Anyone who thinks it’s nothing but teeth-grinding paranoia and rank misery in Washington these days hasn’t been to the office of New Jersey senator Cory Booker. These people are happy. Indeed, his staff are some of the cheeriest, nicest people you could ever hope to meet. When I arrive on a hot, swampy morning just before Labor Day weekend, I am greeted with hugs and candy. An exuberant woman in a dashiki sits at reception. Kristin Lynch, the press secretary, greets me — okay, hugs me — and takes me to Booker’s office, where we say hello to his chief of staff, Matt Klapper, who also hugs me. Booker has not hugged me yet, but give him time. A young staffer comes in and hands Booker a brown-paper bag and tells him she managed to “score the last three” in the cafeteria. From the look of joy on his face, I imagine a bag of cheeseburgers, but, alas, it’s just celery and carrot sticks in plastic deli containers. (Booker is a vegan.) He opens one up and munches on a carrot.
Booker drags two red wingback chairs so they’re facing each other and sits down with a weary sigh. “You’re catching me on a day when I’m physically depleted,” he says. “My spirits are up, but I just campaigned for nearly every candidate in Nevada: secretary of State; guy for AG; guy running for governor; uh, Jacky Rosen, who will hopefully be my colleague; some assembly and legislative leaders. Then flew to Seattle, landed, headlined an event there, and then got right on a plane at 6 a.m. and came back.”
But even a depleted Booker is a fervid and voluble Booker. He quickly catches me up on where his mind is in the way that extroverts do reflexively and politicians usually train themselves out of. He tells me he just bumped into Bernie Sanders in the hall, and he does a good imitation of his grumbly Brooklyn accent. “He said, ‘How ya doin’?’ I said, ‘Bernie, I’m tired.’ And he goes, ‘Why are we heeh? We’re not doing any real work.’ And then he goes, ‘You know what this is about, don’t ya? This is political!’ ” By which he meant that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is keeping the Senate in session so the Democratic senators who are defending their seats during the midterm elections have less time to go home and campaign.
The hearings over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh begin in less than a week, and Booker tells me he’s thinking about releasing documents the Republicans have kept secret and making a fuss on live television. It’s also just a few days after John McCain died, and Booker has his former colleague on his mind. Apparently, McCain had taken a liking to him — he was the only Republican senator to come to the reception after Booker’s swearing-in ceremony five years ago and, a few days later, at Booker’s request, invited the new senator to his office for a private conversation. “He was sort of giving me a pep talk,” Booker says. “He says to me — very crassly about the Senate in general — that something like 80 percent of senators are just concerned with particularistic politics to do with their states. And he said, ‘But I see in you a statesman.’ ”
What McCain probably meant is that he saw in Booker a little of himself: Like Booker, he idled high; he was unfiltered in a way that could be entertaining but also intense, that sometimes boiled into a temper or some over-the-top expression of feeling. Much of this seemed to come from a fundamentally un-paranoid disposition, as well as a lofty patriotism that could inspire people one day and make them squirm the next. The day after McCain died, someone on cable news said, “People have soured on the idea of earnest politicians like John McCain,” and if this is true, Cory Booker is in real trouble, because he is earnest in the extreme — he talks about love and kindness and compassion and empathy all the time. He calls America “a physical manifestation of a larger conspiracy of love.”
Booker, also as McCain did, very much wants to be president: “Of course the presidency will be something I consider. It would be irresponsible not to.” And there’s a lot about Booker to suggest he would be a strong contender in the 2020 primaries and a formidable contrast to Trump. He is a popular national figure with an Obama-like trajectory: a community organizer who served for years in local politics before becoming a senator in his mid-40s. He is also, like Obama, a black politician who talks with optimism and empathy about the country’s racial divide.
But there is that question of how he rubs people. For some, his earnest demeanor is hard to believe and makes him seem, in fact, untrustworthy. A handful of my friends, mostly coastal liberals, have a dim view of Booker — and perhaps of earnestness altogether, come to think of it. They squirm when he talks about “courageous empathy” and the need not just to tolerate each other but love each other. (“Tolerance says I couldn’t care less; love says I couldn’t care more. Tolerance crosses the street when it sees you coming; love confronts love and embraces.”) I recently heard someone describe him as “too Care Bear,” and someone else describe his televised grilling in Senate hearings as “pageantry.” One woman who is engaged in liberal politics wrinkled her nose when I mentioned him recently. “He just seems a bit … programmed.”
I mention to Booker that Americans have apparently soured on earnestness. Sensing where I’m going, and not afraid to join me, he says, “It’s frustrating to me that people don’t think you can be earnest and sincere in this game anymore. My closest friends say to me, ‘When I have conversations with people, they ask that question: “Is he for real?” ’ Which I don’t understand. ‘Is he real?’ ‘Is he for real?’ I don’t understand where that question really comes from.”
