One warm Saturday afternoon last month in a ballroom in the convention center in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, a local business leader introduced Cory Booker as a man “who may be our next president.” Booker, the tall, solidly built former mayor of Newark, the current junior senator from New Jersey and somebody people have been pointing to as a potential occupant of the Oval Office for going on half his life by now, rose from the dais, enveloped the space behind the lectern and proceeded to unleash an hourlong stem-winder. The attendees at the state NAACP convention were a friendly, expectant audience, and Booker is good at this part of being a politician—voluble and excitable but compelling to the point of kinetic, gesturing with his hands, widening his eyes, planting and replanting his well-worn loafers and intermittently using a white handkerchief to wick the sweat from the top of his shiny bald head. The people in Raleigh were rapt. They laughed when he wanted them to laugh. They hushed when he wanted them to hush. They were near tears when he wanted them to be near tears. And they responded throughout with knowing nods and church-like murmurs of assent. Given the buoyant vibe, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that what Booker was saying was highly unusual. At this moment of extreme political discord, it was even quite radical. The crux of his message was the importance of love.
“Patriotism—let’s get to the root of the word—means love of country. And you cannot love your country if you don’t love your countrymen and women,” Booker told them.
“Love says everybody has worth and has dignity. It’s about looking at someone and … understanding that my destiny is interwoven with your destiny,” he continued.
“You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people.”
And toward the end of his speech, Booker arrived at the nub. “Let me tell you something,” he said. “I’ve given an entire speech, and I haven’t mentioned the name of the president of the United States.” He still didn’t. “And you know why? Because it’s not about him.” His voice rose. “It’s about us!”
The people clapped and cheered.
“We’ve got all the power we need!”
“We do!” somebody shouted from the crowd.
“Don’t be one of those people I catch calling our president nasty names,” Booker said.
“I’m serious. How can you think that you’re going to beat darkness by stealing darkness? If Nelson Mandela can love his jailers, if Martin Luther King can love Bull Connor—we’ve got to be people of love!”
They cheered again.
Booker over the years has talked a lot about love. “Consistent, unyielding love.” “An unbelievable amount of love.” “Crazy love … unreasonable, irrational, impractical love.” And for the better part of this decade, Booker has landed frequently on a particular phrase—the “conspiracy of love.” It’s a phrase he employs with an almost religious fervor—a combination of a guiding-light mantra and a permanent political slogan. He uses it to tell his story, from the suburbs of New York City to Stanford to Oxford to Yale. He uses it to tell the story of his family, from the poor, segregated South to the upwardly mobile comfort of the business and intellectual elite. And Booker uses it to tell the story of a country that has overcome its anguished, divided past by nurturing the bonds between white and black instead of stoking the dissension. Since at least 2011, he has used the phrase on panels and podcasts, in talks to credit union executives and furniture bosses, in campus lectures and at college commencements. He used it last year as an energetic surrogate and short-listed vice presidential possibility for Hillary Clinton. In his recently published book, called United, it’s the title of the first chapter.
For some, though—including some members of his own staff—the repetition can elicit snickers and sighs. “In some circles,” Patrick Murray, a pollster at New Jersey’s Monmouth University, told me, “he’s known as Senator Conspiracy of Love.” And to those less loyal, it can trigger the kind of criticism that has tracked Booker throughout his 20-year political career—that he’s too cute, too corny or too clever, that he seems polished to the point of performative, that he’s more interested in soaring oratory than the relative drudgery of governance and legislation. “Long on vision, short on granularity,” as the former head of the Newark Alliance once said.
But as saccharine or contrived as it might sound to some, those who know Booker the best insist it is nevertheless him. “It’s something that is really genuine and authentic to who he is as a person and how he views the world,” said Mo Butler, a former chief of staff. “It’s in his DNA,” Booker’s pastor, the Rev. Dr. David Jefferson of Newark’s Metropolitan Baptist Church, added. And so, if Booker runs for president in 2020—and he told me, for the record, it would be “irresponsible” to say at this time whether he will or he won’t—it’s hard to imagine that it would happen without millions of people beyond New Jersey and Washington, D.C., hearing him talk about love, and about the “conspiracy of love.”
