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Rhetorical Recap: Soulful and Solo

“Justice” was the nominal theme of Senator Cory Booker’s formal speech declaring his candidacy for president. A big “Justice For All” sign dominated the long-shot view of the venue, a city plaza; rally attendees hoisted and flapped “Justice for All” placards; the sign on the speaker’s lectern asked viewers to text “Justice.”

But the speech had two other themes: love and Newark. How would Booker harmonize them?

Carolyn Booker introduced her son with eloquent and unaffected enthusiasm. She spoke of him as a “service leader.” After she sang out his name she left the stage, so there was no embrace when he entered. Instead he expressed warm thanks to her and made the heart-pat and finger-point gestures. She did not return at the end for a customary familial hug of support and warmth. Actress Rosario Dawson, Booker’s self-proclaimed “boo,” was not present. Cory Booker, a single man, performed solo. Familial and romantic love was not what he had in mind, apparently.

Booker spoke of love as a driver of the quest for justice:

We’re here today to seek justice. We’re here today because we are impatient for that justice.

And our sense of urgency, our impatience, comes from the most demanding of values,

it comes from love. Love of our families. Love of our communities. Love of country. Love for each other.

Newark, Brick City, taught me about that love. It’s not feel-good, easy-going love. It’s a strong, courageous love. A defiant love. The kind of love that serves, the kind of love that sacrifices. The kind of love that is essential to achieving justice.

Booker pledged to devote the same all-out loving effort to the United States that he gave to Newark. He told an urban-comeback story, and he took progressive issue positions prefixed by “we won’t wait.”

Newark is a familiar city to many but it is not as well-known as those with a distinctive industry (like Jay Inslee’s Seattle), tourist appeal (Tulsi Gabbard’s Honolulu), or big-name sports teams (Pete Buttigieg’s South Bend, Kamala Harris’s Oakland). There were severe riots in Newark in 1967, but in many other American cities as well. Newark was not the site of an iconic historical struggle, as in Lawrence (Elizabeth Warren’s choice of venue) or San Antonio (Julián Castro). Riots scarred Newark in 1967 but in other urban centers as well. Booker noted that the day marked the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s first night in jail, whence his famous letter. But the city where that happened, of course, was Birmingham AL.

So Booker needed to provide a better sense of place. He did not lack for options. A long list of famous people from Newark he could have mentioned, quoted, or brought to the event is here. Newark son Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, a “what if” history about authoritarianism, looks prophetic and pertinent today, so much so that David Simon of “The Wire” fame started filming a six-part HBO adaptation of it this week in the city. Alternately, Booker could have brought high-achieving students from the school initiative he started with Mark Zuckerberg. Or citizens in need of better housing. Or Newark residents recently released from prison after serving an unjustly long term.

That he did none of these things, that he occupied the stage alone, undercut his attempted fusion of justice, love, and Newark/United States. For a “service leader” cannot illustrate how “the only way to overcome tough challenges is by extending grace, finding common ground, and working together” without the presence of others.

Booker has a strong political network and the organizational chops to make him second-tier competitive in the long race to the nomination. But to rise farther, he needs to revise his act.

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