UNION, N.J. — During Saturday’s events for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Cory Booker dabbed his dome with a white handkerchief on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and bellowed, “We still have work to do.” The next morning, the mayor of Newark appeared as a guest on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and bemoaned “too much division going on in our politics.”
Booker is no stranger to Washington. His parents met here. He was born here. He spent his Christmas breaks from Oxford here. Now a political sensation and media darling with nearly 1.5 million Twitter followers, the 44-year-old seems to have been engineered in a political lab to walk the halls of Congress.
Unless something implausible happens — specifically, an unknown tea party candidate named Steve Lonegan wins statewide office in New Jersey — Booker will return to Washington this fall as the state’s junior senator and a regular in the presidential and vice presidential sweepstakes. Fresh off a convincing victory in the Democratic primary for the seat that was held by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, also a Democrat, Booker acknowledges that the race is his to lose. He is prepping for the eventual move to the capital with a nightly audio book appointment with “This Town,” the bestseller by New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich that paints an unflattering portrait of official Washington.
“I fell asleep to it last night,” Booker says a few hours after receiving an endorsement from President Obama, a friend to whom he is often compared. “I love to see the cognitive laziness — that is, cynicism — at its best.”
Booker, a husky vegetarian who would be the only black Democrat in the Senate, is draining Splenda-sweetened coffee at a Greek diner in Union, just outside of Newark. He talks a lot about cynicism, calling it, “the most cognitively debilitating state of being” and declaring that “my whole life has been about confronting cynicism.” The point is that in a cynical world and a paralyzed Washington, Cory Booker is going to be different. He is going to change things.
Just don’t ask what, or how.
It is something of a mystery what kind of a senator Booker will try to be. Conservatives fear he will be a liberal lion. Liberals fear a Trojan horse for Wall Street and Silicon Valley interests. His detractors see him as an insatiable political animal who, in pursuit of his own national prospects, is willing to compromise on Democratic ideals and continue boosting his mutually beneficial relationship with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is a potential Republican presidential nominee. Booker is cagey about whether he aspires to be the next Sen. Ted Kennedy, but there is no doubt that he would be the chamber’s Senator TED Talk.
“People are always trying to draw simplistic dialectics that can capture things,” he says when asked if he plans to be a workhorse or a show horse. “Putting aside the fact that there is a difference between popularity and purpose and celebrity and significance, the most important thing to say is first, you’ve just got to confess that I don’t know.”