Charter Day 2008: Comey's prepared remarks

Comey delivers remarks during the Charter Day ceremony. By Stephen Salpukas.

Following is the prepared text delivered by James B. Comey ('82) during the Charter Day ceremony on Feb. 9, 2008.

President Nichol said a lot of nice stuff about me and some of the opportunities I had during my time in public service. And that's very kind of him. But I'd like to set one thing straight: I'm a good guy; I'm not a great guy. I say that, because during my time in public service, I met hundreds of people very much like I was, people you may not have heard of because accidents of fate didn't bring them to some of the places I found myself, but people nonetheless who cared very much about doing the right thing, who loved the truth, loved public service, and worked to protect the vital institutions of American life.

I want to take just a few minutes to say a word about public service and then to offer two brief reflections from my time in government.

* * *

William and Mary kindled a fire in me to do something to serve others. I started out thinking I should become a doctor – a real doctor, which I know I am not – and ended up thinking maybe I could make a better contribution to my community as a lawyer. My girlfriend Patrice – now my wife – caught the fire here as well and went to the Peace Corps in Africa when we graduated and then into teaching public school. We chose different kinds of public service, but for the same reason: As corny as it sounds, we loved having jobs with moral content, jobs where our obligation each morning was to do something good for the community and our country.

Public service can be very hard on your credit cards. It can be even harder when you look over at friends and colleagues who make a lot more dough than you do in some so-called "prestigious" job on Wall Street or someplace.

But at times like that, it's important to remember what Albert Einstein told young people: "Try not to become a [person] of success but rather try to become a [person] of value."

If those friends making all that dough never take the chance to build a school in a poor village, or change a young student's life, or protect old people from violent predators, they may have found success, but they have missed real value, and that's a tragedy.

The many personal responsibilities in life can make it hard to do public service – unless you have one of those really high paying public service jobs, like teaching at a public college – and many people can't do it for an entire career. But I quietly ache for those who never even try it, or don't stay with it when they could afford it, because they hear the siren song of some job they think offers them greater prestige.

As Emerson said, "Human honor is but smoke, which has no weight." It would be an awful thing to get to the end of this short life and realize you have accumulated the smoke of success, but nothing of real value. Service offers rewards that can't be banked but that sure make you feel rich at the end of every long day.
* * *

I said I wanted to offer a couple reflections from my time in government. They are really broader life lessons, but they hit me most in government, especially as I moved up the ranks. And I don't think either will be a shocker to you:

The first is that people are flawed and often wrong. That's who we are. We make mistakes. But it is the knowledge of that aspect of our nature that is critical. Because people are at their most dangerous, in my experience, when they are certain their cause is just and certain their facts are right.

Almost nothing can be known for certain or observed with perfect clarity. And here's where I get to indulge my geek Chemistry major side: I recently read Walter Issacson's biography of Einstein. He was deeply unsettled by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, the idea that we cannot know a particle's position with certainty because by attempting to measure it, we inevitably disturb it, however slightly. Einstein hated the idea, because it undercut his notion of the universe as essentially knowable. But, as Issacson points out, later experiments proved Heisenberg was right (or at least we think so).

However unsettling that uncertainty might be to a physicist, in public life, a healthy recognition of the limits of our ability to understand facts, and to reason from them to sound decisions, is strength.

But too often, in my experience – especially at the top of the government -- that recognition is derided as a weakness, as "not being solid," or as "squishiness" or "lack of conviction."

But that's wrong. Doubt is not weakness; doubt is wisdom. I'm not talking about the finger-in-the-wind, I'm-afraid-to-make-a-decision kind of doubt. Decisions have to be made in government and often made quickly; even the hardest decisions, which sometimes seem those must be made the quickest and with the most imperfect of information. Sometimes you are right and those who disagree are simply wrong. But knowledge that it could be the reverse is the mark of wise decision-makers.

William and Mary taught me that. I didn't realize it at the time, but it is a rare thing to find people who listen with a mind open to the idea of actually being convinced. More often, and particularly in our nation's capital, you find folks who listen only to figure out what rebuttal they're going to deliver to what you just tried to say, and are not looking to learn anything.

It's a place where people often take a position rather than stating a belief. It is a place where people take sides, and frankly care mostly about whether their side wins, and never, or very rarely, take the time to evaluate whether they are still on the right side of something. It is a place where only those with a political death wish listen, pause, and then say to their opponent, "You know, I hadn't thought of it that way; you may be right."