Booker reminds me that he’s been dealing with accusations of inauthenticity his whole career — the carpetbagger who grew up in the wealthy white suburb and moved to the mean streets of Newark, a Rhodes Scholar determined to make a name for himself and run for mayor against an incumbent deeply rooted in the black Establishment. “Sharpe James’s whole campaign was run on I’m the real deal. ‘This guy is not for real, this guy is not authentic: not authentically black, not authentically a Newarker.’ ”
New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who is likely to run for president herself, told Booker over dinner recently to be careful about second-guessing himself. “She said to me, ‘If you want to talk about love and kindness and decency, talk about those things, because it’s where you are.’ I feel like if I start poll-testing or shaping myself, where we start operating out of fear, I think that’s going to dim my light and my impact.”
Booker was on the list of 35 potential running mates for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and, according to her senior adviser, Nick Merrill, stayed in the running until the list had been winnowed to three. In fact, he was still being considered until the Thursday night before the Democratic National Convention. Clinton-Booker placards were printed up, and she went to bed that night still not having decided. “We really always thought he was a very serious candidate,” says John Podesta, who served as Clinton’s campaign chairman. “He campaigns with a kind of moral positioning, and he brought out a lot of sparkle in her.” Merrill says he was torn. “From afar, he never really did it for me,” he says. “I find the constant snapping in Senate hearings to be a little ridiculous, and the opposite of authentic. Then I saw him up close and was converted. He’s incredibly impressive.”
When I tell Booker that Clinton hadn’t decided until just before the convention, his eyes widen and he says, “Oh my God.” He didn’t know he’d gotten that close. He lets that sink in for a minute, then picks up the conversation, talking about how connected he felt to Clinton and how his sadness after she lost “wasn’t just that she would have been a great president, but also that America would have finally found out who she is.”
In May, Booker gave a talk that felt an awful lot like a stump speech, a tryout of what may very well be the central theme of a presidential campaign: connecting the dots between the low-income rural Trump voter and the inner-city poor — their “shared pain,” as he likes to say. When I tell him it reminds me of a serious version of the famous Saturday Night Live skit, a game show with poor black people and white Trump voters who have almost everything in common, he says, “I loved it! Black Jeopardy! Tom Hanks played the poor white guy!” And then he says that in the past few weeks he “went to Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois to meet with mostly Republican farmers. We didn’t alert the press, but I almost wish you were with me.”
It will surprise exactly no one if Booker begins his 2020 run as soon as the midterms are over. Americans are about to see a lot more of him, and the more they see, the more evident it will become just how unusual a politician he is. Donald Trump ran the most negative presidential campaign in history and presides over an administration drenched in hostility and cynicism. Booker is radically, almost comically out of step with this kind of politics and, on a human-being level, is unlike any person who’s made a serious bid for the presidency in our lifetime.
Booker, who is 49, was until five years ago a mayor, which means his entire political career before the Senate took place in one relatively small city. This is unusual for a presidential contender, and the relationships Booker has cultivated with the people of Newark are bracingly direct, informal, and intense.
One Friday in early June, I meet him at his house on Longworth Street in the Central Ward, the neighborhood where he has lived for 21 years, first as a councilman, then as mayor for two terms. He lives with his brother Cary’s family on a nice block lined with modest, two-family townhouses sitting above suburban-style garages. He has a press conference scheduled in the parking lot of a shuttered Toys ’R’ Us to call attention to the thousands of workers the bankrupt company has fired. But first he wants to take me on a tour of his neighborhood, which he suggests be “unchaperoned.” It is stiflingly hot and humid. “I’m worried about your jacket,” he says before we head off. “Do you want to get rid of our ties?” And then off we go, up the hill to the intersection at the top of his block. “This was one of the most dangerous intersections in America,” he says.
He points out where Brick Towers once stood, the high-rise public-housing project he moved into in 1998, just after graduating from Yale Law School, with a dream of starting a grassroots organization. “As I was moving in, my stuff got stolen,” Booker says. “But then the blessings started happening. I met these amazing tenant leaders who took me under their wings, and we began fighting against these terrible slumlords.” They ultimately prevailed; the landlord was convicted in federal court and the towers closed, which is when he moved into the townhouse around the corner.
Booker is a big guy (he was named to the All-American high-school football team and played tight end for Stanford) and is visible from a block away. Immediately, people start coming out of the woodwork. They shout out their kitchen windows … Book! I love you! … lean on their horns … I love how you move through the community like it ain’t nothin! … yank their cars over to the curb … Can I get a shot for my Instagram?! … We cannot get 20 paces without a hug and/or kiss and/or selfie. People ask for jobs/appointments/help getting into rehab. Some just want to thank him/talk smack about Trump/tell him to run for president “because this is not wooork-iiing.”
