“This Meddlesome Priest” Troubles Trump

by James M. Wall

At 2:30 in the morning of June 17, 1972, forty five years ago this weekend, five men were arrested as they attempted to place wire taps in the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the Washington, D.C. Watergate hotel and office complex.

Those arrests are being recalled after 45 years, as President Donald Trump faces his own potential Watergate scandal. Both ABC News and MSNBC are airing Watergate specials this weekend.

History has shown that the Nixon-authorized break-in was a colossal act of paranoid misjudgment. Nixon did not need the break-in to win. Utilizing his presidential platform, Nixon campaigned vigorously as a foreign policy expert, traveling in 1972 to China (February 21) and the Soviet Union (May 22).

The 1960s frightened insecure politicians like Nixon, but the radical passions of that era made even more voting enemies than it did adherents.

In spite of the slowly growing media attention to Watergate, Nixon won an easy victory, trouncing his Democratic opponent, South Dakota Senator George McGovern (below), sweeping the national electoral college, except for the state of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

Trump had more reason to stretch outside the law to win, if indeed, that is what he did, because unlike the incumbent Nixon, he was a nobody from reality television.

Still, the suspicion grows daily that “Watergate Two” threatens, thanks to news stories like this one Thursday from The Washington Post

​The special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election is interviewing senior intelligence officials as part of a widening probe that now includes an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice​”​, officials ​said.​

The move by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (shown at top) to investigate Trump’s conduct marks a major turning point in the nearly year-old FBI investigation, which until recently focused on Russian meddling during the presidential campaign and on whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Investigators have also been looking for any evidence of possible financial crimes among Trump associates, officials said.

Then-FBI Director James B. Comey, starting in January, told President Trump that he was not personally under investigation. Current officials say that changed shortly after Comey’s firing.

Interview requests are believed to have been issued by Mueller to “Daniel Coats, the current director of national intelligence, Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency, and Rogers’s recently departed deputy, Richard Ledget”. Others may have been questioned, as well.

In his appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee Comey testified “that he had informed Trump that there was no investigation of the president’s personal conduct, at least while he was leading the FBI”.

If Mueller decides to pursue an obstruction of justice case against Trump, testimony from Comey and other officials, the Post writes, “could become central pieces of evidence.”

As the Mueller investigation continues, Comey is expected to return to the national spotlight.  Who is this man with his calm demeanor and towering 6 foot 8 inch frame?

To gain a better perspective on former FBI Director James Comey, we should start with his appointment as the new FBI director by President Barak Obama in September in 2013.

Neill Caldwell​, editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate magazine, wrote 
 a story for Religious News Service July 31, 2013, under a headline that said:​ ​Next FBI Director is a United Methodist.

That was news to me and it also pleased my John Wesleyan heart. (We Methodists can also be tribal). Here is the start  of the story:

The next director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is a former Sunday school teacher at Reveille United Methodist Church in Richmond, Va.

President Barack Obama’s nominee, James B. Comey Jr., breezed through a U.S. Senate hearing on his nomination and was approved July 29, as the seventh director of the FBI.

He will follow current FBI leader Robert Mueller, who has been director for 12 years. Comey, a Republican former deputy attorney general under the George W. Bush administration, won praise from members of both parties on the Senate Judiciary Committee for his extensive resume.

Comey, 52, was born in Yonkers, N.Y., where his grandfather rose from cop walking the beat to police commissioner. Comey grew up in Allendale, N.J., attending public schools, and went on to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. There he majored in chemistry and religion, and met his future wife, Patrice Failor.

In 1983, after his first year of law school, he was visiting Patrice in Sierra Leone, where she was in the Peace Corps. He came down with malaria. Only her quick action in getting him to a hospital saved his life.​

Comey was born and raised in Yonkers, New York. Comey is of Irish heritage and his family was Catholic. His family moved to Allendale, New Jersey, in the early 1970s. He later became a United Methodist. He graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1982, where he majored in chemistry and religion.

For his senior thesis, Comey analyzed Reinhold Niebuhr and the conservative televangelist Jerry Falwell, emphasizing their common belief in public action.  Steven Weitzman examined that senior thesis for Christianity Today.

I tracked down his senior thesis to see what lessons there might be for understanding the FBI director’s run-in with President Trump.

Submitted in 1982, Comey’s thesis compares Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell. At the time, the televangelist had emerged as a central figure in American politics following the election of Ronald Reagan. Comey’s study was an effort to understand how each man would answer the question: “Why should the Christian be involved in politics?”

Niebuhr and Falwell came from opposite sides of the political spectrum. One, a former socialist and—despite his support for the Cold War—an early opponent of the Vietnam War, believing it an obligation to be critical of American actions that were unjust. The other, a staunch opponent to socialism and a supporter of the Vietnam War.

As the co-founder of the Moral Majority, Falwell espoused the kind of America-first patriotism that Niebuhr condemned. Niebuhr rejected moral absolutes, believing they were beyond reach and that their pursuit could lead humans into sinful pride. Falwell embraced them.

Yet, each claimed Scripture as the source for their political doctrines. Falwell believed the Bible to be infallible whereas Niebuhr was sensitive to the ambiguities. And each believed in a politically engaged Christianity willing to seek power, accept compromises, and risk cynicism and cooptation to achieve justice or avoid moral decay.

James Comey understands how religion and politics are intertwined.

The New York Times took note of Comey’s reference to “meddlesome priest” in his Senate testimony.

Asked if he took President Trump’s “hope” that he would drop the Flynn-Russia investigation “as a directive,” Mr. Comey responded, Yes, yes. It rings in my ears as kind of, ‘Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ ”

These words, tradition has it, were those King Henry II of England cried out in 1170, as he grappled with the political opposition of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.

As depicted in the play by Jean Anouilh, and the 1964 film, Becket, four royal knights rushed off to Canterbury and murdered “the meddlesome priest”.

The Times concludes: “Mr. Comey’s point was that a desire expressed by a powerful leader is tantamount to an order. When Senator James E. Risch, a Republican, noted that the president had merely ‘hoped for an outcome,’ Mr. Comey replied, ‘I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying ‘I hope this.’ I took it as, this is what he wants me to do’.”

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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2 Responses to “This Meddlesome Priest” Troubles Trump

  1. I think the appropriate “Watergate analogy” would be “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up!” When President Reagan confronted the “Iran/Contra” situation, he did not obstruct the investigation. There were embarrassing stories and televised hearings. When the President went on TV and admitting “mistakes were made,” and apologizing to the American people, he retained most of his popular support.
    Unfortunately, the current president is unable/unwilling to admit ANY mistake and is thus unable to learn from them. We all suffer the collateral damage.

  2. J. Martin Bailey says:

    The comparison between Trump and Nixon is interesting. But as you imply, Trump is no Nixon. By comparison Mr. Trump is a bull in the China shop of the world; Nixon was sly as a fox, often hiding out in a corner of the White House. Trump is more like Nixon’s operatives who bumbled and bungled around Watergate. The parallels to the way Watergate unfolded and the way the present crisis is playing out also are interesting. There are numerous leaks in the Trump White House and only one serious Deep Throat in the Nixon years. If anything, the media is much better prepared today than 45 years ago. Nixon of course railed at the press, but the present occupant of the Oval Office can’t even keep the metaphor of “fake news” clear in his own mind.
    I just hope that there are some thoughtful political strategists beginning now to plan for our next presidential election.

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