United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good
By Cory Booker
223 pages, $27
By Gene Warner
You can’t beat Cory Booker’s résumé.
Scholarship football player at Stanford. Rhodes scholar. Yale Law School grad. Newark, N.J., mayor. U.S senator.
Some say he could be the nation’s second African-American president. (Imagine writing that sentence a decade or two ago.)
But like most 20-somethings, Booker didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do with his education and all his glossy academic degrees, until his mother sat him down and told him a parable about not wasting your talents.
“I want you to ask yourself something, Cory,” she said. “Ask yourself what would you do if you could not fail. If you knew for sure you would be successful, what would you do?”
That question – What would I do if I couldn’t fail? – became Booker’s mantra and shaped his future. It led him to become a community activist (now a dirty term in some American circles) in Newark, where he found a new mentor, Ms. Virginia Jones, a 68-year-old tenant activist there.
One day, the feisty Jones asked Booker to describe what he saw in the tough Newark neighborhood where they lived. He mentioned the obvious: the rough high-rise tenement, an abandoned building and probably the drug dealers plying their trade there.
“You can’t help me,” Jones said, before turning and walking away.
“Wait,” the stunned Booker replied. “What do you mean?”
The world you see outside you is a reflection of what you have inside you, Jones told him. If all you see are darkness and despair, then that’s all there will ever be.
“But if you are one of those stubborn people who every time you open your eyes you see hope, you see possibility, ... then you can be someone who helps me,” she said before walking away.
Cory Booker, a powerful writer who knows how to turn a phrase, tells his story in anecdotes like these. This isn’t a true autobiography; it’s mostly not chronological, and it’s more self-deprecating and less boastful than most such personal stories.
The author doesn’t hesitate to recount his failures, and there’s a humility that shines through these pages, especially compared to the me-me-me political circus we’ve been watching the last few months.
The reader can’t help but be impressed by Cory Booker, and we’re not talking about fancy academic degrees.
We’re talking about his values, his hard work and his passion to battle injustice.
This is a man who graduated from Yale Law School and moved into a really tough neighborhood, so he could battle the community’s problems from within. A man who, as Newark’s mayor, would work his day job and then spend nights riding around in police cars. A man who locked himself in his office, to cry in private over a teenager shot to death on the streets. And a man of convictions and deep faith, a teetotaler and vegetarian turned vegan.
Booker reveals his true stripes after disrespecting one of Newark’s esteemed tenant-association leaders over his own inability to get anything accomplished as a rookie City Council member in 1999. In response, he moved into a tent outside a troubled Newark housing complex, vowing to fast and pray until something changed. Ten days into his protest, after Booker had drawn plenty of support and coverage, the mayor agreed to build a park and establish an on-site police command.
“We know, as the African proverb says, that sticks in a bundle can’t be broken,” Booker writes.
This book has an unusual format. It’s really part autobiography, part a series of policy papers on his political philosophies and part a tribute to everyone who helped shape his activism.
Like his parents, who raised him on the twin ethics of personal responsibility and connection to a larger community. And his father’s reminder that the biggest thing you can offer on any day is a small act of kindness.
There are plenty of platitudes, aphorisms and parables here, but this is an anecdote-driven account, with each chapter being somewhat self-contained. Various chapters tell the stories of several community activists; a slain Newark teen; a minimum-wage IHOP waitress with a social worker’s soul; Booker’s interdepartmental, data-driven plan to battle crime; and his treatise on our “incarceration nation.”
Booker also challenges the reader, even fellow liberals, with comments like these: “Tolerance is becoming accustomed to injustice; love is becoming disturbed and activated by another’s adverse condition ... Tolerance breeds indifference; love demands engagement.”
And there’s another parable Booker tells, a story that helps explain his world view, about the man who dives into a river repeatedly to save one child after another who float toward him. Finally, another man shows up, but despite the first man’s pleading, he refuses to dive into the river.
“No, I won’t come into the water with you,” the second man says. “I’m going upriver to find out why these children are in the water in the first place, so I can stop it.”
Veteran News Reporter Gene Warner is a dedicated observer of American politics.