U.S. Senator Cory Booker ’91 M.A. ’92 of New Jersey returned to Stanford on Saturday to discuss his new book, “United: Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good.” The OpenXChange event also featured “Nightline” anchor Juju Chang ’87, who engaged the senator in a conversation about his experiences in public service and time at Stanford.
Booker sat down with The Daily before the event to talk about memorable experiences from his days as a Stanford student.
“I love coming back to the campus,” Booker said. “It’s always a rush of nostalgia as well as a sort of reignition of spirit.”
Booker also discussed his motivation for writing his book, saying he wrote the book after witnessing frustration with rising polarization within the government as well as divisions among people.
“I hope [the book] inspires people to manifest the spirit of interdependency,” he added.
Booker explained that he hopes the book conveys a message to students that they should be more courageous and responsible as they search for solutions to the many problems they face in the world.
“Even if we can’t solve all the problems, we need to understand that we can’t allow our inability to do everything undermine our determination to do something,” he said.
“I’m hoping folks will understand that they need to get involved in shaping the destiny of this country,” he added.
Booker noted that his interest in politics began during his college years, and he encourages all students to engage with political issues. When asked for his thoughts on recent campus politics, he said that his time running the Bridge Peer Counseling Center as a student opened his eyes to the prevalence of mental health issues and sexual assault. He also noted the lack of awareness on campus of these issues during his time as a student.
“We not only weren’t conscious of [sexual assaults], but we weren’t doing what we should be doing to address the issue,” he said.
In light of the rise of activism on campus in recent years, Booker said he is glad to see increasing engagement.
“I’m proud of the Stanford activism, from the Black Lives Matter movement to people working on sexual assault issues, because I think many times students don’t understand that you can have a profound, lasting impact on this institution through your engagement in activism,” Booker said.
“This is an institution that is still growing, still changing, still getting better, and students are an essential part of that evolution,” he added.
Booker concluded the interview with a reflection on what a Stanford education has meant to him.
“I still look at this as the most privileged experience of my lifetime, to be able to come here; from incredible football games I was able to play in, to running my first organization, the Bridge, to volunteering in East Palo Alto, to some professors who really shaped my life and transformed my existence through not just their mastery of their subject matter but by inspiring me to be a better human being,” he said.
The public event included a conversation on the subject of bipartisanship and political progress, and Booker specifically cited the issue of stop-and-frisk in urban areas. While in this case he was able to find common ground among legislators with whom he normally disagrees, it’s often harder to get things done.
“We’re not even listening to each other, or seeing each other’s humanity,” he said.
Booker emphasized unity and a common ability to make change in the world. According to Booker, the first step toward progress is recognizing that ability within yourself.
He quoted writer and activist Alice Walker: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
Shifting the conversation, Chang asked Booker about recent speculation that he might be a candidate for vice president under Hillary Clinton.
“Would you be willing to be Hillary’s VP?” Chang asked.
“Yes, I am willing to be her vegan practitioner,” he quipped, to audience laughter.
Booker is the only vegan U.S. Senator.
The conversation then turned to the U.S. Supreme Court when Chang asked Booker what he thought about President Barack Obama’s choice to nominate a successor for Justice Antonin Scalia, who died earlier this month.
“Any originalist would tell [Obama] that he has no choice,” he said, implying that Scalia might agree with him, despite opposition from Senate Republican leadership.
Chang also asked Booker about Stanford football coach David Shaw, with whom Booker played at Stanford when he was a tight end for the team. Booker praised Shaw’s work as coach and how he teaches players “to live great lives of character and service.”
“He will always put the well-being of the athletes above a W on the board,” Booker said.
Audience members then had the opportunity to ask Booker and Chang their own questions. Topics ranged from education to the 2016 presidential election to mental health.
“By any means necessary we’re going to educate our children,” he said, responding to a question on charter schools.
One student asked Booker to explain his endorsement of Hillary Clinton over fellow U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, especially given young people’s support for Sanders.
“I literally love Bernie Sanders,” he acknowledged.
He continued by saying that, for him, the choice of who to support for the presidency came down to who has done more work for “the urgencies that I deal with in Newark, New Jersey,” especially when it comes to racial inequality.
Another student asked Booker about his voting record in the Senate, specifically surrounding a bill authorizing military force to combat ISIS. Booker responded that such votes are always a difficult decision involving careful analysis, especially because sometimes the outcome of a vote is different from what is originally anticipated.
“Some of the best change I can make is not just voting but with the soft power of being relentless with administration on issues of justice,” he said.
On the topic of his experience running the Bridge, Booker called his time there “one of the most formative experiences of [his] life.” He used the opportunity to discuss the lack of access to mental health care in this country.
“Investing in prisons is far more expensive than doing it the right way with mental health care,” he said, referring to a statistic that 40 percent of individuals with severe mental illnesses will go to prison during their lives.
After the Q&A period, Booker ended with a personal story about the day of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. He remembered sharing a moment with an older woman he knew, who had previously lost a child to gun violence. Booker concluded with that woman’s two words from that day, which continue to stay with him and guide him in times of uncertainty: “Stay faithful.”
Contact Sarah Ortlip-Sommers at [email protected]