Cory Booker Gets Vetted, By Himself

A Senate campaign in 2013 left the Newark media darling badly burned when stories he'd been telling for years suddenly came under question. Three years later, Cory Booker operates with a new set of rules.

Fifteen years ago, the story appeared in print for the first time, narrated in vivid, cinematic detail by a young Newark city councilman on the rise, Cory Booker.

There were no questions back then about the firsthand account, published as part of a Star-Ledger profile: In the story, Booker is a junior at Stanford, volunteering as a counselor when a call comes in on the campus 24-hour help hotline. A distressed student is on the roof. Booker rushes to the scene. He arrives before police or paramedics. He talks to the student. (“A conversation,” he told the Star-Ledger, “that ultimately became an issue of love.”) Just as police run in, he pulls the caller back off the ledge — and the moment their hands touch, Booker feels “how amazing it is to be used by God.”

So years later, in 2013, it did not occur to Booker that there should be anything different, now that he was running for U.S. Senate, about mentioning the story to a reporter.

“The next thing you know, they’re dispatching the reporter to Stanford!” Booker says one recent morning in New York, relating the trials of that 2013 campaign — his first at the federal level. The reporter went looking for proof of the incident, Booker says. “But Stanford didn’t keep records of that stuff. The police didn’t keep records of that stuff.”

“So they’re saying it didn’t happen!”

That day, his New Jersey Senate campaign launched a search for eyewitnesses in California — an “odyssey,” as Booker puts it, recounting the hours his communications director spent on the phone with Stanford. They knew that a lead psychologist had been on the scene with Booker. But the lead psychologist happened to be dead. “So then we’re like, you’ve got to give us somebody that could’ve been there.” First, they tracked down a guy in California. “They said, Well, we remember it was a student there. He was a football player. I said, ‘Do you remember if the football player was black or white?’ No, we can’t remember if the football player was black or white. So like, OK, that at least puts a football player on the scene who talked a person off the ledge — but I can’t get the person to say that it was a black guy, or Cory Booker.” Finally, the campaign ended up on the phone with a former assistant psychologist from Stanford, now living in Canada, who did in fact remember the time a student counselor by the name of Booker talked someone off a ledge some 25 years ago. “We literally go to Canada, find the assistant psychologist who was there, just to testify” to the reporter, Booker says, a little breathless.

“It finally took us to find the guy in Canada.”

On the 2013 campaign, days like these left scars on Booker and his longtime aides. The 19-week special election, called just days after the death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, came as a rude first brush with national politics for a mayor who spent much of his career as a media darling. The loose, freewheeling style that helped form his political identity in Newark didn't translate easily to a U.S. Senate race, or to the scrutiny that put fresh eyes on his tax returns, donors, business ventures, and thousands of posts on Twitter.

Most of all, the personal stories he’d been telling for years (“anchors,” he once called them) came into the spotlight — and Booker was not prepared to defend them.

There was the story about T-Bone, a Newark drug dealer Booker has described as “an archetype” but “1,000% real,” drawing questions about whether such a person ever existed. That one sent campaign aides on a hunt through police records for a list of every local who had ever identified by the alias “T-Bone.” And then there were questions about Wazn Miller, the teenager Booker cradled in his arms during a gunfight. That story sent staffers poring back over the police reports. One aide spent the day with officers out on Newark’s 18th Avenue in an attempt to reconstruct the original crime scene.

By the end, the candidate and his staff believed they couldn’t win. “Oh my god,” one former aide said, describing the attitude inside his Newark headquarters. “These people are trying to take me down. They are gonna come after me about everything.”

Three years later, as he carves a spot for himself in the Senate, and as one of Hillary Clinton’s top surrogates, Booker now describes that 2013 race as a blessing. The experience left him a little rattled — a little wary of a media environment where, he says, people try to “bring folk down.” But it was that race, according to his aides, that helped push Booker to become more disciplined and measured — to "grow up," as one staffer put it.

Booker, determined to avoid the missteps of 2013, now goes by a new rule.

"Every story I tell, I’m going to find second and third sources.”

“Look at what's happening to all the presidential candidates,” he says. “It’s called being vetted. But I'm not going to wait on other people to vet me.”

Booker has been vetting himself now for a while.

He does not mean this as a coy reference to the vice presidency, or to the question of whether Clinton and her aides, now several weeks into their search for a running mate, are in fact giving Booker a serious look. (In June, he told reporters that he was "not being vetted.” He will no longer commit to the same answer when asked. “She needs to make the best decision she can for her to win,” he says now. “People should ask her.”)

What Booker has in mind is more of a defensive measure.

The goal, he says, is to build a reserve of “recorded testimony” around his life, collecting accounts from multiple people — “sources,” as Booker likes to say — which can corroborate any aspect of his biography or any personal story he might tell.

To do this, Booker spent about a year conducting dozens of interviews, cross-checking each version against his own of the major events that have shaped his career in politics. The vehicle for much of the research was his memoir, published this spring, United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground And Advancing the Common Good.