It’s all a little hard to believe, and to some extent a set piece for my benefit, since Booker knows exactly what will happen when he walks through the streets of Newark. But the interactions are undeniably real and tender, as with a woman named Aliya who has lost her Section 8 housing and wants to get off the streets and into drug treatment. “Miiister Cooory Boooker!” she yells from half a block away. “Just the man I wanted to see.” She beelines toward us, though you can see she is a mess. “First of all,” says Booker, “can I have a hug?” Then he tells her that if she’s willing to walk a mile and a half to his office right now, he will have someone on his staff meet her and get the process started immediately. During moments when he’s talking to constituents, he whips out his phone and videos them saying the crucial information, then texts it to his office in Newark.
After a while, I remind him that no one speaks to Hillary Clinton like this. He lets out a big laugh and says, “Yes, right.” It’s true: Whenever Clinton conducted town halls in Iowa or New Hampshire, many people acted as if they’d just bumped into Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse. In their nervousness, they would lose the ability to be themselves, to say what they came to say. Even with a politician like Gillibrand, her constituents recognize her and approach, often with something they want to discuss, but they are respectful to the point of meekness. The good people of Newark speak their minds to Booker. “Hey, Cory, I got laid off,” one says to him. “Can you call L+M and say, ‘Can you make sure Barry stays working?’ And if it’s not you calling, then don’t make the call.”
We find ourselves standing in front of a house that is part of a modern public-housing development. “So I started my career on a cold day in late ’97, my first campaign for councilman, knocking on doors, and this is the house where I first made a promise,” Booker says, explaining that he swore, win or lose, he would come back with fried chicken and peach cobbler after the election. “They said, ‘You are never going to show up here again.’ ” His eyes light up. “Let’s see if they’re in.” He walks up the stoop and peeks through the screen. “Hey, Miss Rose?”
“How you doin’? Can I come in? I have a guest with me.”
As we wait for someone to come to the door, he whispers to me, “Okay, so this is an incredible family.” It is the home of Rosalie Powell, who is in her 70s and infirm; she’s confined to a hospital bed in the living room. “Miss Rose, she is like a mother to me,” Booker says. She lives with her two grandchildren and their three kids, one of whom Booker had recently taken to see Deadpool. “If I’m dating somebody, I’ll always sneak ’em by here,” Booker says. “And she got really mad at me a few months ago because I broke up with somebody.”
“I liked her!” shouts Rose, clearly delighting in Booker’s presence. We stay and talk for half an hour, about her great-grandchildren and her broken air-conditioner and her diet, which Booker admonishes her to improve.
This makes us very late to the press conference in the Toys ’R’ Us parking lot. (“Oh, crap, Menendez is going to be mad,” he mutters in the car, referring to the senior senator from New Jersey, who is also participating. “They’re going to talk about me. As they should.”) The rally is arranged so that a clutch of laid-off workers are standing behind Booker and an equal number of TV reporters in front of him. In his remarks, he sounds, if not as liberal as Sanders, certainly comfortable critiquing Wall Street. He talks about how Toys ’R’ Us was “saddled with so much debt it couldn’t function,” how its “financial institutions, including Bain Capital, charged exorbitant fees,” how “when the company goes south, bankers walk away with hundreds of millions of dollars in their pockets” and leave “the workers in ruins.” “We have to unrig the system,” he says.
As mayor, though, Booker was not shy about inviting large corporate interests into his city — coaxing the rich to invest in Newark was, he always argued, part of his job — and when his remarks are over, he gets buttonholed by a reporter from a local paper who brings up Booker’s Bain Capital problem. Specifically, that time in 2012, on Meet the Press, when Booker called the negative Obama-campaign ads about Mitt Romney’s career at Bain “nauseating” and urged his fellow Democrats to “stop attacking private equity.” It continues to haunt him and is perhaps the main source of the progressive mistrust of Booker. Today he says to the reporter, “Again, I think that unsophisticated, broad-brush-painting tactics are to be expected, but let’s be clear: I’ve never been shy about attacking some practices that are hurting people, that run contrary to justice and contrary to the best interests of our economy and our country. And so I don’t care who it is: If you are doing wrong by workers, if you’re engaging in things that I think are unjust, you will be called out on it.”
“But you did take $24,000?” asks the reporter. “From people who work at Bain?”
“Absolutely,” says Booker, referring to donations he’s accepted since taking office. “From people I’ve known for a long time.”
“Did you call any of them about Toys ’R’ Us?”
“Actually, we are making phone calls to Bain Capital and saying, ‘This is just not right.’ ”
In 2013, as Booker was running for Senate, The Atlantic published a piece titled “Why Do Liberals Hate Cory Booker?” Sure, he has raised money from Wall Street, and yes, he worked closely with the Republican governor Chris Christie, and he got himself all mucked up with Mark Zuckerberg’s failed attempt to reform urban public schools, all of which are anathema to some progressives. But the more salient issue seems to be, both then and now, his non-defensiveness about any of it. “He has always made an attempt to reach across the aisle in a way that can get on your nerves if you’re in the middle of an all-out blood battle trying to crush the other side,” says Marshall Curry, who directed Street Fight, the Oscar-nominated documentary about Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark.
