Sen. Cory Booker's (D–N.J.) announcement today that he'll seek the 2020 Democratic nomination for president prompted various political analysts to publish pieces pondering what his chances are. As Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown noted this morning, Booker's strengths include his strong support for criminal justice reform. Plus, he's already called for weed legalization nationwide.
But Booker's chances will no doubt be hurt by his penchant for grandstanding and embellishing the truth for rhetorical purposes. Take, for instance, his many references to "T-Bone," a drug dealer who Booker claimed to have been friends with. Various critics have questioned whether T-Bone is actually a real person, and Booker has never really provided a definitive response.
Booker was talking about T-Bone at least as far back as 2000, when he gave an interview to Stanford Magazine. (Booker is a Stanford graduate.) "I still remember my first month on the street," Booker said, referring to the time in 1995 when he moved to a dangerous neighborhood in Newark. "I walked up to this charismatic black guy my age called T-Bone, who was one of the drug lords. I just said, 'Yo, man, wha's up?' And he leaped in front of me, looked me right in the eye and said, 'Who the blank do you think you are? If you ever so much as look at me again, I'm going to put a cap in your ass.'"
T-Bone then became a regular in Booker's anecdotes. "I said hello to this guy and I'll never forget he leaped off the steps where he was standing and looked at me and threatened my life," Booker said during a speech at The New School in New York in 2007, not long after he was elected mayor of Newark, according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger. "I later got to know this guy and his name was T-Bone and I'm a vegetarian so that was a particularly vicious threat."
You get the point. In fact, Booker has admitted to talking about T-Bone a "million" times, the Star-Ledger reported in 2013. Booker told The New School in 2007 that his friendship with T-Bone eventually ended after the drug dealer said there were warrants out for his arrest. "That rift between me and T-Bone was inches, we sat there, but I felt so alienated that there was a gulf as wide as the Grand Canyon between us, and I could not reach out to save this young man, and we drove back to Brick Towers, and I've never seen him again since that day," Booker said, according to National Review.
The validity of Booker's T-Bone story was questioned in 2013, when he ran for Senate. That's because no one had ever heard of a drug dealer in Newark who went by that name. In August of that year, National Review spoke to Clement Price, a history professor and friend of Booker who claimed the then-Senate candidate admitted to him in 2008 that T-Bone was not real. Rather, he was a "composite" of various people Booker knew in Newark. "Cory realized that he had erred," Price added to the Star-Ledger. "He told me that my criticism of his invention of T-Bone made perfect sense to him and he had made a mistake."
In public, Booker has admitted T-Bone was not completely real. Sort of. Per a 2008 interview with Esquire:
T-Bone's actual earthly existence has been fodder for public debate, leading Booker to admit that although T-Bone's corporeal being is "1,000 percent real," he's an "archetype" of an aspect of Newark's woe whose actual nom de crack may not actually be T-Bone.
That's not a clear answer, of course. Reason reached out to Booker's Senate office for clarification on the matter, but did not receive a response in time for publication. (We will update this post if we do.)
So why does T-Bone matter all these years later? Because embellishing stories and creating composites is penalized in politics. Pres. Obama used a composite in Dreams of My Father, and the media obsessed over it. Even if it's a more effective way to humanize a problem (as in Booker's case) or to protect someone's identity (in Obama's case), it rings of untruthfulness. In many of Booker's stories, T-Bone is a foil. He's more useful to Booker's self-mythologizing than Booker ever was to him (or them, as it may be).
The story is also a reminder that Booker loves to be the center of attention. Why else tell people that a person he ostensibly felt sorry for had threatened to kill him?
As previously noted, Booker has been an excellent advocate for criminal justice reform. He pushed for passage of the FIRST STEP Act, wants to legalize pot, and has spoken out against the war on drugs and mass incarceration. He's also shown a willingness to cross partisan lines, partnering with Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) in 2014 to reform the way the justice system deals with juveniles and low-level offenders.
But his desperate need to be the center of every event and the hero of every story might cause him problems. See, for example, his dramatic performance at last year's Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh. Likening himself to "Spartacus," Booker said he was risking Senate expulsion by releasing confidential emails sent by Kavanaugh during his time as a lawyer in the George W. Bush administration. It turned out the emails were not confidential. In fact, they'd been already been released. Booker, though, still made headlines.