Cory Booker: It’s not easy being a political star

Several weeks ago, I  wrote about the hazard of being seen as a hero. The downfalls of General David Petraeus and Lance Armstrong demonstrate this idea  quite clearly.

As Newark, NJ Mayor Cory Booker ponders whether to run in 2014 against Governor Chris Christie or Senator Frank Lautenberg, he is seen by most of the nation as a model leader who governs an efficient and clean city, while being a model citizen who personally comes to the assistance of victims of natural disasters and crime. However, as Kate Zernike of the New York Times reports, for all of his accomplishments, after six years in office there are still significant problems in Newark.

For example, she points out:

When snow blanketed this city two Christmases ago, Mayor Cory A. Booker was celebrated around the nation for personally shoveling out residents who had appealed for help on Twitter. But his administration was also scorned as streets remained impassable for days because the city had no contract for snow removal.

Additionally, she reports:

In recent days, Mr. Booker has made the rounds of the national media with his pledge to live on food stamps for a week. But his constituents do not need to be reminded that six years after the mayor came into office vowing to make Newark a “model of urban transformation,” their city remains an emblem of poverty.

It would be ludicrous and unrealistic to expect Cory Booker or anyone else to be able to clean up all the troubles in Newark. This city has been so troubled that it is sometimes referred to as “the armpit of the nation.” In 1967, a race riot resulted in twenty-six deaths. Schools are still wanting; the air is highly polluted, and considerable improvements are needed in the infrastructure.

Like all of us, Booker is confronted with the conflict between substance and image. It is the hope of virtually everyone to accomplish a great deal and to be recognized for having done so. If a person achieves a great deal without blowing her horn, she is considered modest or even withdrawn. That is acceptable, although some feel that it would be best to have others recognize genuine achievements, if for no other reason than to have a little more faith in human beings. If a person’s image surpasses the substance of her accomplishments, problems arise because she is seen as vain and self-promoting.

Booker’s performance is further described by Ms. Zernike:

A Stanford- and Yale-educated son of the suburbs, Mr. Booker arrived to suspicion when he moved into the Newark projects and made his unsuccessful first run for mayor. Lately, though, criticism has come even from those he won over: people working on the education projects he supports, council members who ran on his reform slate, business leaders and families who believed in his promise to bring “a renaissance for the rest of us” to a city plagued by self-dealing and mismanagement.

They say Mr. Booker’s frequent Twitter posts to his 1.3 million followers, his appearances on television and at gatherings of moguls and celebrities — he was out of town nearly a quarter of the time between January 2011 and June 2012, according to The Star-Ledger — have distracted him from the local trench work needed to push his agenda. Business leaders say he dazzles at news conferences, but flags on the follow-through. Residents have wearied of the outside fascination for the mayor whom Oprah Winfrey called “a rock star” and Jon Stewart on Wednesday referred to as “the superhero mayor of Newark.

One of the problems with our political system is that the demands of increasing awareness  and of raising money to run to office make it difficult for incumbents to do their day jobs. If Booker wants to become the next governor of or senator from New Jersey, he must tweet his accomplishments and make the rounds of the television circuit. He’s not alone in this regard. President Barack Obama could only spend a minimal amount of time at the White House while he was running for reelection in 2012. When he first ran in 2008, he spent only165 days in his Senate office as he planned and implemented his strategy to become president. That same year, John McCain was away from his “day job”s as he battled through primaries and into the general election.

What is most important for Cory Booker is to have a clear sense of self-realization. He has created a high bar for himself,  in being the working mayor of Newark and in letting the public know of his accomplishments. It is fair to argue that he can do more for the country as a governor or senator, and perhaps ultimately as a president by cultivating a highly visible public persona.  Unfortunately, until we adopt an electoral system such as England’s, in which campaigns are short (about three weeks) and inexpensive (very limited television advertisement allowed), we will have many candidates not tending to their day jobs.  If Booker recognizes the this reality, then the criticism of Ms. Zernike in the Times becomes somewhat moot. He is doing the best  he can. But if he becomes too enamored with himself, then he may well follow the misfortunes of Petraeus and Armstrong. Let’s hope that he makes discretion the better part of valor.