To run successfully in the Democratic presidential primary, Booker will have to excite progressives somehow. He’s introduced a marijuana-legalization bill that Gillibrand, Sanders, and Kamala Harris have signed on to, and he has pushed as hard as anyone in the Senate for criminal-justice reform; he has renounced contributions from corporate PACs, and he supports a federal jobs guarantee and Medicare for all. But he also, last year, voted against a piece of legislation that would allow Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada, where they can be cheaper — and the blowback from liberals was intense.
“He’s definitely in that top tier of people,” says one veteran Democratic strategist, “but he doesn’t have people in his corner. He very much came up through the traditional political pathways — he was for Wall Street before he was against it — and though he’s taken a lot of positions that, in conventional thinking, aligned him with the progressive wing of the party, the question is: Why him, why now?”
Robby Mook, who managed Clinton’s 2016 campaign, cautions against reading the upcoming campaign as a battle over policy issues. “It’s very easy to be lulled into a sense that this primary is essentially a set of litmus tests, and I think some candidates miss the fact that this is about an idea,” he says. Podesta believes Booker has the potential to run as a change agent. “If you think about the races, are you trying to restore something, or are you trying to move into the future?” he says. “I think Cory has the capacity to project into the future with a kind of moral commitment that excites people and that’s completely believable.” He also points out that Booker, who has a “great commitment to justice, together with a history of being able to manage budgets,” is attractive to donors. “I think people don’t understand: It’s not that easy to raise the money for this. Everybody thinks they can be Bernie and raise $200 million in small donations. When you got 20 people running, that’s sort of hard.”
But Booker’s somewhat polarizing personality will certainly be a challenge. “There are a lot of people who think he’s too professorial,” says Curry. “The way that he talks about policy can feel lecture-y to people; they think that he’s sanctimonious.” The Obama comparisons can work against him, both because he’s less temperamentally cool than the former president and also because, like Obama, his high-mindedness about politics makes some Democrats nervous. “I think Cory is going to run as the ethical alternative to Trump,” Curry continues, “and I just don’t know whether decency and kindness can beat somebody that is as nasty as Donald Trump is.”
“I don’t think you can forecast how people will feel about him a year from now, should he decide to run, by the initial impressions skeptics may have today,” says Valerie Jarrett, who worked with Booker and other mayors when she served in the Obama White House. “I understand why people would be hesitant initially. Everyone is so afraid of getting duped by politicians. But the thing I will say about Cory is that that doesn’t deter him from trying. He’s okay with the fact that he has to win people over. He’s not sitting around waiting to be anointed.”
In the SUV on the way to Booker’s next stop, I bring up the hand-wringing over the Democratic primaries, which pretty much everyone assumes is going to be a multicar pileup. “I don’t know,” he says skeptically. “I think there’s going to be lots and lots of people running. But I don’t think it actually has to be ugly. Maybe there won’t be any Democrat-on-Democrat violence.” He laughs. Aren’t you worried about a scorched-earth battle for the soul of the party? “You know, like, when has our primary process done that, though?” he says. “Think about it. Maybe when Kennedy went after Carter. But that was a sitting president. But otherwise, I just don’t see it. Even battles between Clinton-Obama and Clinton-Bernie … There were some tough, tough fights, but … I don’t think it caused us to implode.”
In 2013, Booker brought his boisterous, touchy-feely, unabashedly sincere self to Washington, D.C. — in particular to the cold, old, stuffy Senate. It has been an interesting interpersonal five years. Booker does not drink and does not enjoy the extracurricular receptions and evening social life of the city, but in other ways he is the most social of senators — by which I mean he works to have a good relationship with everyone, including every Republican senator and all of their young staffers. He is a big presence in every room he enters, talkative and convivial in the hallways and elevators, right up to and including the floor of the august chamber itself.
