Former FBI Director James Comey referred to history while making history of his own June 8 in his public testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
President Donald Trump, referring to the FBI investigation of Michael Flynn, his national security advisor, allegedly said he hoped Comey could “let this go” after Flynn was removed from his post. Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent, asked what Comey thought that meant. Comey replied that “it rang in my ears as, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’”
At the heart of the exchange are these question: Must a leader give an explicit order to make his desire known? Is a chief who merely implies his order by expressing his desire shielded from accountability?
In his quotation about the “meddlesome priest,” Comey was repeating words attributed to King Henry II in regard to Thomas Becket, the rebellious archbishop of Canterbury and former chancellor of England. Literally, the king was asking a question. But four barons who were present with Henry at the time very clearly understood it to be a directive. As a consequence, they immediately left their sovereign, traveled to Canterbury, chased Becket into his cathedral and murdered him at the altar on Dec, 29, 1170.
The king did not issue a specific order, yet his barons believed strongly that he was directing them to act as if he had. Left alone with the president, Comey felt the president’s stated desire constituted an unstated order, though the FBI director had no intention of compromising his integrity or that of the Bureau by spiking an active investigation. As Henry was frustrated with Becket, Comey implied, so Trump was frustrated with his FBI chief. Comey had neither halted the Flynn investigation nor, evidently, pledged his loyalty to Trump and his regime. As Becket died on the words of the king who had once elevated him to high office, so Comey was fired by the president who had often praised him.
Words convey meaning in the context of a sentence, certainly. But situational context gives words meaning as well. Shouting, “Fire!” in a crowded theater has meaning in its situational context that it does not have in an empty cow pasture. An observer will understand, “Are you going to wear that out?” differently if a husband sneers the question to a wife trying on a dress than if the wife laughingly says the same words to the husband mowing their lawn for two hours.
History, as Americans have witnessed it in the past several months, is a living thing. It has actors like Trump and Comey and ancestors like Henry and Becket. And it will have descendants in some future drama. History is not dead. It is who we have been, are, and will be.