What chance, some worry, would Booker’s “conspiracy of love” have against an opponent who wields as one of his most powerful weapons a schoolyard talent to demean?
David Axelrod, the former strategist for Barack Obama, has theorized that voters seek in their next president not a replica of the predecessor but a remedy—and a Booker candidacy certainly would present a stark contrast, assuming President Donald Trump is the Republican incumbent. If Booker does vie for the highest office, he will encounter a number of obstacles. Conservatives think he’s too liberal, and liberals tend to think he’s too conservative. His coziness with Wall Street rankles his party’s left flank. He has championed school choice, atypical for a progressive. He has had one notable brush with scandal—an accusation, which he denies, that he took a salary from a law firm that did business with Newark. And he’s 48 and single, a teetotaler and a vegan, with a monkish, ascetic streak, all of which might strike many in Middle America as odd or unrelatable. But then there is this—the open question of whether the love-talking Booker is the right fit at a time when angry, rattled Democrats are hankering for combative, fight-fire-with-fire, anti-Trump rhetoric. And the Democratic gains in Tuesday’s elections in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere have only fueled that rage. What chance, some worry, would Booker’s “conspiracy of love” have against an opponent who wields as one of his most powerful weapons a schoolyard talent to demean?
“What conspiracy of love?” former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg told me.
“That won’t work,” he said. “You use the word ‘conspiracy’ when you’re trying to sell books or movie tickets, not a political candidacy.” As even an informal slogan, Nunberg said, it’s fatally flawed because it’s not sufficiently simple. “It’s no ‘Make America Great Again.’”
Still, said Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, a veteran of presidential campaigns: “We tend to go to the opposite as a country, and so when you look at the antidote to Trump’s divisive rhetoric, then Cory Booker—who he is, the way he talks, including this phrase—does set up kind of an opposite instinct of Trumpism.”
But what if voters want retribution, not forgiveness? Perhaps Booker’s focus on love is just too soft, or simply too religious for a party that prides itself on inclusiveness but gets uneasy when the message sounds like it’s plucked from the Gospels. But if Democrats are to find Booker appealing as a top-of-ticket candidate, they’re going to have to get used to his pacifist-in-a-bar-fight style.
“FUCK YOU,” somebody on Twitter told Booker earlier this year.
“LOVE YOU,” he responded.
The Capitol Hill offices of most members of Congress are richly appointed, the desks, shelves and walls covered with personal mementos, certificates of achievement and grip-and-grins with presidents and celebrities. Not Booker’s. Along with drab chairs and a picture of his parents, there’s a small statuette of the abolitionist and humanitarian Harriet Tubman, a small drawing of Martin Luther King Jr. and a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi. Booker’s space on the third floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building is (to use his word) “austere.” When I visited him there earlier this fall, I was reminded of working a number of years ago on a story for Men’s Health about Booker, who at that time was well into his second term as mayor. We met at his apartment . The mostly bare walls and sparse, thrift-store decor gave it an almost dorm-room feel.
“I’m not a big stuff person,” he told me now in his office on the Hill. Booker is an ideas person, and the “conspiracy of love” is his biggest, most animating idea. It is, he said, “a family ethos.” And his family history in some sense has prepared him to make the argument that we’re all in this together whether we like it or not.
According to genealogical research done in 2012 by Henry Louis Gates’ PBS show, “Finding Your Roots,” Booker is 45-percent European—white. On his mother’s side, his grandfather was a freckled, red-haired bastard born in 1916 to a woman Booker knew as “Big Mama,” who had been impregnated by one of the white doctors in her small town in Jim Crow Louisiana. Deeper into the family tree, Booker has a great-great-great grandmother who was owned by her own father. These, he told Gates, are “the complicated, painful, amazing, wondrous stories of America, how they all mix to produce us.”
It went beyond blood, too: Booker’s father grew up poor in the black part of Hendersonville, North Carolina, the son of a single mother who became ill and overwhelmed—and so was taken in by the family that ran the town’s black funeral home. A church collection plate helped pay for his first semester of college at North Carolina Central University. Booker’s father in the ‘60s and ‘70s climbed the corporate ladder at IBM, as did his mother, among the first African-Americans to do so, aided by civil rights foot soldiers of the Urban League. They were able to purchase their house in almost entirely white Harrington Park, New Jersey, thanks to fair housing activists who outsmarted a realtor who didn’t want to sell to them on account of their skin color.
