“Man is a political animal”
He seldom answers a question, but the hyper-kinetic Cory Booker was the first New Jersey politician in history to dare to not be parochial.
“You don’t understand! You don’t understand!” was hitherto the most commonly uttered phrase in New Jersey politics as a means of conveying the frustration felt by a person at the rest of the world behind the borders of his own town or burgh or block. The condition penetrated every one of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities, the size or anonymity of the place bearing no effect on the depth of passion for place expressed as a means of walling off the rest of existence and consigning human experience “out there” to little more than a facsimile of the real (insert the name of any New Jersey town).
In a sea of public personalities who delight in ghettoizing themselves for the sake of connecting with ethnic constituencies, Booker quirkily dared to be a transcendent figure.
If the most a rival could boast was that he or she fulfilled all of the stereotypical expectations of whatever race forms the biggest piece of his or her political base, Booker showcased characteristics befuddling to most New Jerseyans schooled on a diet of instantly recognizable and digestable bite-sized story lines.
In his political infancy, he offered another confounding quality: a literate and even literary cast of mind. He strode an epic tightrope. To young suburbanites who feared New Jersey’s urban core and suffered a perpetual cocooned blandness of soccer fields and strip malls, he (literally) pitched a tent in Newark and undertook a socio-psychological epic that was the equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey. To young Newarkers irritated by the ungrammatical escapades of a long trudging parade of recycled public figures, the motor mouth from Stanford-Yale-Oxford presented the enticing possibilities of education.
None of the plot lines fit in a conventional fashion. He was black, but Latinos formed his biggest citywide constituency. He was the face of urban renewal, and a Bergen suburbanite. He was Nina Simone and he was Bon Jovi, and the seeming contractions at the local level seemed early to indicate only one course of action: statewide ambition.
Like all shiny new objects in politics, he grew drab. The young promise of interesting oratory gave way to pre-fab puzzle boxes of predictable speeches and utterances. Faced with any number of immediate circumstances, he doubled back frequently on past platitudes and dressed them up as solutions. Then there was his seeming subservience to Republican Governor Chris Christie, and the revealed financial overlap with Christie’s own donor base, appalling to progressives who once thought they had glimpsed a philosopher king.
At his core, through even the worst so-called compromising configurations of his public life, Booker retained the fascinating narrative of a walking resolution of New Jersey’s irreconcilable selves, kept alive by his inability be as small as any given narrow block in any corner of the state.
The test is whether that geometric relationship in New Jersey between constituency and elected official has sufficient expansive relevance to a national grid now given the acceleration of twitter in the way political campaigns take shape and collide.
First, the downside.
In a political time zone of Bernie Sanders statement-making, Booker seems hampered by what partly ails Hillary Clinton: Wall Street ties and, yes ironically given his fast climb in politics in his home state, the seeming purgation of those textured elements that create an authentic public person. For as the Tralfamadore-like Clinton struggles to prove that she did not simply leave whatever town she was in before the absence of substantive narrative returned to haunt her, Sanders is that guy you know from Brooklyn, whose values – like hot grease off a stove – came right out of neighborhood interactions and street-level responses to factory strikes and paint-peeling public schools.
Now aggressively seeking the vice presidency, Booker’s transcendence – so vital in New Jersey with its history of lived-in characters – could hurt him if Clinton decides she absolutely needs a complement who checks off a demographic box the same way Joe (Catholic dude from Scranton Pa. with coal mining dust in his voice if he needed it and a convincing act of rolling up his shirt sleeves when required) Biden did for Barack Obama.
Booker’s apparent rivals all fulfill instantly recognizable stereotypes, if nothing else.
They individually and generically fulfill a bloc vote epitome.
Sherrod Brown, the Ohio senator, has the gravelly presence of every rust belt working stiff who ever hitched on a pair of overalls and toted a lunch box. He sounds like the guy who warms up a union hall before Pappy O’Daniel takes the stage. “My membership is split,” a labor leader told PolitickerNJ in the statehouse parking lot last week. White guy Brown would occupy the Democratic ticket to boost that portion of labor teetering toward Donald Trump. You could leave him in swing state Ohio for the duration of the contest and check in after Election Day in the case of a win or never talk to the guy again in the event of a loss.
Julian Castro, the former San Antonio Mayor (on a part-time salary) is an Hispanic and offers with quick flourishes the apparently instantaneous association with the largest growing voting demographic in the country. He could be airlifted to swing state Florida and left there for the duration of the campaign.
Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, is Sanders’s only Democratic Party rival for the title of uncompromised progressive. She offers the party a chance to corral those Sanders revolutionaries now vowing to sit on their hands in the general election sooner than back a “capitalist comprador” (the late Amiri Baraka’s description of Booker, incidentally) like Clinton. In boiled-down terms, she gives motivation to those liberals who will argue that Booker’s initial rhetoric was a facade compared to the real enduring poetry of Newark, which came unvarnished in the family of Baraka.
Of course, one could add Booker as that figure most easily associated with the youth vote. It’s a tough sell as time goes on. He’s pushing 50, after all, and bald, and he’s older by six years than the exuberant Castro. And what fight to rival Bernie’s Wall Street bashing has Booker truly undertaken?
But it goes beyond stances on issues, or so it would appear.
Booker’s public communications instrumentation remains the most current among not only the people on this list but among most people in politics. Notwithstanding Clinton’s one off “delete your account” tweet, only Trump, in fact, offers twitter feed ring generalship to rival the junior senator from New Jersey.
Bookish dinosaurs who once hoped for the new Pericles in Booker’s oratory finally came face to face with their own unhipness and lack of millennial currency as he jumped on and mastered the social media game. While Obama still relied on thick-set speeches to provide those Hail Mary moments of his presidency, the adaptable and socially omnivorous Booker overran Washington with selfies and a hyperactive twitter feed tailor made for a country with attention deficit disorder.
In this backroom contest for VP, he once again plays with the defiance of regional constraints. He’s from New Jersey, and so would appear to be a non-starter alongside (if that really is what she is ) a New Yorker.
Can the rest of the country really endure three national ticket candidates from the New York Metropolitan area?
Well, Booker was actually born in D.C., after all.
But the question now is whether we’ve moved so far beyond those horse and buggy identifications of time and place in politics, the Lenni Lenape footpaths turned Main Streets turned highways turned immediate simultaneous occupation of everything, and our accompanying insistence on walk-to-the-grocery store neighborhood personalities, that Booker’s cyber identity matters more than what we had once thought in the strictest local sense to be human.