You just can’t stop Cory Booker from connecting. On the teeming concrete boardwalk in Long Branch down by the shore, the man who will almost certainly become New Jersey’s next U.S. senator—a man who’s lived with the sheen of inevitability his entire, 44-year-long life—is wearing canvas Polo shoes and a loose-fitting dark-blue linen shirt that seems vaguely Indian. It’s the Fourth of July, and he’s meeting the sunburned holiday electorate, the first mayor of Newark in decades to be promoted rather than indicted. Way ahead in the polls, and in fund-raising, Booker is on the hunt for something else: life-force-sustaining electoral tactility. His eyes search relentlessly for yours, then bug in delight and human recognition. Big smile, or, if called for, concerned frown: Tell him something serious, and he’ll turn on a dime.
He’s quick with the hugs and giddy, affirmative chitchat—oh, his good friend lives in your town, he says, and, again and again, “I’d looooove to get my picture taken with you.” Thumbs up; the iPhones shhhick their fake-shutter shhhick. Then: Share on Facebook, you and Cory at the beach. He’ll speak Spanish with you if you’re Latino, or if you have kids he’ll get down on one knee and be as bouncy and attentive as anyone from the Children’s Television Workshop. Young guys get multipart handshakes; older ones get bro-hugs; and parents usher their offspring toward him (“He could be president one day!”). Women in bikini tops and sarongs lean into Booker’s six-foot-three, onetime All-Pac-10 bulk, and every once in a while, he gives a disarming hand gesture where he appears to be grabbing a (nonexistent) set of pearls around his neck.
Ambling gawkily alongside him in shorts and NBA-logo socks is former senator Bill Bradley, the Knicks star turned neoliberal wonk and Booker’s political mentor for twenty years. Booker pulls out a handkerchief from his back pocket and daubs his sweaty bald head; it’s hot. People offer to buy them food from the booths that overlook the beach—cheesesteaks, butterfly fries, fruit shakes. Not to mention: Marine recruiters, kitchen remodelers, and a chance to pose for a picture with the old Batmobile (which Booker and Bradley did, together, an age-reversed Batman and Robin).
The funny thing is, down here you might get the idea that these SPF suburbanites are Booker’s real constituents, the people for whom he actually redeemed Newark—a terrifyingly broken-down and corrupt postindustrial city they long stayed out of but were, they want to believe now, pulling for all along. Booker is a good avatar for their fine liberal sentiments because he is also one of them, or perhaps everything they long for their kids to be. He grew up in affluent, verdant (and before his family moved there, all-white) Harrington Park, the football star and class president who went to Stanford, scored a Rhodes scholarship, and then attended Yale Law School. Time magazine called him the “savior of Newark” when he was just a city councilman (he made the cover as mayor), and he was practically beatified as the earnest underdog trying (and failing, that time, in 2002) to overthrow the strongman mayor, Sharpe James, in an Oscar-nominated documentary called Street Fight. (The movie came out in 2005, and Booker was elected overwhelmingly in 2006, after James dropped out of the race.) And then there’s all his other caped-crusader stuff, like rescuing people from burning buildings and dogs from the cold, and schmoozing his way to a $100 million donation for the Newark school system from Mark Zuckerberg.
“Cory Booker, Cory Booker, the Gecko’s looking for you!” squawks a nearby loudspeaker. “Come by the booth and get a high five from the Gecko!” The man in the space-lizard costume is in fact playing the role of that Cockney-accented insurance mascot, and—why not?—Booker seems to be delighted to meet him too.
When we turn off the boardwalk in Long Branch to be SUV’d to Asbury Park, Bradley ribs his friend: “Oh, Cory; oh my God, it’s Cory Booker!” he squeals, flinging his arms around the mayor.
When I ask the normally aloof Bradley why Booker deserves the job, Bradley looks like an old warrior happy to be back on message, and enumerates: “To describe Cory in three words: idealism. Empathy. And intelligence.”
“I’m okay with that,” Booker says, with his default setting of deferential buoyancy (you can see why grown-ups have always liked him). “I was waiting for the good-looks part.”
“When you lose 50 pounds, then I’ll give you that.”
Booker laughs. Come to think of it, he is surprisingly chubby for a vegetarian who never drinks alcohol.
“I started at a very young age as being Mister, sort of, Responsible,” Booker tells me later, nominally in response to a question about his teetotaling. “When my friends started drinking in the early high-school years, I was always the guy that held people’s hair back when they puked, took care of people, being the designated driver,” he says. “And those things become part of your identity. And then 21 hit and I realized, ‘You know what? I don’t need alcohol.’ It’s a variable. And I’ve got an equation in my life where I don’t really want another variable in my equation.”