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Mr. Comey Goes To Washington

Just as his terrorism and corporate-corruption cases here are heating up, United States Attorney James Comey is heading south to become John Ashcroft’s deputy. What’s a nice, nonpartisan prosecutor going to do in a Justice Department like that?

Jim Comey is laughing. As the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he holds one of the toughest jobs in law enforcement, at a time when the action has never been more intense. Around the corner from Comey’s downtown office, the first high-stakes test of his crusade against corporate corruption has begun with the trial of Frank Quattrone. Down in Virginia, a federal judge has issued yet another damaging ruling in the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged “twentieth hijacker,” a case that’s being handled by one of Comey’s most trusted lieutenants. And Comey’s indictment of Martha Stewart is under assault again, with a new defense motion to dismiss the obstruction-of-justice charges against the dominatrix of domesticity.

Yet Comey is cackling. He is a deeply serious man, a law-and-order Republican appointee—and, standing six feet eight inches tall, instantly intimidating. But laughter is his natural state. Comey is talking about his upcoming “career day” chat to his daughter’s first-grade class. “My wife and I have five kids, so I’ve done this many times,” he says. “I like to bring stuff to show them: fingerprints, handcuffs, stuff like that.” Suddenly, Comey is shouting, acting out his lesson to the 6-year-olds: “Tell the truth! See what can happen to you?” he yells. “Okay, now we’re all gonna perp-walk to the playground! Tommy—you be Kozlowski!

Comey has been savaged by William Safire and lauded by Chuck Schumer; just what kind of Republican is he, anyway? This sets Comey howling again. “I must be doing something right!” he says. “In college, I was left of center, and through a gradual process I found myself more comfortable with a lot of the ideas and approaches the Republicans were using.” He voted for Carter in 1980, but in ’84, “I voted for Reagan—I’d moved from Communist to whatever I am now. I’m not even sure how to characterize myself politically. Maybe at some point, I’ll have to figure it out.”

Or maybe he’s being disingenuous. Because three hours later, Comey gets a phone call from Washington: President George W. Bush is nominating him as the No. 2 man to Attorney General John Ashcroft. On the surface, it’s an odd pairing: Comey—who cites liberal theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as a formative influence, and who can sing along with Good Charlotte pop-punk hits—and Ashcroft, a reactionary born-again Christian who breaks into spirited renditions of biblical hymns. There’s little risk Comey will lose his sense of humor in his new job. It’s only his soul that’s up for grabs.

Prosecuting Martha Stewart, Sam Waksal, assorted Greedhead Telecom executives, and Bronx gun dealers may soon look easy to Jim Comey. He is heading to Washington to become the second-highest-ranking law-enforcement official in the United States at a time of galloping partisan rancor. Not only is the Justice Department grappling with how to prosecute alleged terrorists, but it is also pushing for an expansion of the USA Patriot Act, the controversial civil-liberties-curbing doctrine that’s the centerpiece of the Bush administration’s anti-terror legal offensive. And Ashcroft is under intense fire, with Democrats calling for the attorney general to recuse himself from the CIA Leakgate investigation.

Comey will play a major role in all those dramas, and more, which will force his closely guarded political views into the public eye. “I had no sense whether Jim was an R or a D,” says Eric Holder Jr., who worked closely with Comey when Holder was deputy attorney general to Janet Reno in the Clinton administration—and who remains a confirmed D. “He’s just a good guy. It’s only now, because he’s in this administration, that I’m assuming Jim is a Republican.”

His New York critics, however, think they see Comey’s colors clearly beneath the smiling façade. “Nothing Comey has done here suggests he’s going to act as a brake on what Ashcroft is doing,” says Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “He is a congenial person. But that can’t obscure the fact that he’s pushing a set of policies that are extremely hostile to civil liberties.”

Next to Ashcroft, though, Comey sounds like Noam Chomsky. Will he become a bigfoot? Or a loyal foot soldier? Even Comey’s friends wonder if he can withstand the forces that will soon swirl around him. “For the first time in his life,” says one, “he’s heading into a truly political environment.”

He was born in Yonkers 42 years ago, the second of four children in a middle-class Irish-American family. Comey’s father worked in corporate real estate; his mother was a homemaker and computer consultant. One Friday night in October 1977, when the family was living in Allendale, New Jersey, his parents went to a church dance and left Jim home with his younger brother, Peter. Comey, a high-school senior, was in his bedroom writing a short story for the school literary magazine when he heard a flurry of heavy footsteps and a slamming door. He went to check it out—and found Peter facedown on a bed, with a man pointing a gun at him.

For the next hour, Comey and his brother were hostages. “I thought he was going to execute us,” Comey says. Instead, the assailant eventually locked the brothers in the basement. They escaped out a window—and ran smack into the gunman on the lawn. Neighbors rushed out to help, and three more hostages were grabbed. In the chaos, the Comey boys fled into the house and called the cops. But the gunman disappeared.

Later, a man was arrested under suspicion of being a serial rapist who attacked baby-sitters in the area. But no one was ever charged for the attack on the Comeys. “At one point, I thought—I knew—that I was going to die that night,” Comey says now. “It gave me a sense of how precious and short life is. Second, it gave me a keen sense for what victims of crime feel. I know that in some sense, they never get over it. That’s helped me as a prosecutor. I survived that experience, as did my brother, and we became—we hope—healthy adults. But it stayed with me for a long time.”

Comey’s grandfather had been police commissioner in Yonkers, but Jim went to the College of William and Mary thinking he wanted to be a doctor. He majored in chemistry and religion. “Niebuhr’s book Moral Man and Immoral Society says it’s not enough to sit in an ivory tower and say, I believe certain things, therefore I’m among the just,” Comey says. “Particularly Christians, he believed, had an obligation to participate in the life of their community.”

After writing a senior thesis analyzing Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell—Comey emphasized their common belief in public action—he studied law at the University of Chicago. In 1987, he was hired as an assistant U.S. Attorney in New York’s Southern District by then-boss Rudy Giuliani. Comey says he tries to emulate Giuliani’s energy and enthusiasm, but otherwise he takes pains to distance himself from the former mayor. One reporter recalls interviewing Comey in 2002, just after his arrival as U.S. Attorney. Comey slapped a copy of an old New York Magazine on the desk, with a photo of Giuliani triumphantly striding up courthouse steps. “That’s what I don’t want to look like,” Comey said. It was a slick piece of PR jujitsu: comparing and contrasting himself with Giuliani at the same time.