For Booker’s parents, his mother, Carolyn, and especially his father, Cary, who died in 2013, all of this added up to a “conspiracy of love.” It’s a term Booker’s older brother, also named Cary, recalls hearing around the house in their teens, he told me. And so when Booker graduated from high school as an honor student and standout football prospect, and when he graduated from Stanford with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in sociology, and when he earned a Rhodes scholarship, and when he got his law degree from Yale, and when he started running for and then winning political offices—at every milepost of accomplishment—the message from his parents always was the same.
“I grew up,” Booker told me, “with the understanding that, ‘Boy, you didn’t get here on your own—you got here through the collective love of millions and millions of people.’”
Robin Kennedy, wife of former Stanford President Donald Kennedy, told me she heard these stories the year Booker lived with them as barely a 20-year-old undergrad. So did Jody Maxmin, a Stanford professor of art, art history and classics, and one of Booker’s mentors. Ditto Andra Gillespie, who met Booker at a lecture he gave at Yale in 2001, wrote a book about him and is now a political scientist at Emory University. “He saw in his father’s origin story,” Gillespie said, “a model for what could happen if communities came together.”
“We are,” Booker wrote in United, “the result of a grand conspiracy of love.”
The word conspiracy today evokes immediately nefarious connotations, but Booker likes the juxtaposition of conspiracy and love. In the context of 2017’s poisonous climate, it’s “subversive,” he told me. “Defiant.” It packs, reminiscent of Tubman, Gandhi and King, “a humble radicalism,” he said. This is a phrase powerful enough to topple even the most oppressive institutions—slavery, imperial England, federally enforced racism in this country—and therefore perfect for the test Booker confronts now in Trump. But to win, he must tap into what he calls this nation’s “reservoirs of love.”
“Does any of your reservoir of love flow toward the White House?” I asked him in his office. “To President Trump?”
“I am so determined to fight and stop Donald Trump,” he said, “whether it’s taking health care away from millions of people, whether it’s putting in place a Muslim ban that I just find discriminatory and bigoted, whether it’s doing what he’s doing with our EPA or our DOJ. I want to fight him. But he will not … I’m not going to let him turn me into that which I want to fight against.”
“Meaning,” I responded, “you are going to fight him, but you are not going to hate him—therefore you love him?”
“Yeah,” Booker said. “I readily admit that.”
I want to fight him,” says Booker. “But … I’m not going to let him turn me into that which I want to fight against.”
Is loving Donald Trump, for a Democrat, right now, or ever, for that matter, really a winning political strategy? Booker basically told me I was asking the wrong question.
“What,” he said, “are you defining as a triumph?”
Winning elections. Not moral victories. In other words, for Democrats, a one-term Trump presidency—maybe even shorter than that.
“But I’m talking about the real end that we seek,” Booker said, “which is the raising of the quality of life, bringing about greater justice, a greater sense of liberty for all—what our ideals are.”
Booker always has been an uncommon combination of undisguised ambition and unflagging idealism. And he often has expressed those two aspects of his life in roundly religious terms.
“I’m the most ambitious person you’d ever meet,” he told a reporter for Newark’s Star-Ledger in 1998, during his first City Council bid. He felt, he said, like he was “part of a really righteous campaign.”
He absorbed his religious precepts early and well. As a boy in Harrington Park, Booker went every week to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Closter, New Jersey. “My mom taught Sunday school,” Booker’s brother told me. At Oxford, though, Booker served as a co-president of a Jewish organization, the L’Chaim Society. When he moved to Newark as he was finishing his course work at Yale Law, to be a public-interest attorney, representing and organizing tenants, while eyeing a spot on the City Council, he began attending Metropolitan Baptist. It’s where he still goes, every Sunday he’s not in Washington or traveling somewhere else, usually seated for the 9:30 service in a pew near the front behind the wife of the pastor. “Cory,” the Rev. Dr. David Jefferson told me, “is very, very, very, very faith-driven.”
