The first sentence always hooks them.
Consider E.B. White in “Charlotte’s Web”: “‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the breakfast table.” Or George Orwell’s “1984” curtain-raiser: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Try the simplicity of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”: “Call me Ishmael.”
“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story,” says horror master Stephen King. “It should say ‘Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.’”
It’s doubtful former FBI Director James Comey burned any midnight oil drafting today’s boilerplate, congressional salutation: “Chairman Burr, Ranking Member Warner, Members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting me to appear before you today.”
But don’t be fooled – his testimony at Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing is a page-turner.
Comey’s seven-page opening statement released the day ahead of his appearance pitched Washington into a tizzy. Comey’s missive knocked much of the news from another hearing before the intelligence panel off the front pages. People scoured through Comey’s words for details about his firing, interactions with the President, suggestions of impropriety and anything about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Comey’s screed had it all.
There was President Trump’s request that Comey back off investigating Flynn. A dramatic scene where the president told Comey he expected “loyalty.” An “awkward” moment where Trump and Comey “looked at each other in silence,” the former FBI Director noting he “didn’t move, speak or change by facial expression in any way.” Granular details about a door in the Oval Office opening and closing beside a “grandfather clock.”
Comey hints the intelligence community had “unverified” and “salacious” information that the president may have been “compromised.” He wonders if the then president-elect worried he might be under investigation. There’s talk of turning someone into a “double-agent.” Trump speaks of a “cloud” looming over his presidency.
And we haven’t even gotten to the part about the Russian hookers yet.
Could you put down a thriller like this?
Comey’s statement was a didactic tale crystallizing the essence of Washington: Machiavellian power struggles. The possibility of foreign, covert operations. Dubious requests. Concrete, almost cinematic scenes which capture the tension.
“To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting.”
“[Trump] sat behind the desk and a group of us sat in a semi-circle of about six chairs facing him on the other side of the desk. I was directly facing the President.”
“It was unclear from the conversation who else would be at the dinner, although I assumed there would be others. It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks.”
“When the door by the grandfather clock closed, and we were alone…”
Finally there’s Comey’s spare yet dramatic closing line: “That was the last time I spoke with President Trump.”
A startling sentence because we know what happened next.
Comey’s narrative aims to follow the basic tenets of clear writing. His verse portrays himself as a first-person narrator. Attention to detail paints specific images. He describes scenes with the placement of furniture. Comey characterizes the uneasy emotions coursing through him. He concludes with a pithy, foreboding sentence.
But some lawmakers familiar with Comey interpreted much of the former FBI director’s narrative as purple prose.
Multiple congressional sources from both sides of the aisle privately tell Fox News they weren’t surprised at Comey’s effort to gin up drama and imagery with his statement. Several sources familiar with closed-door Comey sessions said the opening statement was laced with “theatrics” in an effort to make certain events “appear more dramatic than they were.”
“It’s too cute,” said one source who’s had multiple, private dealings with Comey. “I have never been so angry at a witness as I was at him.”
Maybe so. But despite the flowery language, Trump immediately latched on to one element of Comey’s writing.
“The President is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the President was not under investigation in any Russian probe. The President feels completely and totally vindicated,” said Trump’s attorney Marc Kasowitz.
Considering the intrigue, there’s little surprise Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., wanted Comey’s galley proofs distributed ahead of time.
“I’m glad to have it early on and posted,” said Burr to a throng of reporters before a closed Intelligence Committee meeting Wednesday afternoon. “I’m sorry I took away from all of you guys your ability to find a source to leak it to you.”
Comey doesn’t have a literary agent. But Fox News confirmed that Comey “closely coordinated” his statement with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Still, there’s one Comey manuscript Burr is still pursuing.
“I’d love to see the Director’s memo, but I don’t think I will,” said the North Carolina Republican.
That’s a memorandum Comey is believed to have penned immediately after the president requested the then-director lay off Flynn.
Fox News confirmed the existence of that memo. But few in Washington have seen it. Burr says it’s up to the Justice Department to release the document.
The literary world exploded a few years ago about an unpublished manuscript by Harper Lee and the discovery of short stories from J.D. Salinger. The release of a previously unseen Comey epistle could excite official Washington just as much – if the prose of the sequel holds up to the original.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.