There are more than 20 Democratic contenders for the 2020 US presidential elections. All of them are accomplished individuals. But only one of them—appearing on stage tonight for the democratic primary debate (July 31)—has been compared by people who have known him his whole adult life to the Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, and the biblical figures Moses and Abraham: New Jersey senator Cory Booker.
If these comparisons sound exaggerated or impossible, those who make them know it. Yet, they insist Booker is unlike other people. “He has a very deep soul…What you see and hear is who he is. Don’t approach him with cynicism. You will find nothing about which to be cynical,” says Robin Kennedy, a former Stanford University attorney and Booker’s “Stanford mom.”
Kennedy, married to former Stanford president Donald Kennedy, housed Booker in their campus home in the 1990s, when he chose to do a fifth year to earn a Master’s degree. She knew him as a college football player, a student, and as a person—a night owl prone to raiding the family fridge at midnight and inclined to serious discussion with children and adults alike—and she remains close to him today. The Kennedys hosted a few students in their campus house’s extra apartment over the years, but only Booker became an honorary member of the family.
“He is infused with a goodness that new acquaintances perceive as fake,” Kennedy told Quartz. She understands why people might doubt that anyone can be as good as she contends that Booker is, but believes deeply that he isn’t just your average talented human, hence the comparison to historical political and spiritual leaders. “He has long-held principles; he not only holds himself to them, but he has always encouraged others to adhere to them. He is, to a fault, generous with his time, concern, caring, and his focused attention on others. It was no surprise to me that, as mayor of Newark, he ran into a burning building to rescue someone.”
In 2012, Booker made headlines when he carried a Newark woman out of a blazing inferno. He suffered second-degree burns but emphasized instead the gratitude he felt for the perspective her predicament gave him on his own problems. That same year, he invited neighbors and strangers who lost power due to Hurricane Sandy for an impromptu sleepover, hosting them in his home. “It meant–I can’t even explain,” one of the guests told the Observer. “I’m still overwhelmed that he would reach out to us like that, you know, that we meant that much that he actually invited the whole block.”
In 2013, he personally responded to a tweet from a concerned citizen about a dog left outdoors in freezing temperatures, saying, “I’ll head up myself and investigate.” He saved the dog.
In 2017, he stopped his car at a New Jersey accident scene and helped another good samaritan who was providing aid while waiting for ambulances to arrive. These acts of heroism earned him a reputation as a “super mayor,” and won him fans and fawning articles nationwide.
But now Booker is a senator running for president, and a presidential campaign can be brutal. For Kennedy, who predicted when Booker was just a student that he would become president, it is sometimes difficult watching him run for the nation’s highest office.
“My emotions are mixed. I am, of course, enormously proud of him. There is no doubt in my mind that he would be a wonderful president…[But] it is very personal (and painful) for me to hear other people judging him who can’t or won’t take the time to learn what an extraordinary person he is,” she said.
Whether Booker can convince voters of his extraordinary qualities remains to be seen, of course. In May, Business Insider noted that he’s lagging in the polls but still very popular among Democratic voters. On July 26, the Washington Post ranked him as fourth of the 15 top Democratic presidential contenders, despite noting that he’s only polling between 1 and 2%.
That puts him just ahead of Just Biden in the publication’s ranking. Tonight’s debate, with Biden and Booker on the stage together, may prove decisive in either clinching Booker’s position as “an upside candidate” or pushing him out of the crowded race.
This month, Biden and Booker exchanged swipes about criminal justice reform. Biden is campaigning on a reform platform after a career of touting himself as tough on crime. Booker has been critical of him, calling Biden “an architect of mass incarceration” whose plans to fix the system should be viewed with suspicion.
Biden insists Booker is a hypocrite, however, pointing out that when he was the mayor of Newark, Booker initially objected to a Justice Department investigation into stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately affect minorities. “If he wants to go back and talk about records, I’m happy to do that. But I’d rather talk about the future,” Biden quipped.