He also has a hard time getting himself to stop talking. On a recent afternoon, we are sitting in Booker’s office before he has to attend a meeting with Chuck Schumer. Someone pokes his head in to tell Booker he’s running late. “Schumer’s always late,” he says to me. “Give me one more question.” Hesitantly, I ask what’s bothering him most right now, and he launches into an answer that is so long and thoroughgoing — cramming in example after example, from the horrors of solitary confinement to “lead-paint epidemics” in urban areas — that there is now a group of staffers huddled near his door, shuffling their feet and staring at the floor. Booker suddenly realizes everyone is waiting for him and, as he continues to answer, gathers his things, then tells me to walk with him so we (he!) can keep talking. “And so what gets me is we have a common pain in this country …” We are now practically running down a hallway because Booker’s strides are twice the length of most humans’. We all pile into an elevator. “I’m doing everything I can do to fight for the people who folks don’t listen to …” The door opens and we head down another hallway toward the Senate subway, where a car is about to leave. “We can make it, guys,” Booker says, breaking into a sprint. Inside our car are two young male Senate staffers staring into their phones. “Who do you guys work for?” asks Booker. “Umm, Grassley,” says one of them. “Grassley! My partner! On so many things!” To young guy No. 2: “Who do you work for?” Wyden. “Wyden! The man! Who is a better basketball player than me.” When the subway door opens, Booker jumps right back into his answer to my question. “So my point is, about the farm bill, when you make food-stamps cuts …” We run up a flight of stairs and then all cram into a very small, very old elevator that takes us to the rotunda. Booker to the elevator operator: “You’re new! I haven’t seen you before.” Senator Gary Peters of Michigan is also squeezed in with us, head down, reading a newspaper. Booker says to the new guy in a faux-conspiratorial tone, “Be careful when you’re around Senator Peters, because he’s a serious man and he doesn’t like chitter-chatter on the el-ah-vay-tor.” Peters barely looks up but manages a polite chuckle.
Most politicians learn to mirror the people they’re talking to. Booker’s personality is too big for that kind of shape-shifting, but he does change his tone and vernacular around different audiences. One day I watch an impromptu meeting with Cory Gardner, the Republican senator from Colorado, standing by the elevator down the hall from Booker’s office. They have a surprisingly substantive conversation about co-sponsoring legislation having to do with de-scheduling marijuana at the federal level. Gardner has a Senate Bro aspect that seems to bring out even more of the Booker Bro, the two men slightly one-upping each other. “Gotta get it done! Gotta get it done!” shouts Gardner as the elevator door closes.
He seems to relax more among his female colleagues. A few months ago in a meeting with congresswomen Pramila Jayapal from Washington and Karen Bass from California, they talk about the Democrats’ chances to take back the House. “You guys are going to get, like, seven seats,” Booker says to Bass.
“I wish,” she says, explaining that there are too many Democrats running. (At the time, it looked as if the Democratic candidates could split the vote and be shut out of the California primary, although in the end this didn’t happen.)
“I didn’t even think about that,” Booker says, looking astonished. Jayapal points out that they have a similar issue in Washington. “We gave them polling, op research, told them ‘You can’t win,’ ” says Bass. “There’s this one young woman whose grandfather is a bazillionaire; she don’t have a chance. And she’s already put a million dollars into the race.”
“What?” Booker says loudly.
“The top-two system is a terrible thing,” says Jayapal.
“Its awful,” says Bass. “All it is is a windfall for political consultants.”
“My seat cost $7 million last year,” says Jayapal.
“What?!” says Booker, even louder.
“And I was running against a Democrat. And there was never a kiss-and-make-up moment because we go all the way to the general election.”
“Oh my God,” says Booker.
One of his best friends in D.C. is Gillibrand, whom he describes as having “an honesty of spirit” and a “hard-charging, no-bullshit way about her.” In what constitutes a compliment in D.C. these days, he says, “You don’t feel unctuous when you walk away from her.” Sold to, yes. “She’s incredible about using every moment — every time you bump into a senator is an opportunity to push your agenda. Which I love about her. I feel the same way. She and I are both in Bible study, and if you ask her to speak honestly, it’s not just because she has a sincere theological perspective on the world, as do I, but it also happens to be in Chairman Inhofe’s hideaway, with Chairman Thune there as well.” By way of example, he tells me about a piece of legislation that he managed, against all odds, to get attached to an education bill that passed. “Long story short, because I have a really good relationship with Inhofe — he and Grassley — it’s the law of the land.”
Gillibrand says she was a little leery of Booker at first. “I had read all the various articles and thought, I hope we get along, I hope I like him, but I didn’t expect I would.” They became fast friends. “I think he is a kind person. And I think he listens. Also, there are not that many young senators, to be honest. We’re about the same age.” Kamala Harris says something similar. “We are, I think, kindred spirits around so many issues. We’re always happy when the other walks in the room, knowing, ‘Well, at least there’ll be two of us.’ ” In particular, Gillibrand remembers the impression Booker left when he erupted one day in a meeting with the Democratic caucus: “He described that to me and the entire caucus one afternoon — why institutional racism is such a scourge on society, and how many ways a young black boy is going be discriminated against in his life and what it looks like and what it feels like. I nearly cried.”
