A reservoir of trust–and a hole in the dam

This is one somewhat lengthy paragraph from James Comey, taken from his book “A Higher Loyalty,” concerning his years as a U.S. Attorney, in the Attorney General’s office, and as director of the F.B.I.

It was now my responsibility to build my own culture within the U.S.Attorney’s office, one that would get the best out of our team and drawing, in different ways, on the lessons of Giuliana and Fahey.  I tried to attend to this task from the very first day. I hired about fifty new prosecutors during my time as U.S. Attorney and sat with each of them as they took the oath of office.  I invited them to bring their families.  I told them that something remarkable was going to happen when they stood up (in court) and said they represented the United States of America–total strangers were going to believe what they said next.  I explained to them that although I didn’t want to burst their bubbles, this would not happen because of them.  It would happen because of those who had gone before them and, through hundreds of promises made and kept, and hundreds of truths told and errors instantly corrected, built something for them.  I called it a reservoir.  I told them it was a reservoir of trust and credibility built for you and filled for you by people you never knew, by those who are long gone.  A reservoir that makes possible so much of the good that is done by the institution you serve.  A remarkable gift.  I would explain to these bright young lawyers that, like all great gifts, this one comes with a responsibility, a solemn obligation to guard and protect that reservoir and pass it on to those who follow as full as you received it, or maybe even fuller.  I would explain that the problem with reservoirs is that they take a very long time to fill but they can be drained by one hole in the dam.  The actions of one person can destroy what ti took hundreds of people years to build.

The credibility of an institution.  Like a government, a college, a school, a church.  Even the credibility of one person–a leader, a president, a senator, a law enforcer, a pastor.

Plenty of people are saying that Mr. Comey himself blew a hole in the dam of the FBI during his time as its leader.  Which, if so, makes his words above even more poignant.

But let’s stay with the metaphor.  It’s a good one.

Filling a reservoir takes time.  Building a legacy of trust and integrity takes time.

When we build on the outstanding record of those who went before us, we deepen the reservoir and strengthen the trust with which people view us.

One person can bring down a dam.  The actions of a single person can undo all that has gone before.

To millions of Americans, Bill Cosby was the epitome of family values as a result of his TV series in which he played Dr. Huxtable.  They were rated number one year after year.  But this week, the 80-plus-year-old Cosby was convicted of sexual harassment, of lying under oath, and who knows what all else, and will be going to prison.  My hunch is the company owning the Cosby Show reruns can’t give them away now.

Tom Brokaw canceled a graduation speech the other day.  A former newswoman who worked with him is accusing him of inappropriate sexual behavior with her.  We all loved Tom Brokaw.

You can spend a lifetime building the legacy of trust.  Filling the reservoir, if you will.  And you can blow a hole in it by one or two foolish acts.  Lying under oath, sexual misbehavior, and a thousand other sins.

Life does not end when the dam bursts.  But there is much repair work to be done. And the reservoir will never be what it could have been before.

God help us all to get this right.

The charges and accusations against former FBI Director James Comey seem to be unrelenting.  I’m personally undecided what to make of all this, but felt it was important to hear his side of things, so bought his book “A Higher Loyalty.”  I’m about halfway through it, having had to stop to keep my preaching and travel responsibilities.  


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