James Comey The Virtuous? No, Simply J. Edgar Hoover Dressed as Eliot Ness

FBI Director James Comey testifies at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington, U.S., Se
FBI Director James Comey testifies at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in Washington, U.S., September 27, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Is James Comey's current attempt to kneecap the American democratic process truly atypical? Like many, I have long bought into the notion that this Director of the F.B.I. was a straight-shooting, bipartisan supercop, whose activities during the Bush administration were nothing short of heroic. I was especially impressed by his intervention when Alberto Gonzales attempted to strong-arm an ailing John Ashcroft into reauthorizing George W. Bush's illegal surveillance program. That was an uplifting story, right?

Heather Digby Parton nicely demolishes this interpretation in Salon. Placed in context, Comey's superheroism turns out to have been little more than legal pedantry: he wanted to prevent Ashcroft from signing a document that wasn't sufficiently rigorous. When it came time to legitimate a refined version of this order -- "to keep the secret domestic surveillance program going for many years" -- Comey happily provided his signature. Worse:

Comey was also the U.S. attorney who oversaw the prosecution and torture of José Padilla, an American citizen convicted of terrorism whose horrific treatment was described by a forensic scientist at his pre-trial hearing as "essentially the destruction of a human being's mind."

In short, Comey has always been six foot eight inches of partisan extremist. This latest stunt -- which may well be in violation of federal law -- is not a departure from the Comey modus. It's simply the most public transgression.

Yes, there may be an element of mere cowardice: Paul Krugman argues that right-wing bullies, long contributing dysfunction to a dysfunctional F.B.I., pressured Comey into finally doing his Republican duty to contribute to the demonization of Hillary Clinton. He certainly let the boys down when he announced that he wasn't filing charges against her; that's not how a team player teams.

But he's redeemed himself, by spitting upon decades of precedent to use the considerable power of his office to sway a general election. And to sway it in a specific direction: as Harry Reid emphasizes, we haven't heard about the investigation into Trump's collaboration with Russia (which may be as vaporous a charge as the current innuendo aimed at Hillary, but would constitute sedition); instead Comey has tossed only one Molotov cocktail, and it's not through the window of the sexually abusive, aspiring tyrant.

This cannot be rectified, but a measure of justice would be nice. Richard W. Painter has "filed a complaint against the F.B.I. with the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates Hatch Act violations, and with the Office of Government Ethics." Painter is hardly a Democratic partisan; he was chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush.

"The usual penalty for a violation is termination of federal employment." But no need to wait for the results of this investigation: just fire him. There's a bus with his name on it; toss him under it. President Obama has that power: Bill Clinton dismissed William Sessions, and the rules regarding appointment and tenure haven't been amended since. Don't leave Comey to continue to subvert the agency that he has disgraced. Sure, Republicans will howl, but they always do. Howler monkeys howl; it's genetic. And it's immaterial.

Replace Virtuous Jim with someone talented, solid and responsible. Merrick Garland would be a good choice -- a man whose celebrated history as a prosecutor isn't a fiction. Although he may not be available: I suspect that Republicans will quickly vote him onto the Supreme Court should Hillary survive Comey's vandalism and win the election; any Clinton appointment would probably be less to their liking. Still, there are numerous good choices.

Just don't make the same mistake of chasing an absurd dream of bipartisanship. I can't think of a single Republican who could properly fill this office; none would be able to withstand the coming pressure to do everything possible to delegitimize a Clinton administration.

If Republicans block a new appointment, there's no precedent, but I suspect that Comey's second-in-command, Andrew McCabe, would become acting Director. He's married to Jill McCabe, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the Virginia Senate. Which suggests at the very least that he is not likely to be a partisan hatchet man like Comey. In fact, we already have some sense of McCabe's judgment: he was informed of the emails on Weiner's laptop in early October, and didn't see fit to shout that information from the rooftops.

Meanwhile, let's stop thinking of James Comey as one of The Untouchables: a squeaky clean version of Dirty Harry. He's the worst director of the F.B.I. since J. Edgar Hoover, and -- should Hillary Clinton lose the election -- he will be remembered as an even greater menace to the republic. And no, this is not an incongruous error on the part of a genuinely good man. It's not an unfortunate misstep. It's who he is.