It was Day Three of the Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings when Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) launched his 2020 presidential bid as a Thracian gladiator.
His eyes glimmering pools of earnestness, Booker girded his loins and told those in attendance he was going to do the unthinkable: He was going to put everything at risk, even his place in the U.S. Senate, and break the rules. He would release confidential documents that, Booker said, would expose Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh as a supporter of racial profiling.
Lest the immensity of the moment be lost on spectators, Booker sprang for the enduring image: “This is about the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment,” he said with a straight face. He was referring to the 1960 movie “Spartacus,” about a failed slave revolt led by the title character (Kirk Douglas) against the Roman Republic. When the rulers warned that all the slaves would be crucified unless Spartacus identified himself, he stood up. Then all the other slaves did the same, saying, “I am Spartacus.”
Alas, the Kavanaugh documents technically were not confidential, having been released the night before by Bill Burck, the George W. Bush attorney charged with reviewing Kavanaugh’s records from his time as a lawyer in the White House. The documents also did not support Booker’s claim about profiling. But truth is no lingerer in the repositories of Booker’s revelations.
Would that director Stanley Kubrick had been on hand. He might have instructed the other Democratic senators to rise at once and say, “No, I am Spartacus,” and to rescue their colleague from certain parody. Apparently, at least some of the other senators, and Booker himself, already knew that the documents, previously marked “committee confidential,” had been released, according to Burck. Thursday night, Booker told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he didn’t know the emails had been released and insisted, almost boastfully, that he did too break the rules. One couldn’t help wondering whether the “I am Spartacus” bumper stickers and “Break Rules” T-shirts were already being printed.
Booker has flirted with grandiosity before, if in the most humble way. Humble-bragging, I think they call it. As with his story of trying to save the life of a boy shot down in a Newark neighborhood and then stumbling back to his apartment building and sobbing as he tried to wash the blood from his hands, then falling crying on the shoulder of a wise tenant president, who told him “stay faithful.”
Then there was ol’ T-Bone, the threatening drug pusher whom Booker says he befriended in Newark. Indeed, Booker used to mention T-Bone so often in speeches that inquiring minds went looking for him — to no avail. It seems T-Bone may not have existed, at least not in the singular. A New Jersey historian named Clement Price told National Review that Booker had admitted to him that T-Bone was actually a blend of several people. In the vernacular of pardonable political sins, he was a composite, a familiar archetype of the luckless and the lost.
Booker’s supporters, including Price, have forgiven his periodic explorations of hyperbole, saying that the story, if not precisely true, served a good purpose. Others, undoubtedly, will readily trade T-Bone for Spartacus as fresher evidence of Booker’s intention to evolve into a higher life form before our very eyes.
He’s a consummate storyteller, to be sure. He never looks at a note, as I’ve observed him on the hustings, and he mesmerizes his audiences. At a Florence, S.C., church where he introduced then-candidate Hillary Clinton with a stemwinder in 2016, dripping sweat and passion, people in the audience were no doubt wondering: Why isn’t he the one running?
All in good time, my friends, all in good time.
It’s plain that Booker has been running all his life — as a Stanford University football player, as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, as a law student at Yale. Yet, despite his studious pursuit of life lessons, he seems to have missed one: Don’t show them your hand, meaning don’t let them see how much you want it.
All we learned from Booker’s Spartacus moment was that he was desperate to wrest the day away from Kavanaugh. Gambling everything, he won a punchline.
Too bad. When you’re already an elected senator, a beneficiary of the most elite education the world has to offer, a charismatic champion of the less fortunate — and a vegan, to boot — you don’t have to invent, embellish or grandstand. Truth is enough.
Besides, spoiler alert: In “Spartacus,” everybody dies at the end.