Walter C. Farrell, a professor of social work at the University of North Carolina, tells me that he has long had ties to Newark and, upon hearing Booker recount his experiences with T-Bone, set out to look for him. “I’ve been up and down the streets and nobody’s ever heard of this T-Bone,” says Farrell, who was in Newark when he spoke with me by phone. “You know a lot of politicians do that.”
Farrell argues that Booker serves up fables that appeal to his audiences. “Upper-middle-class white people love to hear these stories, you know, somebody who cares. So Cory Booker gave it to them and is still giving it to them,” he says. Rice, the city councilman, echoed that sentiment, saying Booker tells the story “particularly to folks outside of Newark.”
Booker was raised in a wealthy borough of Bergen County, N.J., and has long battled skeptics in Newark who viewed him as an outsider and derided him as a tool of the country’s elite interests. Sharpe James, who beat Booker when the latter first ran for mayor in 2002, denounced him during the campaign as “a Republican who took money from the KKK” and was “collaborating with the Jews to take over Newark.” Rice says that many in the city continue to ask whether the mayor is all talk, or actually immersed and integrated in the city he leads.
The stories Booker tells on the campaign trail and the fundraising circuit, including the tale of T-Bone, are intended to demonstrate the latter. He has watched drug addicts strap on surgical tubing from the window of his blighted apartment building; pitched a tent outside of Garden Spires, the drug-infested Newark apartment complex, to force authorities to beef up security; and learned formative lessons at the knee of Virginia Jones, a tenants’-rights leader who implored him to see “hope, opportunity, possibility, love” and “the face of God” in the devastation around him.
Booker is, of course, not the first politician to fabricate or exaggerate experiences. Al Gore claimed to have rushed to the scene of Texas wildfires that broke out in 1998 alongside FEMA director James Lee Witt; he was, in fact, addressing a Democratic-party fundraiser in Texas at the time. Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal repeatedly claimed to have served in Vietnam, though in reality he obtained several deferments and served in the reserves in the U.S.; and Hillary Clinton, of course, “misspoke” during the 2008 presidential primary about landing under sniper fire on a 1996 trip to Bosnia.
And Booker’s supporters appear inclined to forgive such dishonesty. Rice, the city councilman, says of Booker’s tall tale, “If that makes you shed a tear and contribute money to save people like this, then so much the better. If that makes you contribute money to our mentoring program, then so much the better.” Professor Price adds that the T-Bone fiction is a stand-alone incident and praises Booker’s governance. “By early-21st-century standards for cities, I think he’s been a fascinating mayor,” Price says. “He’s drawn attention to Newark that the city would not have received had he not been there.” He admits that Booker “is indeed complicated, evinced by the T-Bone story.” But, he says, “when the mayor and I had our conversation, I essentially forgave him for that and we both moved on.”
— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.