Y! Big Story: The fuss over Cory Booker

Vera H-C Chan
Senior Editor, Special Projects
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No offense, New Jersey—but just why should we care what Cory Booker says?

The Newark mayor, so familiar with the media spotlight, tripped when he criticized Obama ads targeting Romney's Bain days. The guy in charge of America's 67th largest city sure knows how to steal the spotlight.

This time, the attention backfired after he appeared on "Meet the Press" to weigh in on the Euro zone, Facebook's IPO, and Obama's strengths. Since then, America's most popular mayor has taken a brutal political beating from the left and unwanted affection from the right. The turmoil hints at Democrat nerves over what some perceive as a close election, and Republican eagerness to gain a foothold against a presumptive nominee accused of being elitist. One thing might be faintly reassuring, at least to Booker: His words count.

Booker Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube: Besides oodles of charisma, Booker is an exhaustive social media user: He ranks #4 among most-followed elected officials in office and #26 as Most Influential in the Twitter political arena.

He has won the hearts of New Jerseyites for his Twitter snow-shoveling service. In 2012, Booker saved a neighbor from a burning house (suffering smoke inhalation and second-degree burns) and teamed up with Gov. Chris Christie in a video that went viral.

Nor does he shun old media: He was featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Street Fight" and Peabody Award-winning series "Brick City" (described a real-life version of "The Wire"). The mayor emerged in a 2009 war with Conan O'Brien that showcased his ability to straddle digital and broadcast worlds:

On September 23, O'Brien joked that Newark's health care program included a one-way bus ticket out of the capitol. Don't mess with Brick City: Booker, riding on a Sundance Channel exposure, took to the Web with his mock response. The back-and-forth entailed bans from airports, then entire states (Booker from the Sunshine State, "CoCo" from the Eastern Seaboard) until—yes—Hillary Clinton brokered a detente. Hands were shook, a $100k donation was granted, and battlefield history of scrappy Web vs. big TV was made. (Dec. 21, 2009, "Host Hostilities," Yahoo! Year in Review)

The quote that launched a thousand blogs: Booker's "Meet the Press" appearance might have gone largely unnoticed, until he criticized the negative tone from both sides:

[T]his kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides. It's nauseating to the American public. Enough is enough. Stop attacking private equity, stop attacking Jeremiah Wright. This stuff has got to stop because what it does is it undermines, to me, what this country should be focused on. It's a distraction from the real issues. It's either going to be a small campaign about this crap or it's going to be a big campaign, in my opinion, about the issues that the American public cares about. (May 20, "Meet the Press")

Republicans embraced his 88 words, while Democrats both berated and defended him.

Cory Booker and the Big Bain Backfire: a sampling of comments
Backlash Support (dubious and otherwise) Backlash against the backlash
"...[O]n this particular instance he was just wrong." (Chief Obama strategist David Axelrod) "An urban mayor who nearly DIED saving neighbor from a fire, has earned right 2 demand integrity & courage from other leaders" (Civil rights activist Van Jones) "I would not have backed off the comments if I were Mayor Booker." (Former Tenn. Rep. Harold Ford, Jr.)
"Booker appears to have damaged the Obama campaign's efforts to define Mr. Romney in the early weeks of the general-election race." (May 22, Christian Science Monitor) "Yes, doggone it. It was a shame to see Cory kind of back down from what his answer was which was so candid." (Sarah Palin) "Booker's independence from Democrats should come as little surprise." (May 21, New Jersey Ledger)
"I'll tell ya, it was astounding that they have listed this guy as a surrogate when he is intending to go on television and to trash everything Obama is making the case for." ("Hardball" commentator Chris Matthews) "I Stand with Cory. Don't Let the Obama Campaign Silence Support for Job Creation." (Republican National Committee petition) "[Chris Matthews] ought to celebrate all truth-telling, even when it does involve "betraying" partisan loyalties." (May 22, The Atlantic)

Booker played quick defense. He clarified his stance on YouTube and waxed philosophical on Facebook. He repeatedly declared his Twitter loyalty.

Obama "surrogate" or saboteur?: Salon, which called Booker the "surrogate from hell," imagined more fiendish motives from a man "just too smart and too smooth to screw up so epically":

More likely, Booker went on the show to help himself and to advance his own long-term political prospects. And on that score, his appearance was a success ... It wouldn't be surprising if Booker has already heard from the White House, and surely he's now in for a world of abuse from Obama supporters. But that hardly means he made a mistake, at least in terms of his own ambition. (May 20, Salon)

As Salon points out, the 43-year-old was the Obama precursor before people even knew there was an Obama. Booker, who is black with Caucasian and Native American ancestry, is laden with Ivy League degrees and carries enormous working-class cred. Then again, a Fox News editorial not only called the Obama campaign ad a "brilliant pivot point," but declared that Booker gave the president a chance to reinforce the message.

Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, made headlines calling the ad "nauseating to the American public," and that gave Mr. Obama the perfect opportunity to attack Mr. Romney, oh so effectively ... Despite what pundits say about Mr. Booker's performance on "Meet the Press," Mayor Booker played the shill so well—he deserves an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. (May 22, Fox News)

And who's to say both scenarios are mutually exclusive? In the meantime, Booker can look fondly back at days when both sides could work together—what a difference a month can make.