The book is filled with fresh quotes: He interviewed Charlton Holliday, the father of Hassan Washington, a Newark teenager whose death Booker has talked about for years; he interviewed the city police chief and the on-duty officer from the night Wazn Miller died, reconstructing the sequence of the gunfight; Booker even interviewed the drug dealers who used to hang around his old Newark housing complex, Brick Towers.

Political operatives might call this “self-research,” if conducted literally by the candidate himself. The senator, meanwhile, prefers the term “act of discovery.” But in two recent interviews, Booker also offered up a more candid assessment, speaking in plain terms about his desire to clean house and avoid the mistakes of that first Senate race.

"I had just gone through a campaign where every story I told was being challenged,” he says, seated in his office overlooking the Capitol building. “I just finally said, you know, I’m not gonna risk the kind of attacks like Ben Carson and others had.”

He became almost paranoid by the end of the 2013 race, worried even that even personal family stories might be questioned. There is one he tells often about his parents buying a house in the suburbs. “I suddenly got insecure, because I’d only heard it from my parents' perspective, you know?” he says with a laugh. The research project also made Booker aware of the way memory can lapse over time. (He will tell you, for instance, that he remembers once chasing down a robber carrying a knife — except that the robber was actually carrying a pair of scissors, not a knife, and although Booker recalls seeing the robber as he came out of City Hall, a police officer there remembers Booker pulling up to City Hall, while a second officer agrees that Booker was in fact coming out.)

United, his first book, revolves around the idea that people are bound by shared responsibility and unlikely commonalities — and so the “main motivation” for the memoir, Booker says, was telling the stories of people he’s met along the way. (He devotes an entire chapter to a woman who served him once at IHOP.) But last year, when he decided to write the memoir, Booker also saw a chance to excavate his own life.

The year-long project required the kind of legwork that, Booker argues now, could have spared him and his staff the controversies that overwhelmed the 2013 campaign.

His mistake back then, Booker says, was his belief that the press would come to his defense in the face of what he and his aides saw as accusations that lacked evidence but still generated headlines and drove coverage. “I was like, if you’re going to accuse me of this story not being real, don’t just accuse and not prove that it’s not real!” he says. “Like, go find guys that sold drugs in front of my building and ask them.”

Three years later, there is a new trace of disdain in Booker’s voice when he talks about the press, his one-time greatest ally in the effort to promote Newark. “How many sources do reporters even use?” he asks, flashing a look of disapproval. “Often only one or two.” For his own memoir, Booker says, “I wanted to make sure that I had multiple.”

“Like, come at this book, because we’ve locked a lot of this down.”

So far, he adds, no one has. “Not a person.”

Booker likes to say that even after the ordeal of 2013, he is still "the same guy.”

The 47-year-old has never fit the regular profile of a politician. He’s a Stanford football player who quoted poetry in his campus newspaper column; a black Baptist who led the Oxford Jewish club; a suburban-born Yale Law grad with a relentless passion for a city that didn’t always love him back. At turns, he is goofy, unabashedly earnest, sarcastic, and a little self-congratulatory. He talks in big lofty language about the “arc of history” and “conspiracy of love.” He describes himself as a nerd, but not in the D.C. “wonk” way, the Star Trek way. He is unmarried and doesn’t drink. He makes bad jokes on Twitter and will tell you all about his new diet and also his plans to cheat on the new diet.

“OK, so this is the deal,” he says, sitting up in his chair. “Sunday. Game of Thrones. I’m going to make vegan grilled cheeses. Cheeses.” Plural. “Multiple sandwiches. And I’m going to have a feast in front of Game of Thrones.” He’s been saving the season finale, he explains, for one of his “cheat” days. “I think I’m gonna buy french fries. But bake them. In my oven. I’ve been fantasizing about this food because I’ve been depriving myself.”

Booker gives himself a cheat day every two weeks. “Oh, I love this new thing I’m doing,” he says. “Intermittent fasting, it’s called. There’s all this data on it that’s pretty impressive. Two to three days a week, 500 calories or less. And the rest of the days, eat normal.” He’s on a fast day now, but usually doesn’t tell people when he is. “I find ways to fake it.” A big plate of steamed vegetables, he’s learned, looks like “a lot of food.”

“I now know that broccoli is, like, no calories.”

All that aside, there is a new sense of calm, if not caution, now about Booker. After the last three years — with the hastily planned special election in 2013, a reelection in 2014, and the book project in 2015 — he is finally settling into his first full term as senator.

The transition has been slower than any other in Booker’s career. This is a man who, as a student, kept a list of goals on whiteboards above his bed, rising every morning, as writes in his book, with a “definiteness of purpose”; who, as a young activist in Newark, crafted a “comprehensive five-year plan,” mapping out every aspect of his future, from the nonprofit he wanted to lead, to his health, his finances, his spiritual development, even his “hopes for getting married and starting a family”; and who, as a city councilman, declared without apology, “I’m the most ambitious person you’d ever meet.”

In Washington, Booker adopted the posture of a humble newcomer, taking a head-down approach to press. Even now, the large share of the junior senator’s work takes place outside the national spotlight. He is a leader in the Senate’s ongoing criminal justice effort, but Booker and his aides more often talk up their small but concrete legislative accomplishments, as if they were a new park or development project in Newark.

