The Cory Booker Problem

The shoo-in candidate for the Senate disappoints those hoping he would be a black leader in the traditional sense and he can no longer coast on diversity

  • Share
  • Read Later
Kena Betancur / Getty Images

Cory Booker, former Newark mayor and current Senator, speaks with members of the media on Aug. 13, 2013

It was bound to happen after a while, even to Cory Booker. While the Newark mayor easily won the Democratic primary for the Senate race in New Jersey this week, some liberal commentators were rolling their eyes. The bright-eyed young hero the media and blue America fell in love with 10 years ago for his bid to take over ailing Newark from a black-power machine gone to seed is increasingly processed as a bit of an empty suit.

Some of the Cory Booker fatigue is due to the choirboy earnestness. We will recall, for instance, the heroics in Newark — saving someone from a burning building, living in a grim housing project himself, etc. Everything Booker does, including his just-so speeches and talk-show appearances, is so facelessly straight-ahead that he is almost oddly free of irony or attitude for a modern politician. By all appearances, it’s heartfelt — but in this age, it can’t help seeming a tad fake to some, or even eerie, leaving some observers wondering when the real guy is going to show up. But that is the real guy.

(MORE: Does Cory Booker Really Want to Come to Washington?)

Another thing that skews his reception is that he doesn’t have a wife and kids. Forty-three is a little old for even men not to be married when they are in the public eye of politics. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Imagine Booker as his current self in every way, except with his wife Lori and their two sons Omar and Malcolm. Somehow the apple-cheeked quality would come off more as “family man,” and he would in general seem more “rooted,” less of a question mark.

The main criticism of Booker seems to be his open embrace of the powers that be, even while he says he speaks for the poor brother on the street. Booker hit the ground collaborating with, for example, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a free-market conservative think tank (which I used to work for), and has welcomed overtures from Silicon Valley moguls (including ones setting him up with a startup, as we have learned lately). For all of his commitment to Newark, Booker has never hinted at seeking a radically new order — his idea has been to bring Newark in line with the way the rest of America is making money.

In that, Booker disappoints those hoping he would be a black leader in the traditional sense. He’s good at saying his name with a pop on the b that subtly communicates black identity — listen to him say, “I’m Cory Bbooker” — but he isn’t the type that excites the black nationalist or the white fellow traveler. They see someone whose main niche seems to be sitting in suits talking to the man.

(MORE: The Real Signs of Black Power)

Of course, all indications are that this is precisely the kind of black leader that will have any real influence in American life as we move on. Booker is to be commended for knowing it and acting accordingly. However, there isn’t much drama in being that kind of black leader, however you pronounce your b’s. On that, another problem of Booker’s begins with B — Barack.

There was a time when the sheer fact of Obama’s blackness had more than a few harboring expectations beyond logic. “Yes, we can!” he intoned, and everybody went crazy — but more because of the skin color of who said it than anything else. Obama sounded like a preacher, and thus a prophet. He was going to get us beyond the partisan divide because, well, he’s wise, or … has been through the fire … or, well, O.K., is black.

(MORE: Obama: The Magical Negro Falls to Earth)

We’re past that, and being a pretty color will never again get a black politician walking in Obama’s footsteps that kind of adulatory reception. Never mind that we’ve also seen that black politicians come in flavors as un-Obaman as Herman Cain and Allen West. No, from here on, our black politicians will be vetted more on the content of their character than the color of their skin, ironically enough.

Booker, therefore, won’t be able to coast on “diversity,” which leaves him with his straight-shooting, single self, more interested in setting things right than stirring up the pot. In an ideal world, it would be enough — but in this one, we’ll just have to see.