Urban Legend

"I would have betrayed all the opportunities I've had if I didn't give something back," says Newark's newly minted mayor. "Inner cities are the last great challenge to this country." (By Steve Hockstein -- Bloomberg News)
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 3, 2006


Cory Booker, who was inaugurated on Saturday as this city's new Democratic mayor, likes to tell stories, and nearly every one of them will make you sick. Not nauseated sick, but something that is both deeper and more fleeting -- the feeling that you are a cynical, selfish jerk and you ought to be ashamed, and you are ashamed. But only for a few minutes, because that's how selfish and cynical you are.

Here's an example. Let's call it Briefly Sickening Cory Booker Story No. 1.

It's August of 1999. Booker is a fed-up, 30-year-old City Council member, thwarted at every attempt at reform by four-term mayor Sharpe James. Newark's decay and despair, and the inability to do anything about it, stress out Booker so badly that he's getting migraines and back spasms. After a particularly violent crime at a particularly drug-ravaged high-rise apartment complex, Booker decides it is time for drastic measures.

He buys a tent, pitches it next to the complex and goes on a hunger strike. For 10 days, he fasts and sleeps outdoors in one of the grimmest neighborhoods in one of the country's grimmest cities.

"It transformed my life," Booker says, sitting in his office last week, where he was preparing his inauguration address. "Within 24 hours, people were saying, 'You're not sleeping out there alone,' and eventually there were dozens of people sleeping under this huge wedding tent. The first morning of the strike, we had a prayer circle of four people. By the end, there were enough people for us to form a circle around the two buildings. Priests, rabbis, Latinos, blacks."

The media showed up, Mayor James relented -- just a little -- and Booker started eating.

"It really changed my perceptions about power," says Booker, who is wearing a blue oxford shirt and a yellow tie and speaking, as he always does, like a man in a rush. "It's not about the office that you hold or the money in your bank account. Real power never stems from agencies. It stems from spiritual power."

You see? Have you ever heard a more sickening story in your whole life? The commitment, the risk, the lesson about "spiritual power" -- it's all so unnervingly selfless and noble that it makes whatever you are doing seem halfhearted and inane.

Long before winning his current job, Booker was touted as an African American politician with limitless potential, the next Barack Obama, plus GQ looks. And that is a problem for the rest of us. If life is a high-school test writ large, this former Rhodes scholar with Clintonian charisma is single-handedly wrecking the curve.

Second-Round Victory

Booker's inauguration was held at a spiffy downtown arts center with a few thousand seats. The event felt more like a church service and pep rally than a swearing-in. The stage was packed with members of the City Council, family and assorted well-wishers, and the hall was filled with Booker's friends and most ardent fans. The audience gave him one standing ovation after another, and they cheered sympathetically when he flubbed a line he was supposed to repeat as he took the oath of office.

"We love you!" a woman shouted, during a lull.

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