white people began to arrive in the area, buying (but mostly taking) land parcels not already distributed. The Osage discovered they were sitting on some of the largest oil deposits on the continental U.S., and were able to create a tribe mineral trust, resulting in every Osage family receiving a headright. The tribe began to lease land to whites for exploration and drilling, and the Osage eventually became the richest people per capita in the world. While the Osage had mansions, automobiles, clothes from Europe and even white people working for them, they were not allowed to spend their own money: every transaction had to be approved by a white guardian.

The scope of the book is really only one case, that of Mollie Burkhart and her family, wealthy Osage who lived in a small Oklahoma trading post called Gray Horse who possessed a significant headright. One by one, her sisters, father, brother-in-law, mother and former husband die– some clearly murdered by a gunshot to the back of the head, a house explosion, or poision, but others not so certain. It is very clear from the beginning that something is seriously wrong: no lawman, private eye, guardian, investigator, doctor or coroner get any leads to attempt to figure out what really happened. Other Osage die too, also under “mysterious” circumstances. After years of murders, paranoia and mistrust, the Bureau of Investigation, created only a few years earlier in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt, sends Agent Tom White and others to investigate. This investigation was the controversial figure J. Edgar Hoover’s pet project and the Bureau’s first major investigation. White was eventually able to reveal a mass entanglement of lies and manipulation, but not without the aid of informants, undercover work and extensive investigation. The head of the criminal enterprise was none other than the guardian of Mollie and her family: William K. Hale, a respected and extremely wealthy businessman, who had actually wandered into Gray Horse as a poor nobody looking for opportunity. He systematically murdered various family members in order for Mollie to inherit each family member’s fortune. His nephew Ernest was married to Mollie, and the hope was when Mollie would die (or really, when she was mysteriously murdered), all the accumulated wealth would have nicely trickled down into Ernest’s hands. In order to secure this, witnesses, spouses, random street walkers, and really anyone who saw or heard any crimes committed were killed. The total number of people murdered by Hale was never known. Obviously, Hale and his nephews could not have executed this scheme alone. Agent White concluded that doctors, coroners, local and state government officials and other guardians were all in on this dirty “secret.”

The official Reign of Terror against the Osage took place during 1921 to 1926. But further investigation done by Grann as he spoke to surviving Osage relatives was that the killings began before 1921 and did not end in 1926. There weren’t just 20 Osage who were murdered for their headrights, and it wasn’t just Hale and his associates doing the murdering. There were hundreds of suspicious deaths, as in the case of a 21 year old Osage woman with a six month old baby who “committed suicide” in her front yard. The granddaughter of this woman suspected it was her grandmother’s stepfather, a white man, who had masterminded the murder in order to inherit her and her mother’s headrights. Grann writes “so many of the murders of the Osage were so well concealed” that no justice was ever given to the victims. White women married Osage men to murder them and inherit their wealth. Guardians killed the Osage they were supposed to watch over. Doctors injected morphine to kill Osage. Coroners issued false cause of the death documents. In the case of Mollie and Ernest Burkhart, Ernest had planned to kill Mollie and their three young children to inherit their birthrights.

What’s even more sickening is that Hale was only convinced for a few of the murders, and was actually later paroled and died a free man. Ernest was also paroled. Most murderers were never sentenced; in fact most murders were never declared murders and therefore there is no chance for true resolution or justice. This book does not offer resolution whatsoever. The last line is what a descendant of the Osage says, quoting what God tells Cain after he kills Abel: “The blood cries out from the ground.”