The James Comey Op-Ed In The New York Times: Narcissism Is Not A Victimless Crime

The James Comey Op-Ed In The New York Times: Narcissism Is Not A Victimless Crime


Leonard Zwelling

I have tried to express the thoughts that James Comey has so eloquently in this opinion piece in the New York Times on May 2.

What Comey was trying to explain is straight forward, but difficult all at once.

How do good people go so wrong under a narcissistic leader?

Of course, Mr. Comey is speaking about President Trump and the many people who have defended his indefensible behavior over the 25 or so months Trump has been in office. He attributes the phenomenon of good people going bad to two things: the force of the leader and the weakness of those with whom the leader surrounds himself.

Here are a few choice observations by Comey:

“Amoral leaders have a way of revealing the character of those around them.”

“Proximity to an amoral leader reveals something depressing.”

“Accomplished people lacking inner strength can’t resist the compromises necessary to survive Mr. Trump and that is something they will never recover from.”

“Trump pulls those present into a silent circle of assent.”

My question is not whether or not what Mr. Comey says is true. It is. My point of writing this is that it is happening at MD Anderson and has been for 18 years.

Let me start with a personal story. In 2002 the president of MD Anderson was found to have a drug in clinical trials at Anderson that he invented and in whose sponsor he had millions of dollars in stock, yet he disclosed none of this to the 195 human subjects receiving the drug in the course of the trials. It was on the front page of the Washington Post and soon filtered into the Houston media market. The local NBC TV affiliate came knocking on my door asking for an explanation of this seeming breach in protocol. So did the Houston Chronicle.

To my perpetual regret I defended the president as having done nothing wrong and technically that was true as the conflict of interest policy then was not what it is now. I along with the president was castigated in the Chronicle editorial section a few days later.

I always regretted not saying flat out that this was a grievous error and we’re sorry. To his credit the president did pull together a task force to overhaul the conflict of interest rules at Anderson, but the damage had been done, to Anderson, to him and to me. I was damaged because I was a weak apologist for bad behavior. I have no excuse. I liked my job too much and was not clever enough to figure out a way to maintain it and my integrity simultaneously.

Years later I had a close friend who was promoted very high in the administration of the next president of MD Anderson. He had me in his office and asked me what I thought about his boss. I told him that I thought “the SOB should go back to Boston before he ruins MD Anderson.” My friend stayed in the administration of that president and ruin did follow. By then, I was gone, but not before I was seated across from that president listening to a 45-minute harangue about how I shouldn’t leak documents to the press. When he finally took a breath, and with the chairman and vice chairman of the Faculty Senate sitting silently in assent beside me I looked at that president and said, “I didn’t do it. I never had the documents you are accusing me of leaking.” I did better on my second try facing amoral leadership.

And my friend, who is no longer my friend, is gone now, too.

Today, as members of the faculty leave or are fired because they are suspected of leaking documents to the Chinese mainland, yet none has been accused of a federal crime as far as I can tell, once again the leadership is doing a poor job of acting virtuously and the minions of appointees are making it worse by staying silent, defending these actions or asking the faculty to be more professional, a diversion if there ever was one. This is horse hockey and should be called out as such.

Please Faculty Senate. Don’t be like the 2002 me. Be like the second me who stood up for himself. For whatever reason, and I am not at all sure we have heard the truth about the Chinese issue at Anderson. Anderson appears to be the only institution of the 55 that received letters of warning from the NIH at which Chinese faculty were fired. Why? And why isn’t the rest of the institutional leadership concerned about this to the point where they will admit mistakes may have been made. I cannot imagine the circumstances that would ever permit the FBI to have access to the emails of 23 faculty members. Were the faculty members even aware of the invasion of their privacy? I understand that MD Anderson owns the email system so faculty using that system have no expectation of privacy. Does that make this breach of trust excusable? Not to me. Who is the administration a fiduciary for, the faculty or the FBI?

At the very end of the Comey piece he writes this.

‘”Of course, to stay, you must be seen as on his team, so you make further compromises. You use his language, praise his leadership, tout his commitment to values.

“And then you are lost. He has eaten your soul.”

I know what it is like to have my soul eaten by a narcissistic leader. I also know what it is like not allowing the next one to take a bite.

My advice. Save your soul. Tell the leader to eat elsewhere.

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