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John Doyle: Comey testimony pits a Boy Scout against a vicious reality-TV champ

It was promoted by CNN as a "blockbuster Capitol Hill hearing." The same network suggested that it would bring all-news TV's highest ratings since election night.

Bars opened early in the West to accommodate TV viewers who might want to watch sustained by booze. The main U.S. networks covered it live, start to end, not just the all-news channels.

Now it's done. In the annals of televised congressional hearings, was it up there with the most gripping and dramatic? Up there with the Watergate hearings, Oliver North's testimony in the Iran/Contra hearings, with Anita Hill's testimony in the Clarence Thomas hearings? No.

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The answer is "no" because the central figure wasn't there. He was off-stage, readying a high-octane response, preparing his bluster, assembling the ammunition to blow this Boy Scout Comey out of the water.

Related: Comey says he was fired because of Russia investigation

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Video: Comey: 'Lordy, I hope there are tapes'

The testimony by fired FBI director James Comey was live on TV all over the dial, and the ratings will tell us if it was indeed the biggest event in U.S. politics since last year's presidential election. But the important thing is that it's all about TV: How the medium works and how President Donald Trump understands it to work. And boy, does he understand it. He bosses it.

The madly right-wing online Drudge Report summarized Comey's testimony as "Soap Opera: Comey Admits Orchestrating Memo Leak." Drudge furthered the soap-opera theme by later using the headline, "As The Comey Turns." That's wrong. This is no soap opera or prime-time legal drama. It's a battle of wills and bluster on a reality-TV show. The well-spoken, reasonable, rational Boy Scout never wins on Survivor or Big Brother, or gets the young woman on The Bachelorette. He who wins does it with hard-nosed swagger, bluff and cunning. That's Trump's tactic. It's what he knows. He did some firing on The Apprentice, and did he ever need to explain, apologize or rationalize? No.

James Comey has an air about him. He's tall, looks you in the eye and speaks plainly. If he has to obfuscate, he's pained by the circumstance of doing so and tells you. He doesn't have to say, "Believe me," at regular intervals, as Trump does. He just expects to be believed.

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That's not how it works in the arena that made Trump successful. That's not the definition of a winner in the gruff negotiations of real-estate deals or, more importantly, a winner in the combat zone of competitive reality-TV shows that Trump learned everything from. That combat zone is the cultural, political and aesthetic territory in which Trump is a champ.

Through the hours of questioning, key assertions emerged from Comey's answers.

He documented meetings he had with Trump because he thought the President might lie about what had taken place; he believes Trump defamed him and the Federal Bureau of Investigation; he believes he was fired because of the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia, and he understood Trump to be directing him to stop scrutiny of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

In the context of how Trump operates and how he sees enemies and obstacles, the response would be, "So what?" He knows that in the eyes of his base and in the way of reality TV, his recklessness and disregard for niceties makes him the more commanding figure.

Comey, on the other hand, is defined by his rational approach. And there was an interesting portion of his testimony when he became a little emotional. He was talking about Russian interference in U.S. elections. He was sentimental in his patriotism. That touch of the emotional, in the eyes of Trump and the current White House, is weakness. It might be authentic, but it is the unreal, staged hyper-authenticity of macho outrage and gruffness that wins in the arena where Trump is the champ.

Trump is not a scholar of reality TV. He just knows. Years of being part of The Apprentice gave him a canniness about it – don't play to win the game, play to transcend it. Achieve that by being more caustic and acrimonious than anyone else.

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Others understand it too. Not a single senator asking questions of James Comey admonished him or tut-tutted at his assertion that he assumed Trump would lie. They know who has transcended the game and understand that, sometimes, Trump breathes lies. It's just that in the context of the new politics Trump created, untruths can be interpreted as exaggerations and bluffing. Or "alternative facts."

After Comey's testimony, deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters: "I can definitively say the President is not a liar. I think it is frankly insulting that question would be asked." Of course. Admitting to lies is weakness, and this "lie" thing, it doesn't matter anyway when there's an alternative to everything.

That's what James Comey doesn't get. He's a Boy Scout and will always get blown away by the bluster and aggression of a reality-TV champ. Those hours of testimony did not amount to a soap opera in which good guys win. It's a different kind of TV.

Video: Comey says 'Lordy, I hope there are tapes' of his White House conversations with Trump
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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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