When he ran for mayor in 2002, challenging the shrewd Sharpe James, who had held the office since 1986, his professed righteousness seemed almost comically overmatched. James called Booker a carpetbagger. He called him an Uncle Tom. He called him “a faggot white boy.” He suggested Booker was both Jewish and funded by the Ku Klux Klan. “Cory Booker isn’t for real,” said James’ ads. The race was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary named Street Fight. For Booker, it was a jolting introduction to political attack tactics, which he told me he considered “despicable.”
But he had a choice to make.
He called his pastor.
“A lot,” Jefferson told me. “A lot. A lot. I mean … a lot.”
Jefferson, Booker said, “reminded me who I am, and reminded me of who I aspire to be.”
“He and I would have conversations about the Bible,” Jefferson said, “the whole notion as to what Jesus did.”
“Jesus,” Booker told me, “was somebody that took unrelenting abuse and criticism [from] powerful people using their position to try to destroy him reputationally and ultimately physically.”
The reality, though, in 2002 was that Booker lost. James, twice Booker’s age, won 53 percent of the vote. Booker was subdued but undeterred, convinced his strategy of more or less turning the other cheek would win out in the end. “Let us show our dignity,” he told his supporters the night of the loss, “by being gracious in this minor defeat.” Booker was elected mayor in 2006, when James sensed an approaching loss and bowed out.
Jefferson told me it’s still not about winning or losing elections for his most famous congregant, which is exactly the kind of a thing a campaign manager would never say. “Cory’s contribution to public service and wanting to serve is deeper than just being an elected official,” his pastor said. “He really has a calling, and he believes that.”
And that is?
“And that is to do basically what Dr. King spoke about,” Jefferson said. “To love humanity by serving individuals. To be great by being able to serve. And you can’t serve unless you love.”
To love those he serves?
“And those enemies that he has … He believes, as I do, too,” Jefferson said, “you will never overcome that with the same mentality, the same attitude—that what overcomes that will be the conspiracy of love.”
When I asked Booker about what his pastor said, he told me, “Frankly, you can say Jesus was crucified—and I can say Jesus transformed the planet Earth, that his gospel transformed planet Earth, and has inspired generations of justice advocates to make change, from Gandhi being inspired by the teachings of Christianity to activists like Martin Luther King. So I do think that is the right path to walk, regardless of what you encounter, regardless of what happens to you—is to not let someone’s hate turn you into a person of hate, but to let yourself endure, no matter what, to be a person of love.”
Back in 2008, in a piece in which a writer for Esquire labeled him a “wannabe savior,” Booker said he always wanted to be “a part of a spiritual revolution” and that “we need a prophetic leader—who can raise us above our baser angels.” Last summer, in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, he said “we are called to be a nation of love.” It prompted Trump to take a swipe. “If Cory Booker is the future of the Democratic Party, they have no future!” tweeted the then-Republican nominee, days after he had said in his own convention speech that the legacy of Hillary Clinton was “death, destruction and weakness.” “I know more about Cory than he knows about himself,” Trump added. If Trump’s cryptic broadside left some scratching their heads, Booker’s comeback did the same, only more.
“I love Donald Trump,” Booker said on CNN.
One of the hosts spoke on behalf of probably most of the viewers with her soft, almost reflexive response.
Dirty cars and trucks on Interstate 280 raced past the fenced-in children’s playground, creating a noisy, distracting, exhaust-choked backdrop for a news conference—which was the aim. Booker had come here to Newark’s McKinley Elementary School one morning last month to unveil a bill he was calling the Environmental Justice Act. One way to parse his policy priorities these days is of course through the lens of a potential presidential candidacy—his stand with Senator Bernie Sanders for Medicare for All, for instance, was viewed widely as a nod to those on the left who consider him too far to the right—but another way to see his activities is to consider what is in essence Booker’s unified field theory. Environmental justice reform, criminal justice reform, raising the minimum wage, even the legalization of marijuana—it’s all part of the “conspiracy of love.” And while Booker did not utter the actual phrase at the playground at McKinley, he did use the idea to frame his proposed legislation.
