Cory Booker explains T-Bone. And the cynical press. And Eva Longoria. And terrorists.

August 30, 2013

Cory Booker isn’t going to let anyone stop him from telling stories.


Cory Booker.

This week, I published a profile of Booker,  who is likely to be the next junior senator from New Jersey, after sitting down with the Newark mayor for a long interview in a Union, New Jersey  diner.

Yesterday, while I was out reporting a story about how Maine’s governor hates words,  the National Review suggested that Booker likes them a little too much. It depicted Booker as a fabulist and accused him of inventing a drug dealer named T-Bone, who served as a fixture in his early political stump speeches.

This is an old complaint, first lodged by the Newark Star Ledger, and then explored in an Esquire profile, both of which date back to Booker's first term as mayor. But Booker’s critics – some of whom used to work for him --  still bring up T-Bone as a telltale embellishment, a touchstone of what they consider Booker’s inauthenticity.

When we talked over (a lot of) coffee in New Jersey last week, I asked Booker about T-Bone. He asserts that the T-Bone story is indeed true. But he also somehow seems to create some wiggle room, appearing to couch his defense in a critique of the cynicism of the press.

The exchange is ultimately more relevant for the glimpse it offers of Booker’s impressive rhetorical mechanics, how they move him from a question about an allegedly fictitious – or composite – drug dealer on a Newark street corner, to an indictment of the press, to a mention of Eva Longoria, to a positive argument about his own authenticity to, somehow, a point about the importance of not letting “terrorists and those who seek us harm to change our fundamental values like the right to privacy.”

That my next question after the exchange stuck with the privacy issues and the National Security Agency, and not T-Bone, is perhaps a testament to the effectiveness of Booker’s rhetorical talents. The transcript of the T-Bone portion of the interview is below.

JH: The T-Bone thing was a mistake right?

CB: What T-Bone thing?

JH: Didn’t you create a composite drug dealer character?

CB: Nooo. This is again how the press seems to write history. It’s just not true!

JH: What is the truth?

CB: This is a story that I used to tell all the time that was a hundred percent true. And the most cynical reporter for the Ledger writes as if – and then he goes like this – he goes to some guy, not even from my neighborhood – ‘Was there ever a character?’ The guy doesn’t know Brick Towers.

JH: So it’s true?

CB: When I first moved to that community, imagine a street that, honestly.....I worked everywhere from East Harlem to East Palo Alto, you talk to people from that neighborhood – in fact, in my speech the night before with Eva Longoria, there was a whole bunch of Brick Towers people there and I found myself easily going to them, saying ‘Y’all remember this, you all remember that?’ And people saying ‘Yeah.’ It was the most dangerous street in the world, the drug dealers had it locked down. So yeah I got my life threatened, and yeah I met the same guy who when he got in trouble with the law needed some help. And yeah he did break down in tears. So what that whole episode told me was the cynicism of that. Because by the way, now you hear me telling stories that are just as quote unquote incredible but are a day in the life of people who live in those communities. So I said ‘Ok, if this reporter is going to attack that, let me tell the same stories that happened to me last month.’ That now -- because back then nothing was recorded – but now, there are shootings in my neighborhood, there are guys who have come to my house who are drug dealers. That was a thing that so infuriated me, because he took a story from ten, twelve years before and tried to say somehow looking back in history something wasn’t true. And that was one of my early lessons about – this press is ridiculous about that.

JH: Huh, because I had read....

CB: One reporter wrote about something and tried to call me out on it. Which is just ridiculous. So what I said to that reporter, ‘I’m going to continue to tell stories.’ Listen to any speech I give and there will be stories about real people -- and now? Because I know people are going to try and call me on things, I know their names, I know where they are from. And reporters do! ‘Who is this person you talked about?’ I told a story about Frank Hutchins today. All the same color, and drama and importance. Because folks who live in Newark know, you don’t know somebody who hasn’t been affected by a shooting. You don’t know somebody who doesn’t know somebody who has been addicted to drugs. So how could this guy tell me, when people live in Newark with drug dealers on every corner, about real interactions with these drug dealers. I remember once – and I think '60 Minutes' still has this – where I was sitting on a street corner having a conversation with a guy, and I say ‘Where are you going to be in 25 years? And he goes, ‘Either dead or in jail.’ And so thank God there was a reporter saying that, because I’ve told that story a number of times. So this is the cynicism of the press that sometimes – you know, and again, when people think about the influence of corporate America, the press is corporate America too. They are trying to sell stories and reporters, their motivations often aren’t to get to the truth, it’s to get to the front page. I saw how you can write the same paragraph – and I’m a writer – and shade it three or four different ways, that are going to influence the way a reader reads. So to face that from guys like this reporter, it’s just, it was sad and frustrating to me. But at the same time. You. Don’t. Change.  The minute they start changing you, and again I just admit to you that I change on -- now when I tell stories I make sure that I can document, show DNA samples and everything like that – the second they change you? They win. This is why the who privacy issue is such a big issue to me right now, because if we let terrorists and those who seek us harm to change our fundamental values like the right to privacy than we have allowed our enemies to undermine our democracy.

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Sean Sullivan · August 30, 2013