As acting performances by former jocks go, it was right up there, or down there, with the work of André the Giant in Conan the Destroyer or Shaquille O’Neal in Kazaam. Politics is, in part, theater, and Cory Booker’s one-man show on January 17 proved it can be really bad theater. To make it all the way to where Booker thinks he’s heading, you first have to pass the audition to play the American president. Ronald Reagan was a pro. Bill Clinton could do it: He bit his lower lip, he felt our pain. Barack Obama became a plausible potential president the night he so artfully portrayed a centrist at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
But the junior senator from New Jersey, a former Stanford tight end and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, is in dire need of some acting lessons. The fake tirade he performed for the camera while a stone-faced Kirstjen Nielsen sat waiting for him to finish was so hollow, calculated, and forced that any drama teacher who saw it would have patted Booker on the shoulder and said, “Son, the theater isn’t for everybody.”
The head of Homeland Security had already explained in the hearing that she hadn’t caught every word said by every person in the contentious twelve-person meeting at which President Trump reportedly derided certain countries as excrement pits. “What I was struck with, frankly, as I’m sure you were as well, was just the general profanity that was used in the room by almost everyone,” Nielsen said. Trump may have said the word in her presence, but because people were talking over one another, she didn’t catch it. Not that it much mattered, since Donald Trump’s word choices are hardly Kirstjen Nielsen’s fault. “I can’t testify to what I don’t know,” she said.
What Nielsen had to say was of little interest to Booker, who had brought a pre-printed tirade along for the occasion. “When Dick Durbin called me, I had tears of rage when I heard about his experience in that meeting,” Booker said, trying hard to bellow. “And for you not to feel that hurt and that pain, and to dismiss some of the questions of my colleagues, saying ‘I’ve already answered that line of questions,’ when tens of millions of Americans are hurting right now because of what they’re worried about what happened in the White House — that’s unacceptable to me! There are threats in this country! People plotting!” He added, “I receive enough death threats to know the reality,” as though that had anything to do with the person seated across from him.
Booker was so minimally acquainted with his own emotions that he had to keep glancing down at the notes containing his pre-scripted rage as Nielsen sat like a hostage for eleven excruciating minutes. As he vented at Nielsen, with his button eyes, his round face, and his awkwardly outstretched arms, he looked as incensed as a teddy bear.
For 72 hours, like a toddler equipped with a new naughty word, the entire news media could speak of nothing but Trump’s alleged excrement-hole epithet, and Booker may have figured that bringing it up on camera, using any pretext whatsoever, would spur media coverage and one of those viral moments the kids love. Is Booker running for president? He ain’t running to be backbencher for life. “I’m the most ambitious person you’d ever meet,” he told a reporter when he was running for the city council in Newark in 1998, his first political job.
But the Democratic field for 2020 is set to be more jammed than the Beltway when a long week of federal work winds up on Friday at 3 p.m. Even John Kerry says he wants to run. On the betting site 5dimes, Booker was recently rated a 33–1 underdog to capture the presidency in 2020, well behind colleagues Elizabeth Warren (12–1), Kamala Harris (14–1), and Kirsten Gillibrand (16–1), not to mention Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (28–1).
Booker needs to break out of the cluttered field of long shots. There are two generally accepted paths to the presidency. One is a record of accomplishment, and there even The Rock has him beat. The other is creating a cult of personality. So Booker apparently intends to grandstand, emote, preach, and generally provide emotional reflection to the party base by pretending to be as riled up as they actually are.
Unfortunately, the Nielsen episode is the latest signal that Booker is the brummagem Obama. If Obama was the Democrats’ Frank Sinatra, Booker is their Vic Damone. If Obama was their shining star, Booker is their rhinestone lapel pin. Where Obama had an inspiring American journey, Booker had an imaginary friend called T-Bone, the emotionally incontinent drug dealer who supposedly wept on Booker’s shoulder one time but disappeared from his speeches after a friend told him to knock it off with the degrading stereotypes of black street characters (as National Review reported in 2013).
Booker’s evidently staged rant at Nielsen was not only staggeringly off-putting, it was equally off-brand. It’s true that Booker had already broken with Senate precedent at the confirmation hearing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to lambaste his then–fellow senator as an enemy of civil rights. But Booker, like Obama, has for years put in a lot of work trying to pose as a judicious, business-friendly, Wall Street–accepted Democrat. He has spent many an evening in Manhattan schmoozing bankers, and he defended the private-equity business when Obama attacked Bain Capital. In 2015, he even made a cameo appearance on NBC’s sitcom Parks and Recreation, clowning with Orrin Hatch in a gag about how the two (playing themselves) were so chummy that they had formed a Polynesian folk-music band called “Across the Aisle.”
As recently as an October 2017 address to the North Carolina NAACP, Booker wanted to be seen as opposing Donald Trump more in sorrow than in anger. “Don’t be one of those people I catch calling our president nasty names,” Booker told that gathering. “I’m serious. How can you think that you’re going to beat darkness by spewing darkness? If Nelson Mandela can love his jailers, if Martin Luther King can love Bull Connor — we’ve got to be people of love!” On CNN during the 2016 Democratic Convention, Booker said, “I love Donald Trump.” Much as Obama wore out the phrase “audacity of hope,” Booker was in the habit of talking up a “conspiracy of love,” a phrase that is the title of the first chapter of his oleaginous February 2016 book United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good. (Contrast with Senator Warren’s recent books: This Fight Is Our Fight and A Fighting Chance.)