It’s a big change for Booker. (“180 degrees,” one former aide said.) As mayor, he ran Newark as its CEO, salesman, spokesman, and fundraiser. As a councilman, he stormed the local political scene as an eager, at times brash reformer, still in his late 20s.

In his memoir, Booker takes a sometime dim view of those early years as a legislator. When he arrived in City Hall, he made a show of giving up his taxpayer-funded car and refused to use his expense account for personal meals and travel. He became known for big displays: In 1999, he pitched a tent for one week outside a housing complex to ward off drug dealers. In 2000, he drove a 33-foot Holiday Rambler around the Central Ward all summer. Some of the exploits helped effect change around the neighborhood. Others left his colleagues “feeling disrespected,” he writes. “Many of the veteran council members viewed me as an obnoxious upstart looking to score points at their expense.”

Years later, Booker liked to cite those early experiences to his staff, former aides say, knowing that a high-profile approach wouldn’t serve his purposes in Washington.

“As a U.S. senator, it's actually often better not to do those things,” Booker says now.

“You don't want to embarrass another colleague.”

Outside the Senate, Booker remains a national figure.

He is, for one, a top surrogate for Hillary Clinton — a role he describes in urgent and sweeping terms. “This is not an election,” he says. “It’s a mission. It’s a cause.”

In 2007, Booker became one of Barack Obama’s earliest endorsers. Four years later, he traveled the country and became a regular on television in support of the reelection.

Periodically, though, questions about Booker’s discipline and value as a team player would rise to the surface. At the time, the hard-charging mayor still generated national headlines for his various heroics around the city of Newark — welcoming hurricane victims into his apartment, rushing into burning buildings. And in one major misstep, he criticized his own candidate during an appearance on Meet the Press, confessing that he found Obama’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s private equity work “nauseating.”

So far, Booker has had no such incidents with the Clinton campaign.

The most gratifying part, he says, has been getting to know the candidate. “I knew Hillary a bit before this, but I didn’t know her,” he says, stressing the word in the way Clinton’s closest friends do when they talk about the person behind the headlines.

It’s happened gradually, he says: “being in cars, being backstage, waiting 20 or 30 minutes.” Booker pauses. “I’ve fallen — not in love in a romantic way — I’m gonna regret saying that — but I’ve really come to have a deep appreciation. An affection.”

“It’s like layers of an onion.”

The process has deepened the senator’s commitment to an already busy surrogate schedule. After the primary ended, Booker hit three swing states in two weekends. (Before that, he appeared at events in 14 states.) “I have basically given over my life and my weekends,” he laughs. “I chose to endorse her very early. But now it’s like, I’m not endorsing you — I’m going to bleed for you. You need to be president.”

On weekends, when he’s not on the road or in the Senate, Booker is usually back in Newark. His brother, sister-in-law, and niece live there with him in a two-family apartment, and aides say the senator still frequents many of his old spots around town: Andros Diner, Branch Brook Park. The last three years haven’t left much time for exploring life in Washington, where Booker was living for a while in a hotel.

After November, he says, “I’ll have more time to explore more vegan restaurants.”

If Booker isn’t quite at home in Washington yet, he does have a hobby: He likes to keep in touch with Snapchat. The senator has asked friends and former aides to download the app, which he uses to send messages and update his “story” with videos from the road.

Chris Magarro, Booker’s best friend since the 4th grade, is not on Facebook or Twitter. But he now uses Snapchat. “I wouldn’t have known what it was if it slapped me in the face,” Magarro says. But he likes to check in on his friend, watching the videos flash by: Booker in Wisconsin one day, Washington the next, waving hello, cracking a joke.

“Just silly stuff,” Magarro says.

Booker likes to try bringing out that side of Clinton. Where some surrogates can be stiff around a former secretary of state and first lady, Booker seems intentionally loose.

Last month, at a stop together in Newark, when reporters tossed out a question about vice president, Booker chimed in: “I’m already her VP... Her vegan pal.” Clinton joked back, “We have to work on that.” Earlier that day, he greeted her outside a rally by filming her arrival on Snapchat. “Just putting you on my Snapchat! Welcome to Jersey!” he says in the video as Clinton shimmies up to the frame, snapping her fingers.

“I want America to have my view,” Booker explains. “I think a lot of the negatives would just fade away. You would see an authentic spirit who is loving and kind.”

At their event together last month in Newark — an appearance cast by many as a vice presidential “try-out” — Clinton grabbed Booker backstage before his introduction.

“She goes, ‘I want you to give ‘em the Full Cory Booker!’” Booker told Clinton that he only had one to three minutes to speak, or so he'd been told. “And she looks at me: ‘Full Cory Booker!’ I’m like, oooh-kay. You telling me to speak long is not a hard thing!”

So the senator took the stage and, shouting into the microphone, unleashed a 13-minute introduction that moved from Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln and Bon Jovi, before ending with a Maya Angelou poem, “Still I Rise,” which he dedicated to Clinton. The unwieldy speech was one he might have given as mayor.

Again, the old questions about Booker came creeping back in the press.

“I laughed at them,” he says. “I go, if you guys really knew the truth.”

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