“Really, I want to start with this understanding that we’re all in this together,” Booker said into a microphone to the small gathering of community business and political leaders scattered among the swings and slides. “If there’s anything that I’ve learned about this nation’s ideals, from the hallmark of our country, e pluribus unum, to the spiritual reality of our nation, of diversity, of many different communities, it’s that we’re all integrated into one common destiny, and that injustice anywhere is indeed a threat to justice everywhere.”
When Booker was done talking, two local reporters had questions. They asked basically the same thing: Why did he think he could turn this bill into law?
Booker, after all, is a junior senator in the minority party. But this skepticism felt rooted, too, in the recent history of this city. Booker was the mayor here from 2006 to 2013, when he won a special Senate election to replace the late Frank Lautenberg—after which he was re-elected in 2014 to his current six-year term. During his time as mayor, Booker worked to become one of the best-known mayors in America, hopscotching the country giving often lucrative talks, stockpiling Twitter followers, starring in the Brick City television show on the Sundance Channel and demonstrating an ongoing penchant for publicity stunts like bringing diapers to homebound citizens in snowstorms.
His record on the ground was more complicated. Through his charisma and connections, he attracted to the city, and especially to the downtown core, a mixture of corporate headquarters, hotels, restaurants and grocery stores. But unemployment remained higher than the state and national rates. Under Booker’s leadership, crime in the city went down—then it went back up. There were budget cuts. There were tax hikes. Citizens groused. In 2006, he won his election with 72 percent of the vote. In 2010, that went down to 59. And one of the signatures of Booker and his administration, the education reform efforts with a $100-million infusion from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg plus another $100 million in matching funds from other wealthy private donors and venture capitalists, in the end spurred only marginal improvements in student performance. “Two hundred million dollars and almost five years later,” Dale Russakoff wrote in her book about it, The Prize, “there was at least as much rancor as reform.”
Newark, if nothing else, is a bright-lights lesson in how hard it is to make change. The question for Booker is now what it’s always been: How, exactly, does he turn this kind of lofty rhetoric into actual reality?
Responding to the local reporters at McKinley, his first instinct is more rhetoric. He invoked American history and the bold improbability of civil rights legislation. Environmental justice, he said, was no different. “I believe that when this stuff starts to prick the moral imagination of the country, we’re going to get this legislation done.”
The question for Booker is now what it’s always been: How, exactly, does he turn this kind of lofty rhetoric into actual reality?
Now, in the back of his black SUV, pulling away from the school, he added to the thought. “I’m just telling you. I’ve heard people tell me things are impossible before,” he told me. “And I’m not saying that Newark doesn’t still have a lot of work to do. But my experience is that the impossible is possible.”
He was talking, again, at base about faith. King, one of his go-to exemplars, “pricked” America by weaving scripture and secular ideals to craft a single moral imperative that couldn’t be dismissed. And so here I asked Booker: Would he be willing to run for office—whether in a Senate campaign or for president—in an even more explicitly religious way?
“I’ve studied Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and obviously my own Christianity,” he said. “It’s the core of everything I do. And I don’t shy away from it. I think Democrats should get much more comfortable being conversant in issues of faith and calling to whatever your moral text is, be that just a secular text, like our Constitution, or be it the Quran.”
But at this juncture when the mantle of religion in politics has been so scrambled by Trump, would Booker, I wondered, run as, say, a Baptist progressive?
Here, though, he was “reticent,” he said.
“I don’t want to turn people off.”
Booker’s idealism often arrives in great torrents of words. Reminders of the ambition that accompanies it can be more succinct.
People have been talking about Booker being the president since he was in law school. “I am not prone to overstatement,” Doug Lasdon, the founder of the Urban Justice Center in New York, told me. Booker was a summer intern for Lasdon in the late ‘90s and stayed with him at his apartment. “And I visited my dad,” Lasdon said, “and he said, ‘You know what’s he like?’ And I said, ‘Dad, this guy could be president of the United States.’ And I’ve certainly never said that about anybody else, but it was obvious—his character, his intelligence, his sense of empathy.”
