A few weeks ago, Cory Booker bought me ice cream. Booker, who wants you to call him “Cory” (but whose legal name is really “@corybooker”), was in town for one of his signature “Run with Cory” campaign events.
Cory Booker does at lot of running. At Stanford, he ran back and forth across the stadium many times as a football player. Once, as Mayor of Newark (the position he currently holds), he ran into a burning building on his street and carried a neighbor out of the flames into safety on his shoulders. He ran into a bit of controversy in 2012 when he said that the Obama campaign’s attacks on Bain Capital were “nauseating.”
Now Cory is running for the U.S. Senate. He will face a Republican named Steve Lonegan in a special election on October 16 to fill the Senate seat formerly held by Frank Lautenberg, the longtime Democratic politician who passed away in office. Booker is widely expected to win. If he does, he will become the 53rd Democratic member of the only body in the world held in lower regard than the midterms-week-Frist-pianists guild. We will probably be hearing more from Booker in the future—specifically, in years divisible by four.
The “Run with Cory” event began a few hours past nightfall. A hundred or so Princeton students and a handful of Townies milled around Palmer Square for 45 minutes waiting for Cory to arrive. Finally, Booker pulled up and bounded out of a car. The crowd melted away from his path as he strode through the center of group and delivered a short stump speech. Politicians in Washington, we were informed, must put aside their differences and come together.
Then we started jogging. A slow-moving squad car led the group, its flashing lights eerily flooding the quiet residential streets with loud purple brightness. Some residents of downtown Princeton must have been startled. Others, though, came out onto their lawns carrying “Cory Booker for Senate” signs and cheering.
Cory himself brought up the rear. Josh Stadlan, a Princeton sophomore, ran beside him and learned a great deal about New Jersey’s next senator. What is Cory’s favorite T.V. show? “Fringe.” On which animal would Cory choose to ride into battle? “A penguin. On the shoulders of a penguin.” What is Cory’s ideal superpower—teleportation? Mind-reading? “The power to freeze time.” Could Cory please tell a joke? “A man goes to the doctor, strips naked, and stands upside down. He says, ‘Doc, I think I might be going crazy.’ The doctor says, ‘well I can see your nuts from here.’”
The jog ended a mile and a half later at Thomas Sweet’s, where Cory had promised to buy everyone ice cream. Someone joked about what Booker’s donors would say if they knew that their money was being spent serving college students hundreds of Nutella soft serves. I think the donors should be pleased. The New York Times reported that a supermarket tycoon named John Catsimatidis spent $419 per vote in a failed primary run for mayor of New York earlier this year (and Michael Bloomberg spent $174 per vote in 2009). Booker, on the other hand, arguably netted over a hundred voters that night for only $3.29, plus mix-ins, apiece.
Waiting in line at Thomas Sweet’s took thirty minutes. The limiting factor was not ice cream but Cory Booker. T. Sweets’ efficient cadre of scoopers could dish out cups of “salted caramel chocolate” far faster than the 44-year-old Newark mayor could shake hands. Booker, who is famous for interacting with his constituents on Twitter to the tune of dozens of tweets per day, dutifully gave each sweaty voter 140 words of chit-chat. As a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Cory studied U.S. history, but his real academic passion is what you might call “voter geography.”
“Where are you from?” Cory asked the person in front of me in line.
“California,” he said.
“Where in California?”
“Where in Los Angeles?”
“I know Fullerton!” exclaimed Cory. He named a few local landmarks.
Next, Cory turned to me. “And where are you from?”
“Near Baltimore,” I told him.
“WHERE near Baltimore,” he demanded, with such enthusiasm that a reasonable onlooker may very well have feared that the six-foot-three man in Under Armor just might drop dead of bitter heartbreak if he didn’t learn the name of a certain Maryland suburb that very instant.
“Pikesville,” I said.
Luckily, Cory didn’t have to respond, because the next person in line happened to be wearing a yarmulke. Booker turned and smiled broadly. “I am a great lover of Torah,” he informed us. It’s true. At Oxford, he met and befriended an ultra-Orthodox celebrity rabbi named Shmuley Boteach, who has since run (unsuccessfully) for Congress and authored a book titled “Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy.” Booker says that he and the Rabbi still talk Torah every week. At Yale Law, Cory and three Jewish friends co-founded a semi-secret Jewish intellectual society named חַי. Now, at Thomas Sweet’s, Booker, who is Baptist, took pleasure in regaling us with his admittedly impressive knowledge of Judaism. He recited a few of his favorite Torah passages, in Hebrew. He professed an admiration for the sort-of-obscure holiday of Sukkot. As a Jew, I couldn’t help but grin.
Next week’s special election will be my first time voting. Nobody has told me what to do. I suppose that I’m a liberal, mostly because I have not yet paid enough taxes to think about getting angry about them. I will vote for Cory Booker next week because his positions on the “issues” align closer to mine than do Steve Lonegan’s.
But what if Cory Booker runs for President? How will I choose between Booker and the other Democratic (or, theoretically, moderate Republican) candidates? The truth is that I only hold a firm position on a fraction of the issues. I know how I feel about abortion, gay rights, and gun control, for example, but on most hot-button questions, I tend to defer to the position of the politician who I already support. I would bet that most American voters are the same way. Obviously, in a crowded Democratic field packed with many candidates who agree with me on the few issues that I care about, I can’t cast my vote based on positions alone. So what about the candidates’ personalities?
I like Cory Booker. Then again, my standards for liking someone are pretty low. I like anyone who waves at me on McCosh Walk. I like anyone who ‘likes’ anything I post on Facebook. Cory shook my hand—and even took two minutes out of his day to talk to me!—so I was bound to like him too. There is, of course, a difference between being friendly to me and being the best candidate for the office. A good politician is one who is able to make us forget that.
Of course, not everyone is impressed as easily as I am. After attending Booker’s campaign event, I told a Jewish friend how New Jersey’s next Senator knows more about our religion than most adherents do. My friend shrugged. “Booker’s a people-pleaser,” he said derisively, the implication being that Cory’s apparently boundless interest in Talmud is just a superficial performance designed to ingratiate himself with voters. But is that necessarily a bad quality in a President?
Many journalists have compared Cory Booker’s personality to that of Bill Clinton. Both men, they write, know how to walk into a room and make everybody inside feel personally loved. Clinton struck a number of landmark deals across the aisle with the Republican-controlled House. President Obama, in contrast, is usually described as withdrawn. He is said to have little personal rapport with members of Congress. And in return, as we’ve seen over the last few weeks, no one on Capitol Hill feels compelled to lend a hand to a friend in the White House.
So yes, Cory Booker’s fascination with the political subdivisions of the State of Maryland may be less-than-totally sincere. But then again, maybe the federal government wouldn’t be careening towards a global economic crisis if Barack Obama ever took Ted Cruz out for a jog and a banana split.