This is one of the things that divides people about Booker: He may be constitutionally compassionate, but he does not hold back when he’s angry. “When I first came here, I swore to myself that I’d put my head down and keep quiet for the first year or two,” he says. “And the one time I couldn’t keep to my rule was on the day that Ferguson was happening. I am sitting there in my Democratic caucus, I’m the only African-American in the room, and there’s tens of thousands of people marching in the streets and we’re all just going along and … I just lost it.” Gillibrand remembers the impromptu speech as “one of the most profoundly powerful and intense calls to action that I’ve ever heard.” There have been other eruptions, as when he pressed secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April (“Do you believe that gay sex is a perversion? Yes or no?”), and his heated confrontation with Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in January over Trump’s “shithole countries” comment, shouting at her for nearly five minutes, waving his fists in the air and pounding them on the table: “Your silence and amnesia is complicity!”
Just a couple of weeks ago, during the Kavanaugh hearings, Booker was on a roll, giving voice to those who find his nomination alarming, rising to the top of everyone’s Google News feed, when suddenly, as so often happens with Booker, he went a bit too far. “This is about the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment,” he said, and you could hear the collective groaning all the way to Rome. Even Clarence Thomas made fun of him, in a conversation with a leader of the Federalist Society a week later.
As a fellow hothead from Jersey — by which I mean someone who wears his emotions on his sleeve, sometimes to the exhaustion of those around us — I don’t see an act. I see a person who is perhaps a bit too porous: Every little thing goes in and eventually all of it comes out. But I also know it scares people, or at least can instill a discomfort that can curdle into distrust — a credibility gap.
When I run my hothead theory by Booker, he agrees with the first part. He’s a fan of Brené Brown, the popular writer whose ted Talk is called “The Power of Vulnerability.” “The soldier that runs out on a field and saves somebody — he’s not courageous because he’s strong and can carry the guy,” Booker says. “It’s because he risks himself, exposes himself. I think we’re becoming a society where people, especially men, can’t be vulnerable. I don’t hide my emotions. I just don’t. I began saying in my speeches — I used to say it privately first, and I’d hear moans or groans — ‘If this country hasn’t broken your heart, you don’t love her enough.’ ”
“He will wear you out,” Gillibrand warned me, and she was right. Late in the afternoon one day, Booker holds what is essentially a FaceTime Teen Town Hall, for which a group of New Jersey high-school gun-violence activists is crammed into his big conference room in Newark while Booker is alone in his big empty conference room in D.C. as they communicate via giant TVs. The teleconference is supposed to last for half an hour, and everything starts off marvelously: The students are smart and funny, and Booker lends every question the respect he would give to one from a colleague in a Senate hearing. But as half an hour turns into 45 minutes, with Booker inching closer and closer to the television, things start getting weird. “Do I look really scary and up close right now?” he says, just a couple of feet from the TV, and all the teenagers laugh. A young girl asks a question about mental-health issues, and his answer is so exhaustive that when he is finished the girl says, “I am speechless. Thank you.” At one point, he has his hands on the cabinet that sits underneath the TV, and he’s leaning in, looking as if he’s hoping to climb inside the TV, pass through a rent in time, and be their age again. “You kids are blowing my mind with this conversation because you are so on point,” he says.
It is now 7 p.m. and Booker has to rush over to the kickoff party for the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative summit, where he will give the welcome remarks. His speech is pitch-perfect for a while, urging the members not just to “navigate” the partisan divide “but to think of yourselves as people who are trying to put back together the partisan divide.” But before long he raises the pitch to the level of shouting, like a Whitney Houston song that reaches a crescendo too soon and has nowhere to go but louder. Eventually he comes back to Earth and regains his footing and winds things down — only to then take a moment to read a Langston Hughes poem. Earlier in the day, he had asked his speechwriter: “Am I the last speaker?” Yes, she said. “Oh, good,” he said. “I can talk as long as I want.”
The job of being a Democratic senator is several levels crazier now than it was when Booker arrived, but he doesn’t seem to find it demoralizing. He’s quick to share good news with his staff, as when Schumer says “don’t be doom and gloom” about the chances of Democrats’ retaking the Senate. He’s passed very few pieces of legislation, though he gets credit for being good at creating a conversation around an issue and using social media to talk about subjects like criminal-justice reform. One bill of his, designed to improve conditions for women in prison, has gotten nowhere in the Senate but has become a model for bills that have been introduced in nine state legislatures.
And though he is among the most junior senators, Booker thinks he has some useful experience when it comes to working under Trump: his time as a member of the Newark City Council under Sharpe James’s mayoralty. “I had a very … let’s just say a guy who could be very demagogic and over-the-top.
What we found is that we could embarrass him into doing things,” he says. “When there’s no systems and no efficiency, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil, and so if I took pictures of potholes and pushed them out to the community, it would get action really, really quick.
“The interesting thing about this place is that there are so many issues that are urgently important that nobody is really even paying attention to. And if you just tug and tug and tug, you can actually get things done. I see this in foreign relations a lot. When they did the hiring freeze, it affected the ability of the embassy in Niger to hire security guards. Come on! Do you want to be responsible for a Benghazi-like situation? You find out about people in the field complaining to you and really worrying, you can pull a string and get action to actually happen.” Booker pushed Pompeo on the subject, both publicly and privately, and believes that he helped get the hiring freeze lifted.