In Newark, people talked about Booker being the president already when he merely was running for City Council out of the Central Ward. Former Councilman Anthony Carrino used to say, “‘Hey, watch this guy, watch this guy, watch this guy—he might be president one day,’” former councilman and mayor Luis Quintana told me. “I said, ‘What, are you kidding? He just got off his Hot Wheels!’ I said, ‘You want him to be president?’ He was running for City Council!”
And in 2002, when Booker was running for mayor for the first time, Marshall Curry heard it all the time when he was making Street Fight. “I can’t tell you how many people told me, ‘Cory Booker’s going to be the first black president, Cory Booker’s going to be the first black president,’” he told me.
Then, of course, Booker wasn’t.
Barack Obama was.
And then the first black president led to President Donald Trump. Trump has used the word love as well—“so much love in the room,” he said at charged rallies—but it isn’t quite the same thing.
So Booker has an opening in 2020 he wouldn’t have had if Clinton had won. If Axelrod is right that Americans vote for polar opposites, then Booker—who is about as different from Trump as Trump was from Obama—might be the man for the moment. Maybe too polar, say many other veteran hands. No one wants to come out against decency, but the gears of experienced political minds—Booker’s colleagues and veteran campaign strategists—click audibly when you ask if they think you can craft a platform on love. There’s a “but” wedged into almost every answer.
New Jersey Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur doesn’t doubt Booker’s talk of the “conspiracy of love” is “sincere,” he told me, but he added: “The object of government is not to sit around a campfire and sing Kumbaya. The object of government is to advance things that are really going to benefit people’s lives.”
Is there appetite within this battle of ideas for tenets of love? “My heart tells me, ‘Yeah, we’re ready,’” said Rep. Donald Norcross, a New Jersey Democrat. “My head says, ‘Let’s see what happens.’”
“I’ve got to think people are looking for some empathy and compassion,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, the moderate Democrat from West Virginia, who counts Booker as a friend.
Strategists and consultants from both parties are wait-and-see about Booker’s approach.
“Substantive change for the better cannot come from anger and resentment—they are fundamentally destructive impulses,” Reed Galen, a Trump critic who worked on the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush and also John McCain’s, told me. “But you can’t just be out there saying it’s all sunshine and rainbows.”
“I don’t know that ‘conspiracy of love’ wouldn’t work … but it won’t work on its own,” added Bob Shrum, the longtime Democratic strategist. “It depends on what he says and whether he’s believable. And we won’t know that unless or until he gets out there.”
Iowa and New Hampshire await should Booker choose to run. The politically wired in those two key states say he isn’t nearly as known there as he is in Washington and the Northeast. People know just enough to know they want to know more.
“The conspiracy of love? It makes me smile,” Jerry Crawford, an attorney and a Democratic kingmaker in Des Moines, told me. “That’s going to play better in Iowa than in D.C. It’s positive when we need positive.”
It makes Sean Bagniewski, the chair of the Polk County Democrats, think of Obama’s “audacity of hope,” he said.
The conspiracy of love? “I think it would be more likely the activists here would say, ‘Huh?’”
New Hampshire might be harder. “I think New Hampshire Democrats are like Democratic activists elsewhere,” UNH political scientist Dante Scala told me. “They’re in a fighting mood right now.” The conspiracy of love? “I think it would be more likely the activists here would say, ‘Huh?’”
In Newark, back in Booker’s SUV, I asked him about all this.
“I hear Democrats often say this, that Republicans are so mean … we’ve got to stop being so nice,” he said. “I’m, like, ‘That’s 100-percent opposite to what we need to be.’ We don’t need to take on the tactics that we find unacceptable in the Republican Party. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to fight hard and make sacrifices and struggle and battle—but we do not need to take on the dark arts.”
What, though, if that’s what people want? After all, he was praised by his party when he broke with Senate tradition to rebuke his colleague Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing. No one is going out of their way to praise him for being openhearted about Trump.
“It’s a natural human inclination,” he said. But he added: “It’s not what we preach in churches on Sunday mornings, in synagogues on Friday nights, in mosques during the call of prayer.”
He bemoaned the fact that he was “lambasted” for giving the cancer-stricken McCain a hug this past summer.
“Do you think President Trump needs a hug,” I asked, “and are you the person to give it to him?”
“I think President Trump,” he said, “needs a lot more than a hug.”