In Kennedy’s view, Booker is the future. There is no one better positioned to lead a divided nation than him, she believes. “[T]he talking heads who say that Biden and perhaps [Minnesota senator] Amy Klobuchar are the only moderates are wrong. Cory is not a partisan fanatic. He is a leader. I doubt anyone could actually bring this country together, but he would govern from the center.”
Kennedy’s glowing description of Booker might seem suspect if there wasn’t so much support for her admiring position from others who knew him at Stanford. “To some, Cory seems too good to be true, but this is truly who he is,” says Stanford University art history professor Jody Maxmin, who taught Booker in 1990 and remains close to him to this day. “He was the same young man at 20 that he is at 50.”
Maxmin says she knew Booker was born to lead when she met him as a young man who had come to Stanford to play football on a scholarship. “He was larger than life, but down to Earth and a joy to be with,” she told Quartz.
Maxmin first encountered Booker when he took her classes on historical Greek art. She recalls him as an original thinker and writer with a fantastic eye and a surprising talent for understanding the relationship between works of the past and contemporary creations. “With no previous work in art history, he was able to place the unknown in the context of the known, which is what graduate students at Oxford do after two years of studying classical art and archaeology,” she explained. “He stood out as a student who was passionate, insatiably curious and fearless in the face of new material.”
The student taught the teacher. “I will never forget his insight on the first day of class, when he compared Homer’s dactylic hexameter with rap music. This was the first time I had thought about this,” she said. “Exactly 10 years later, professor Richard Martin joined the faculty, and introduced the idea to his classes on Homeric epic. Cory was there first!”
While Stanford attracts many talented students, Booker still stood out as unique. Maxmin says he differed from others in his absorption and excitement. His enthusiasm and ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate topics was unparalleled, and Booker was exceptionally intellectually curious and principled. She points out that Booker practices the values he preaches.
“The next time there’s a fire, he will rush in to save a fellow human being. He will shovel your driveway. He will rescue an abandoned dog. His veganism is an expression of his reverence for life. This is who he is and who he’s always been. His advocacy for the marginalized and the underprivileged is not only a political position, but the life he has chosen to live, first in Brick Towers, the housing project in which he resided as a city councilman and now in Newark, where he lives with his brother, sister-in-law and niece.”
Maxmin says Booker has the energy and ability to lead and a deep desire to help and connect with others. She recalls that even during football season, while he shouldered a full academic load unlike many other college athletes, Booker worked as a live-in counselor at the Bridge, a peer-advising center where he helped students who were home-sick, stressed, heartbroken and sometimes suicidal. “My impression then turned out to be accurate: That his ability to shoulder multiple responsibilities and demands on his time would serve him well as a political leader. The 3 am calls to the Bridge have equipped him to answer the proverbial 3 am calls in the White House.”
Booker’s fans include his former classmates—even people who don’t necessarily share his political positions. Paul Nickel attended Stanford and played football on the college team with Booker. They once shared a room with bunk beds. He recalls the presidential candidate as an unusual young man.
Nickel, like Kennedy and Maxmin, remembers being struck by Booker’s exceptionalism from their first interaction.”I’m from Ohio, and there’s a reason why I’m bringing that up before talking about Cory. [Stanford] was a predominantly white school. I hadn’t been exposed to many African Americans. [I was] kind of a naive kid from the Midwest. He’s from New Jersey, and he approached me and he was highly intelligent, very smart guy, just nice to be around. Very helpful. Showing me around campus when I first got there,” Nickel told Mel Magazine earlier this year.
In Nickel’s recollection, Booker was funny, generous, a good storyteller, unusually neat, and always willing to do whatever needed doing on the football field or in life. Nickel says, “That’s one of the first things I noticed about him: This guy is different. He’s a different cat. As a person, they don’t make many men like him anymore. I think he’s a very genuine guy. We probably have some different political views, but he’s very strong-willed, strong-minded.”
So far, Booker has not managed to impress the American public the way he impressed the people he met as a young man, who watched him grow up into a presidential contender. But if his early years are to be believed, he’s a candidate worth taking seriously.