Cory Booker looked like the perfect confection for Acela corridor elites: impeccable educational credentials (Stanford, Oxford, Yale, darling), social media élan and easy proximity to New York’s chummy culture of media gatekeepers, liberal activists, and fundraisers. His ascent from Mayor of Newark to Morning Joe regular to rising star of progressives was a smooth arc. Dinner parties, speeches to adoring crowds, meeting All The Right Sort of People in New York…these things came naturally to Booker. He was Going Somewhere.
In their Park Avenue homes, in progressive think tanks, and in production meetings for a hundred television shows, New York’s ruling class whispered that perhaps Cory Booker was the next black President, some day very soon. Then he ran for Senate and collided with reality.
Even in Blue Jersey, campaigns are hard work and the campaign trail is a path of revelation. Nothing is hidden from the lidless eyes of Google, and Booker’s fabulist personal stories turned from compelling to risible in a few short weeks. Campaigns researchers are machines meant to expose lies and with Cory Booker, they did.
By now we’ve all heard the non-denial denials of his imaginary street friend T-Bone, of taking drug dealers to his home, of Wazn Miller dying in his strong, ripped arms. Booker used these as a narrative about how the ravaged inner city drove this man, this selfless, beautiful man, to work so hard for Newark.
But each time the thread was pulled on these remarkably colorful and granular tales, the Booker story fell apart a little more. Money from Zuckerberg for education? Blown on consultants. The Newark turnaround story? More like Mogadishu on the Passiac.
Those stories were a vital part of why the media fell in love with Cory Booker. It let Booker signal to elite audiences he was authentic enough, but that he also had the requisite post-Obama social distance from old guard African-American politicians like Sharpe James. Booker exuded a kind of Obamaesque charisma without the President’s famous froideur.
All campaign narratives are polished and crafted to put the candidate’s biography and values on display in the most effective way. This isn’t deception; it’s politics. Yes, candidates emphasize the positive, sometimes to the point of risk. But for Booker, claiming he was an astronaut or a brain surgeon wouldn’t seem like much of a lift after the T-Bone and Wazn stories collapsed around him. Revelations of payments to Booker from his former law firm reeked of influence peddling, and his role in the tech startup Waywire went off the rails as it became public knowledge.
Once things got loose, they got very loose: the Portland vegan stripper tale and questions about his sexuality are sideshows, but now that the Booker shield is cracked, the media is like a woman scammed by a phony online dating profile: hell hath no fury.
This happened for a reason: Booker is from an essentially one-party state and a one-party media culture. He’s been told over and over by every interviewer how he is a marvel to behold, a wonder, a god striding the Earth. He’s never been held politically accountable, and certainly never had to worry about a Republican candidate running against him. His campaign was, until his lies started to unravel, remarkably lazy and pedestrian.
Booker seems shocked that Steve Lonegan has the temerity to actually engage him and run a campaign. Is Steve Lonegan endowed with Booker’s rich gifts of charisma and media talent? Hardly. But he’s a tireless worker with a compelling, nonfictional biography full of challenge and accomplishments. He’s stuck to his conservative message, stayed on the attack, is obviously genuine even when it’s impolitic. From a 35-point lead for Booker, polls now show Lonegan inside the kill zone, back only 3 points by some estimates.
A Lonegan win is still a tough political climb in a state as blue as New Jersey, but as Booker’s reputation as the Baron von Munchausen of New Jersey has cemented itself in the public mind, and Booker campaign panic has set in, it’s no longer an impossibility.