Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) ’91 M.A. ’92 announced that he will be running in the 2020 presidential election in a video on Friday morning. On the occasion of his announcement, The Stanford Daily combed through its archives and discovered an intimate portrait of the former columnist’s personal development throughout his time at Stanford.
Booker contributed over a dozen Daily columns during his year as a sociology Master’s student, writing that his experience as a columnist was “both cathartic and meditative, but most importantly… transformative.” As such, his articles serve as an invaluable window into the presidential hopeful’s early personal and political musings.
Meditations on personal growth
Booker’s candid, vulnerable and often apologetic columns discussed topics as personal as his dating life, his changing views on homosexuality and even a now-infamous admission to groping a female friend at a 1984 New Year’s party when he was 15 years old.
“Telling one’s own personal story is often the most powerful way to make a point, or, more importantly, to make people think,” Booker wrote in the introduction of his column titled, “So much for stealing second base,” which described the groping incident in detail.
“As the ball dropped, I leaned over to hug a friend and she met me instead with an overwhelming kiss,” he recounted. “As we fumbled upon the bed, I remember debating my next ‘move’ as if it were a chess game. With the ‘Top Gun’ slogan ringing in my head, I slowly reached for her breast.’” The woman pushed his hand away, he wrote, and the encounter ended shortly thereafter.
The same column included an emotional lamentation of cultural attitudes that sexual intercourse is achieved through “luck, guile, strategy or coercion.”
“I can find little clarity in the torment of emotions I now experience when even allusions to this issue are made,” his column reads. “All I have are poignant visions. I see that preceding all the horrors of rape are a host of skewed attitudes. I see my friends seeking to ‘get some’ or to ‘score.’”
Booker also expressed regret for his previous homophobic attitudes in an April 1992 column. He thanked his fellow peer counselor at Stanford’s Bridge Peer Counseling Center, a gay man, for showing patience in the face of his “condemnations” and admitted, “The root of my hatred did not lie with the gays but with myself.”
“I was disgusted by gays,” Booker wrote. “The thought of two men kissing each other was about as appealing as a frontal lobotomy.”
For Booker, these columns also presented an opportunity for introspection. In a March 1992 piece, Booker reflected on campus religious culture, and the evolution of his own beliefs. Booker lamented the fact that religious students on campus were made to feel embarrassed about their faith. In the piece, Booker describes one incident when a friend approached him in tears, upset that her roommates were judging her for her religion.
In response, Booker jokingly described concocting a plan for his friend wherein she would mount Hell’s Angels posters and leave unrolled condoms on the edge of the trash bin every day.
“Our Satanic Slut Plan never was initiated, but planning it gave us a good laugh and made us both feel better,” Booker wrote.
In one of his more intimate columns, Booker said that his love life caused him immense anxiety. He admitted that dating was “so overwhelming” for him that he would “go through about two or three shirts due to persistent pit pouring” before dates.
Later in the column, he provided his phone number and promised to randomly set up any interested callers on blind dates. In the conclusion of his column a week later, he thanked the “77 courageous people who responded to his friending experiment.”
Racial issues and political development
Booker’s intimate writing style allowed him to explore nuances of his own identity, which often intersected with broader political movements. His April 1992 column titled “This one ain’t a sermon” revealed his perspectives on his own racial identity, describing his childhood desire to fit in as the only black person in an affluent New Jersey suburb and his experiences “finding a home” in Stanford’s black community.
In the piece, Booker recalled his initial isolation from his black peers at Stanford, citing moments where he derided the black community for being “separatist and militant” and refusing to accept that “more change is made with love than with anger.”
However, upon realizing that “many black people on campus didn’t see me as a bastion of racial understanding,” Booker wrote about his active attempts to learn about the black experience, both through reading and learning from black peers.
“I gained a new consciousness,” wrote Booker. “I discovered the extreme self-hate I had for everything, from my physical features to a misinformed hatred of my history. From Stanford’s black community I was imbued with self-esteem and self-concept, without which I would be lost in mediocrity.”
This journey of self-discovery informed his subsequent opinions writings, which served as a medium for Booker to reflect on experiences of racial discrimination, build inclusivity across movements and grapple with his own privilege growing up.
A later Booker piece gave a raw recount of a traffic stop when six police officers in five cars surrounded his vehicle, guns drawn, because he “fit the description of a car thief.” The story provided an emotional take on the debate about racialized police violence of the early 1990s.
“How can I write when I have lost control of my emotions?” Booker wrote. “I’m a black man. I am 6 feet 3 inches tall and 230 pounds, just like [Rodney] King. Do I scare you? Am I a threat? Does your fear justify your actions?”
He followed the account of his harrowing traffic stop with broader meditations on the status of the black community in America.
“Poverty, alienation, estrangement, continuously aggravated by racism, overt and institutional,” he wrote. “Can you leave your neighborhood without being stopped? Can you get a loan from your bank? Can you be trusted at your local store? … Can you get a job? Can you stay alive past 25? Can you get respect? Can you be heard? NO!”
However, while Booker frequently mentioned racial inequalities in his columns, he also at times displayed guilt for not broadening his fight for social justice beyond issues of anti-black discrimination. In an April 1992 column, he expressed concern that Stanford’s black community was becoming “frightfully self-absorbed” in its advocacy, and that “the only race related issues that really ‘Fuel My Fire’ or move me to act vehemently are the ones which are directly relate[d] to me.”
Booker also warned against an America where “alarms, guards and fences are becoming commonplace,” a prelude to his consistent calls for reforming America’s prison system throughout his political career. As a New Jersey senator, he sought to craft legislation that would have changed penalties for nonviolent crimes and reduced prison sentences, though neither effort became law.
More generally, his columns reflect a passion for elevating racial minorities and the poor that would become a core tenet of his political career. As mayor of Newark, New Jersey, he famously lived in Newark’s impoverished inner city in an effort to stay closely in touch with his most vulnerable constituents.
Booker still resides in this neighborhood, pointing out in his presidential campaign announcement video that he is “the only senator who goes home to a low-income, inner city community: the first community that took a chance on me.”
By May 1992, a month before he was set to graduate, Booker wrote about having established at Stanford a “Cory Booker Party Line,” with views like “Respect women,” “Gays are OK, too” and “Black people need justice.” However, he questioned whether his commitments to these ideals were genuine, rather than “shallow manifestations of acceptance without internalization.”
As the column concludes, he continued to ask how best to fight against a society wrought with “racists,” “sexist people,” “people steeped in hypocrisy” and “injustice abounding” to ultimately make his mark on the world.
“As my ambition rages, as I seek to change the world,” finished Booker, already on his way to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, “Where shall I begin?”
Ellie Bowen contributed to this report.