Our professors here insisted that it be different. They were the people who poked and prodded us, demanding that we give a hard scrubbing to ideas, beliefs and conclusions, who demanded that we listen to understand what the other person is saying. They didn't care where we came out on an issue, but they wanted us to show our work, to demonstrate that we had considered other points of view, weighed different authorities, and considered the vital importance of the words we chose. They taught us that it was vitally important to know just how sure you were of something.

They also insisted that we express our views clearly, which sounds like a modest goal, but isn't. I have never gotten over the fact that when I took a class called Significant Books in Western Religion, one of the 12 books we read was Strunk and White, "The Elements of Style." As I recall, the professor explained that all ideas were wasted that were not expressed clearly and directly and that's why it was so important to Western Religion. It seemed weird to me at the time – like so much adults did -- but he was right.

William and Mary trains a young mind to think broadly, reason tightly, and never forget that someone else might have the better of it. I can't tell you how valuable those lessons are in public service, and life.
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The second reflection is that the ability to say "no," particularly under great pressure, is essential to public service. Although this reflection is aimed at lawyers in public service, the importance of "no" applies to all in public service, and, in fact, to all life, as any parent of a teenager knows.

It can be very, very hard to be a conscientious attorney working in government, particularly for those whose work touches on counter-terrorism and war-fighting. It is not because they don't work with great people. They do. They get to work with people who have dedicated their lives to protecting our great country. It can be hard, instead, because the stakes couldn't be higher. Hard because lawyers in that position are likely to hear the words: "If we don't do this, people will die."

You can all supply your own this: "If we don't collect this type of information," or "If we don't use this technique," or "If we don't extend this authority."

It is extraordinarily difficult to be the attorney standing in front of the freight train that is the need for "this." Those lawyers don't want people to die. In fact, those attorneys have chosen to devote themselves to institutions whose sworn duty it is to prevent that, whose sworn duty it is to protect the country and its citizens. But it's not that simple, although during crises, at times of great threat, it can surely seem that simple, even to the lawyer. But lawyers know – or should know – better than anyone, that it is not that simple.

At the outset, lawyers know that we are a nation of laws, not people, and have chosen a profession that internalizes that truth. They know that the rule of law sets this nation apart and is its rock. Those lawyers also know they took an oath to support the constitution of the United States.

They know that there may be agonizing collisions between the duty to protect and the duty to that constitution and the rule of law. When they encounter those moments of collision, I hope those lawyers are aided by an ability to picture the future, to transport themselves to another time and place where they can present their case to an imaginary fact-finder, in an environment very different from the one in which they face current crisis and decision.

They must be able to imagine that they won't be alone in that future calm, well-lit room – blazingly lit by hindsight. With them will be the reputation of their great institutions that will be harmed for years to come by scandal or abuse of authority.

That lawyer is the custodian of so much. The custodian of personal reputations, surely. But more importantly, the custodian of institutional reputation. And most importantly of all, the custodian of the constitution and the rule of law. That lawyer must never lose sight of the obligations of the custodian.

It is the job of a good lawyer to say "yes." It is as much the job of a good lawyer to say "no." "No" is much, much harder. "No" must be spoken into a storm of crisis, with loud voices all around, with lives hanging in the balance. "No" can be the undoing of a career. And often, "no" must be spoken in competition with the voices of other lawyers who do not have the courage to echo it.

It takes far more than a sharp legal mind to say "no" when it matters most. It takes moral character. It takes an ability to see the future. It takes an appreciation of the damage that will flow from an unjustified "yes." It takes an understanding that, in the long-run, government under law is the government so many have died for.

* * *

For three centuries, William and Mary has turned out graduates hungry to be people of value -- not just success -- people who want to heal, to motivate, to lift, to protect. We especially need those people now. As Judge Learned Hand, a legendary federal judge, said at the close of World War II, "Our job will not end with the sound of the guns.... We may not stop until we have done our part to fashion a world in which there shall be some share of fellowship; which shall be better than a den of thieves."

We need teachers, we need engineers, doctors, lawyers, writers, artists, diplomats, and volunteers. We need those people and all the thousands of others who want to serve our world, our community, and our country. Every single person can make a contribution. No matter how old you are, or where you are in life, I hope this amazing College can still inspire you to service, can still inspire you, in the words of John Wesley, to:

"Do all the good that you can
By all the means that you can
In all the ways that you can
In all the places you can
At all the times you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can."

Thank you.