Noted lawyer James Comey (’82) discusses undergrad memories and career

by Steven Nelson on August 26, 2009

James Comey’s career is by any standard remarkable. Mr. Comey graduated from William and Mary in 1982 with a double major in chemistry and religion. By the time of his graduation, he decided to become a lawyer and attended law school at the University of Chicago. He served as the District Attorney of Manhattan and, from 2003 to 2005, he served as Deputy Attorney General. During his time in public service, Mr. Comey was influential in many notable cases, including the prosecution of Martha Stewart and the NSA wiretapping program. He currently is a senior vice president of Lockheed Martin and is the company’s General Counsel.

VAI: Where did you grow up, and how did you decide to attend William and Mary?
Comey: I grew up in the New York metro area. There were lots of kids from the area who went to William and Mary. I knew two who were basketball players, and as a result, I visited. I applied to Harvard, Princeton, and William and Mary. Harvard and Princeton, to their eternal regret, blew me off. William and Mary accepted me, so I decided to go.

VAI: While at William and Mary, what activities were you involved in? Were you involved in campus politics?
Comey: I was not involved in campus politics, but I did participate in my first mass protest against the idea of expanding the football stadium. I was involved in The Flat Hat, and as a junior and senior, I wrote a weekly column. I was active in dorm council leadership as a dorm president. I was active in IM sports. I was not in a greek organization. I studied a lot. In the middle ages, all sophomore men would live in the Dillard Complex, near Eastern State Hospital. We would joke that it was a part of Eastern State. I was elected to be Hall Council President. Living in the Dillard Complex was unbelievable; there would be escaped mental patients in smocks wandering around. It really stunk to live there; the only way to campus was by bus. It was kind of like Lord of the Flies.

VAI: Do you have any particularly poignant memories from your time as an undergraduate?
Comey: I met my wife, which was awesome. I was 19, about to turn 20. She made a failed attempt to nominate me for Bryan Complex President. She claims that we met at a party before then, but I have no present recollection of that. It was 1980, and we’ve been together ever since. That was the best part of William and Mary. I loved my time there; it was an island away from the real world to think about things. I had a really broad experience, a weird double major of chemistry and religion.

VAI: You double-majored in chemistry and religion? How did you come to decide to attend law school?
Comey: I thought that I wanted to be a doctor, so I chose chemistry. Chemistry was in Rogers Hall, and on the ground floor of the building was the religion department. One day I saw the word “death” on a bulletin board advertising for a class on death. It looked cool, so I took it. The class was taught by a great professor, and I took one religion class or another. During junior year, I had an epiphany: why should I be a doctor? After junior year, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, but I finished the chemistry major.

VAI: Did you have a particular professor who had an impact on you?
Comey: There was a visiting professor, Professor Wooverton. He was a historian and a Bishop in the Episcopal Church from, as I remember, Maine. He was a great person and professor. Professor Tiefel, an ethicist, was also a great professor. In these classes what they cared about not was not point of view, but that you had dealt with all considerations, that you used language precisely and tight reasoning. This was great training for life and also to be a lawyer.

VAI: In 2003, as a US Attorney, you announced at a press conference the charges against Martha Stewart. What were your feelings on the case?
Comey: I didn’t really have strong feelings on the case. I wasn’t really looking forward to the prospects of announcing the charges; I thought it would get attention and distract from the importance of other prosecutions we were pursuing, such as Worldcom. I knew I had to, though, because if it was Jane Doe she would have been prosecuted. I looked up statistics on the crime and found that there were 2,000 cases by the Justice Department that year for providing false statements during an investigation. I thought of my hesitation about the case due to someone being rich and famous, and how it shouldn’t be that way. I decided we had to do it. The charges were very common but not much focused on because the people are not usually rich.

VAI: From the end of 2003 until the middle of 2005 you served as Deputy Attorney General. How were you chosen for the appointment, and why did you decide to leave?
Comey: I was appointed to the position. I know mechanically how it happened, but I am not sure how it came to be that they asked me. I was the District Attorney for Manhattan at the time and was contacted by the Justice Department. They asked if I would be interested in being my own boss. I knew my family would be interested in moving away from New York. I left in 2005 because I had been there long enough. It’s a very tough job, and I decided to move on. There was a new Attorney General, which made it a natural time.

VAI: While you served as Acting Attorney General, when John Ashcroft was hospitalized, you refused to authorize the NSA’s domestic wiretapping program. There was a subsequent rush to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital bedside. Could you describe your feelings about these events?
Comey: That was a very challenging time. I felt a number of things, among them that my career was ending. I also had an amazing group of people around me, and I remember feeling immense pride in the Justice Department for doing a great job. I remember feeling great support from my friend, the FBI Director Robert Mueller. There is not enough ink in your pen to write the details. When you are in the middle of something like that, it’s hard to believe it’s happening to you.

VAI: While you served in the Justice Department, there was a planned mass resignation of Justice officials and others in protest of the NSA wiretapping program. Some speculated that if this occurred, President Bush would have been impeached, and that this information was kept from him by Vice President Cheney until immediately before the plan was to take effect. Could you describe your role in developing this plan?
Comey: I could but I’m not going to. I’ve never given an interview on this topic and I’m going stick to that rule. Mostly because it would infuriate a lot of people from The New York Times and The Washington Post who I have said no to. A couple reasons I have not discussed this: I have no interest in being famous, it’s been written about, the Director General wrote a report on it. Another reason is I think that lawyers involved in sensitive matters should not discuss them, so that people feel comfortable talking about…I’m not writing a book.

VAI: Politico reported a few months ago that some White House officials recommended your name be on the “short list” of candidates to replace Supreme Court Justice David Souter. Do you have any idea who these officials were, and were you ever contacted by the White House?
Comey: I have no idea where that came from. I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, nobody ever talked to me. I have no idea who shared that and no indication that it was serious. I’m a Republican and served in the Bush administration, so I was thinking, “Why on earth would they consider me?” All I know on this is what I read in Politico.

VAI: Can you describe your role in Lockheed Martin? How is it different from public service?
Comey: It pays better. One of the reasons I like working at Lockheed Martin is that it feels the same. Eighty-four percent of our revenue comes from the government. We’re supporting the FBI, the CIA, the Defense Department. We’re serving our shareholders and helping the government do what it has to do.

VAI: Do you have any advice for current students considering law school?
Comey: I think it’s a great career path because of the flexibility it offers you to do so many things. Legal training is a great thing, whether you become a lobbyist, a corporate executive, or a lawyer. It gives you an opportunity to get involved in public service, which is a neat thing.

VAI: Have you kept in touch with many friends from college? Any in government or career?
Comey: Not many. I am in Christmas-card-touch with a group of my friends. Obviously, my closest friend is my wife, so I’m in touch with her on a regular basis. I have a younger brother who also went to William and Mary, four years behind me. A daughter is there now. I also recently agreed to speak at Convocation.

VAI: Do you have any preference for a new William and Mary mascot?
Comey: I don’t but I am dying to know what it will be. I’m on the Alumni Association’s board, so I have to remain scrupulously agnostic.

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