U.S. Sen. Cory Booker is trying to get himself elected president by telling people things some of them don’t want to hear.
America’s greatness, the New Jersey Democrat told a full sanctuary at Vernon AME Church at midday Thursday, is not in what it is or has been but in the ideals to which it aspires and the dogged, if imperfect, commitment to achieving them.
“We don’t tell the truth of our history enough,” Booker said. “It weakens our very being when we don’t tell the truth of our history, because the greatness of this country is not that we’ve been bereft of violence and torture and terrorism on our own soil. The greatness of our nation lies in the fact that we overcame that. Every generation did not give up. They kept fighting. They kept working. They kept struggling.”
Honoring the past and those who lived it, Booker said, does not mean papering over the ugly parts — violence, cruelty, injustice — with empty praise. It means confessing them and never losing sight of “the dream,” he said.
It was a message that played well at Vernon AME Church, a historic black church on Greenwood Avenue that has survived Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre and urban renewal and whose stained glass windows rattle to the vibrations of traffic on the nearby Inner Dispersal Loop.
How the message plays to a wider audience will determine to a large extent whether Booker, currently polling in the low single digits, can surge to the top of the Democratic field and the White House.
While riding to a fundraiser following Thursday’s appearance at Vernon, Booker acknowledged that he’s concerned about that but said he’s more concerned about the “Disneyfication” of history.
“I know there is a concerted effort to sanitize and whitewash history,” he said.
Reconciliation is difficult if not impossible without acknowledgment of the past, Booker said.
To be sure, this was not Booker’s only message during a 40-minute speech that felt more like a sermon.
“We are called on to love each other, not to hate each other because we vote different,” he said. “(Stop) talking about what you’re against and start talking about what you’re for.”
Later, on the way to the fundraiser, Booker said he thinks the media may be missing the issues that matter most to the public. He said that while reporters ask him about President Donald Trump’s latest tweet and the latest contretemps in the Senate, the voters he hears from have more basic concerns, such as health care and education.
“A woman in New Hampshire showed me the documentation that she was earning $28,000 a year and paying $12-14,000 for prescription drugs,” he said. “Parents say they have a fear of letting their kids go to school because of gun violence.”
Some national analysts say the Democratic primary is down to three or four candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.
Booker isn’t having it. He said previous election cycles show early leaders rarely win the nomination, and he noted that former President Barack Obama was far behind at this stage of the 2008 election.
“I’m very comfortable with the way we’re building,” Booker said.
Noting several endorsements, Booker said he’s confident of doing well in the Iowa caucuses early next year because of a solid organization.
As he has before, he warned of the Democratic Party splintering under the onslaught of what he called Trump’s “moral vandalism.”
Booker said coming to Tulsa fulfilled an interest in the Greenwood area and a promise he’d made to Vernon Pastor Robert Turner.
It also, he said, fulfilled “a higher purpose: to show up in places people don’t expect Democrats to show up.”