In June 2017, as the inquiry into whether Russia had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election ramped up, Stephen Colbert poked light fun at the man who, in May, had been appointed to head the investigation. Robert Mueller, Colbert imagined, “is like Batman, putting together The Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman to create the Obstruction of Justice League.” (The group being assembled, Colbert noted wryly, would definitely need to be part of the DC Extended Universe.) There have been many more assessments along those lines in the many months that have passed between then and now: Mueller as Superman, Mueller as Paul Bunyan, Mueller as the hero who, armed with the powers bestowed on him by fate, chance, and Rod Rosenstein, might save us all.
The special counsel lends himself to such comparisons. He does not give interviews—“the most unknowable man in Washington,” the city’s paper of record called him recently—and that recalcitrance, combined with the gravity of the investigation he has been charged with leading, has served as an invitation for many to project their own hopes onto him. Square of jaw, unfussed of hair, Casio-ed of wrist, Mueller projects a pragmatism—a political strain of normcore, in a time deeply anxious about the fate of norms themselves—that has come to suggest, as the American media have tried to make sense of it all, a veiled promise: that shady facts will find their light. That the moment’s chaos will be resolved through the calm of common truth. That justice, against so many odds, will be done. Colbert’s comedy once again proved deeply insightful: A weary nation shined its signal, the idea has gone, and there, atop the jagged skyline, was Robert Swan Mueller III, answering the call.