One day in the spring, the most pressing piece of business is a bill designed to make it harder for Trump to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. (It is co-sponsored by Republicans Lindsey Graham and Thom Tillis and the Democrat Chris Coons.) They have been working on the bill for months, and it has gained some traction. Booker and his staffers huddle in strategy sessions throughout the day, trying to stop Schumer from holding a press conference. “I don’t want this to become partisan,” Booker explains. “Anybody who says they don’t believe that Donald Trump will fire Mueller doesn’t understand the nature of our president. And if there’s only a 10 percent chance of that, shouldn’t we be moving? So the problem is right now you have enough Republicans — including Grassley, who thinks we’re right, that want to move this forward — but you have a Mitch McConnell, who is concerned about elections, who doesn’t want to move it. But my belief right now is: Gain the ground. If you can get a foot here, a yard there, if you can get 20 yards down the field, do it.”
Booker subscribes to the Obama theory of Trump — he’s a symptom, not the cause, of the rot in our politics — and, like Obama, he’s wary of talking much about him. But in late August, after Michael Cohen’s guilty plea implicating Trump in a criminal conspiracy and Trump’s nomination of Kavanaugh, who clearly believes in shielding the presidency from investigation, I bring the subject up again with Booker. Mueller’s position seems even more vulnerable, I say, and I ask him whether he thinks the bill he was working on in April, which never did see the Senate floor, made any difference. “I think a lot of people see it as a lot more realistic that Donald Trump could move Mueller,” he says. “I won’t tell you who, but a senator texted me the other day and said, ‘Let’s go to the floor and UC your bill’ — ask for unanimous consent.
‘Make them come to the floor and stop us from just passing it on a voice vote.’ ”
Booker believes both things feel closer: the possibility of preventing a Mueller firing and the possibility of its happening. He is particularly worried about machinations at the Justice Department. “An assistant AG named Brian Benczkowski was put into place — he has never prosecuted a case, never argued a motion, and he’s now right below Rod Rosenstein,” Booker says. “If Rosenstein leaves, you could get Benczkowski, who has a deep connection to Trump, even some sketchy connections to Alfa Bank [assigned to oversee Mueller]. I’ve just been watching these chess moves being made to snuff out this investigation or protect the president. And I think some of my Republican colleagues are beginning to see the danger. There are so many ways this could play out. But I would like to think — and this is me being a prisoner of hope — at that point, some Republicans would break with this president and call him on what he’s doing. A lot of them use that rhetoric now, but you just never know until you’re in that moment.”
One day I ask Booker, “Everyone seems to want to know: Are you currently single? Are you gay? Can I ask these questions?” He laughs and says, “Yeah … no. I don’t mind being candid,” which is an answer to all three questions. “I’m single. It’s tough to date as a senator,” he continues. “And I think that I’ve come to a point in my life where I understand that the things that are most valuable are obviously your personal relationships and … I definitely am a person who wants to … The title I seek the most is probably husband and father. And I hope that that happens and that I get a chance to have what seems to be the most gratifying experience of so many of my friends.”
Republican senator Tim Scott from South Carolina is about Booker’s age, and they are the only two black men in the Senate.* They are both single. They have passed one significant piece of legislation together, an act that provided tax incentives to invest in poor communities, but it would appear they agree on almost nothing else. “I’d consider us friends,” says Scott. “We don’t hang out together outside the Senate, but we get along really well here. We spend a lot of time talking about our dating lives and the young ladies,” he says. “We both find ourselves a bit bewildered by it. Perhaps the distractions of public office, the travel, the 70-to-80-hour workweeks have contributed to that. It does not lend itself to developing deep-rooted relationships, and most of the girls I date, and most of the girls he has dated, well … everybody wants time. It’s the one thing you have very little of.”
The only single president this country has ever elected was James Buchanan. (Grover Cleveland was elected as a bachelor but married shortly after being installed in office.) Booker’s singleness, coming more than a century later, is another way he stands out from other presidential candidates — not just that he would be campaigning without a spouse but that he has an active dating life. (He dated Veronica Webb before becoming a senator and, more recently, Cleo Wade, who is famous for her Instagram poetry.) “Often, at screenings, someone will come up to me afterward and say, ‘My sister used to date Cory Booker’ or ‘My roommate in college dated Cory Booker,’ ” Curry tells me. “It almost becomes a joke how many people, when I meet them, will know somebody who dated him.” His approach to addressing rumors about his sexuality is so direct it’s almost a form of trolling. “I hope you’re not voting for me because you are making the presumption that I’m straight,” he said in 2013. More recently, he responded on Twitter to a man who called him closeted: “Whatever my sexual orientation, know I love you. I hope u are OK with that.”