Booker probably calculated that his politeness would create a pleasing contrast with the insult shrapnel flying out of the Oval Office. Instead, he discovered that in the Trump era, Trumpism has proved especially infectious among the president’s detractors. Remember when news anchors didn’t use words like “p***y” and “sh**hole,” much less build their coverage around them and blast out chyrons with the uncensored words scrolling across the screen 24/7? As Bill Maher might say: New rule! Everything the president says is bad, so everybody else should say it, too.
As his party turned professionally pugilistic, Booker was starting to look like a pusillanimous pussyfooter. About-face! Join the resistance! Berate any random Trump official who wanders into your line of sight! It was the long-serving Democratic congressman and senator from Arizona Carl Hayden (1877–1972) who said that when he first arrived in the House, in 1912, weeks after Arizona became a state, an old-timer took him aside to say, “If you want to get your name in the papers, be a show horse. But if you want to win the respect of your colleagues, be a workhorse.” Booker couldn’t be more of a show pony if he changed his name to “Buttercup.”
But unlike the last show horse who paraded through the Senate on his way to the White House, Booker made the colossal error of taking a leadership position that was bound to yield quantifiable results for which he could be held accountable. No doubt Booker thought that said position, the mayoralty of Newark, which he held from 2006 to 2013, was a launching pad where there was a low risk of blowing himself up. Newark had been corrupt, crime-ridden, and mismanaged for so long, how could it go anywhere but up? Newark was the Arkansas of cities, and, after all, presiding over the modest gains that took place in that state had proved enough to make Bill Clinton a presidential contender. Yet Booker’s Newark interlude was a dud. “Cory Booker’s Newark Mirage,” ran the headline of a 2016 essay in Politico.
A few years earlier, Booker had earned the social-media sobriquet “Superman” for what appeared at first blush to be the nation’s first full-service mayoralty. He rescued a woman from her burning house. He delivered diapers to a snowbound mom. He helped shovel out another snowbound resident.
As his seven-year stint went on, though, the mayor came to seem like one of those absentee dads who periodically turn up to thrill the children with a whirlwind trip to Six Flags but are unavailable for the more prosaic raking of leaves, supporting of emotions, or bringing home of paychecks. The Star-Ledger, a Newark paper, once calculated that Booker was out of town for 118 days in a single 18-month period.
The woman who was the grateful recipient of the diapers marvels at how Booker created that viral moment out of his own failure: “The only reason he brought me Pampers was that it had been three days and our street hadn’t been plowed,” she told Politico. “I have five kids and, trust me, I don’t just run out of Pampers. All we wanted was for him to plow our streets. It’s about knowing how to manage a city.” In the upside-down era of tweet-based politics, in a city where reporters don’t live, to leave entire neighborhoods crippled by neglecting routine municipal services is a boring lapse, hence invisible to the world. Yet a single meaningless, cute stunt creates headlines. The fire rescue looks a little different in a policy context, too. Booker had shut down three of Newark’s fire companies, while laying off more than 160 cops and leaving the police department with its smallest force in decades.
In Newark, Booker raised taxes 20 percent and cut services amid feeble boasts such as his line about doubling “affordable housing” to all of 2,500 units, in a city whose population is 280,000. Getting the downtown Prudential Center built by steering $200 million to it from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey looked like simple raiding of the public coffers to line the pockets of the rich. Isn’t the trick to running a city to get corporations to want to do business there, not to pay them to do so?
A Booker buddy, schools superintendent Cami Anderson, famously presided over the squandering of a $100 million gift to the city schools. (Mark Zuckerberg had announced the massive donation as desperate damage control two days before the New York Film Festival premiere of the Zuckerberg-bashing movie The Social Network in 2010.) The Newark Watershed Conservation Authority, a nonprofit agency overseeing the city’s water and sewers, was rife with corruption under Booker’s watch — its executive director, his pal Linda Watkins-Brashear, got sentenced to eight years in prison for her part in a kickback scheme. Booker’s former law firm continued to pay him while he was mayor, to the tune of nearly $700,000 over six years, even as that firm was scoring $2 million worth of contracts from the watershed authority and such public agencies as the Newark Housing Authority.
Booker’s spokeswoman, speaking to reporters at the time, unconvincingly explained that the payouts to Booker were for work he had done before departing the firm. As for the corruption in the watershed authority, Booker offered the feeble response that he hadn’t gone to many meetings and didn’t know what was happening. In October, Booker (along with Lindsey Graham) even appeared as a character witness at the corruption trial in Newark of fellow Democrat Bob Menendez. The New Jersey senior senator has “never let me down,” Booker said, adding, “Bob Menendez is trustworthy and honest; he doesn’t candy-coat things.” Menendez stands accused of helping a physician crony with an $8.9 million Medicaid dispute in return for valuable gifts such as flights on a private jet. (That proceeding ended in a mistrial after the jury couldn’t come to an agreement, but prosecutors have promised to retry Menendez.)
Crime, reversing a downward trend nationally, actually rose in Newark under Booker, and there were more murders and violent crimes the year he left (2013) than the year he assumed office. Only Detroit and New Orleans suffered higher murder rates in 2013. The local perception of Booker seems to differ from Ellen DeGeneres’s take when she welcomed him on her show to present him with a Superman costume: A Qunnipiac University poll from May 2017 found that only 33 percent of voters in New Jersey think he should run for president, against 54 percent who think he shouldn’t.
A reformer who didn’t reform much of anything, a centrist turned rabid partisan, a superhero imbued only with the power of self-promotion, Cory Booker already seems past his political prime. If you’re wondering why the 2020 Democratic primary is shaping up to be the political version of Tales from the Crypt, with dusty relics such as Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden being paraded as the future of the party, consider that the young hotshot Booker doesn’t seem to have much of a message except phony seething and ersatz anger.