Booker’s mother, Carolyn, has made peace with her son’s life choices. “I would love for him to have someone to share his life with,” she says. “I remain hopeful for that. But I figured out a long time ago that this is Cory’s calling. We just have to sit back and give him the support that he needs to do it in the way that he can best serve that calling.” Lots of people around Booker talk like that, almost as if he’s chosen the priesthood — the single, relentlessly optimistic, middle-aged man who lives a rather monkish existence in his “crappy” basement apartment in the capital or his humble townhouse with his brother’s family. Another analogy that comes to mind is a modern-day Fred Rogers. The recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor is about one man’s quest for more kindness and civility — to “make goodness attractive.” It also highlights how difficult it was for people to take Rogers’s earnestness seriously.
But the best way to understand Booker is to ask him where he came from. He grew up with his brother and parents in Harrington Park, New Jersey, “four raisins in a tub of vanilla ice cream,” as his father, Cary, would say. Cary and Carolyn were among the first two African-Americans to be hired by IBM in the D.C. area, and when Cary was promoted to work in New York and Carolyn took a job in White Plains, they put a pin in the map that was exactly halfway between White Plains and the airport in Newark. They tried to buy a house that was advertised and were told it was no longer for sale. They then decided to participate in a sting operation aimed at integrating New Jersey’s suburbs. They allowed a white couple to pose as the Bookers as they were house-shopping, and after a series of fights and legal procedures, they successfully became the first black family to move into Harrington Park, in 1969, just a few months after Cory was born.
“From the time I was conscious,” Booker says, “my parents made me understand: You didn’t earn this. You may be receiving it, but this was paid for by other folks.” When her boys were growing up, Carolyn would tell them that the way to deal with racism is to “be excellent at what you do, since no one ever denies excellence.” Cory became a science-fiction enthusiast (Star Trek in particular) and the class president of his all-white high school.
He was a star athlete and, after being chosen for the all-American football team, was recruited by several universities, including Duke, which is not far from where Cory’s father grew up. On a tour of the campus, as the football coach made his sell, Cary started laughing. “We used to sneak onto campus here to try to shine shoes to make money,” Cary said, “and security would grab us and throw us off campus and say, ‘We don’t want any niggers on campus.’ And here you are, begging my child to come to your college. I’m just having trouble holding all that in my head.”
The experience of being courted was both affirming and the opposite. “You do feel this thing: I am not worthy,” Booker says. “By the time I was 18 years old, I was this overrated high-school football player.
I was above average, but I wasn’t a two-position all-American, which was the accolades I was getting. Going to Stanford University, you have this feeling, like, How is this happening to me? And what do I have to do to earn it? Just this feeling of, I have a lot to pay back.” Cary Booker died six days before his son was elected senator.
Ten years after Barack Obama won the presidency, a Booker administration would not, of course, break race barriers. But Obama’s story was spectacularly unique — the white grandparents, the missing father in Kenya — and altogether different from Booker’s, whose maternal grandparents moved from the South to Detroit in the 1930s and whose father comes from a line of single mothers who raised their sons in poverty. A few years ago, Booker participated in Finding Your Roots, the PBS show hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and discovered that his mother’s grandfather was white. “I’m a direct descendant of a Confederate soldier,” he tells me one afternoon, as we talk in his office. “He also identified numerous slaves that I’m directly related to. The one I’m the most obsessed with is a woman named Henrietta Stamper, who was listed as mulatto. Her mother didn’t even get a name — Slave Woman — and the father was Stamper.” For Booker, the information was a revelation. “Suddenly, my ancestry made me feel ownership over it all. Over it all! Ownership over the ugliness, the wretchedness, as well as the glory and honor.” More than any other way in which Booker stands out from most 2020 contenders, there’s this: It would still be extraordinary to elect a president whose ancestors were slaves.
Gillibrand told me that Booker is like the “mayor of the Senate,” by which she meant not the institution of 100 senators but the small village of people who work there. He knows the names of every security guard, every page, the guys in the woodshop, the cleaning crew. They light up in his presence, and he sometimes takes selfies and videos with them and posts them to Instagram. He has made a point of getting to know each of them as he has his neighbors in Newark — an impulse that can make his more cynical colleagues roll their eyes, and is theatrical to the point of ostentation, but is also, clearly, not a performance.
“I often leave this building at ten, 11 o’clock at night, along with the few remaining staffers, who are overwhelmingly white,” he says. “And then you see this long line of workers lining up to get in: the late-night shift. And they’re all African-American. So this building — these buildings — literally turn majority black at night. Because they are the people who are cleaning this place.”
*This article appears in the September 17, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
*The original version of this article incorrectly identified Tim Scott as a senator from North Carolina. He represents South Carolina.