Cory Booker’s Presidential Debut in Iowa

Every Booker speech runs long—this one was 47 minutes, with an email that popped up from the Iowa Republican Party in the middle calling him an “East Coast Grandstander”—but it wasn’t so much the standing ovations that stood out (there were four) as the focused silence in between. Booker’s own staff, who’ve all given up on trying to get him to keep it tight—though they do save money by not having a speechwriter on staff—was caught off guard seeing an audience hang on his words like this. Especially an audience who’s seen it all, in the state that will still have the biggest say in picking the next nominee.

“People were looking for someone to give them hope, someone to inspire them,” said Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic chair said. “Today, it worked. People were looking for someone to give them hope, and someone to inspire them. And the senator did.”

“We all needed a sense of revival,” Booker told me later. He kept talking about “fellowship,” calling it “cathartic.”

Saturday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did a Kavanaugh victory lap of interviews about how the Democratic “mob” had been a gift. Saturday night, Trump warned a Kansas rally about the danger of an angry mob.

Sunday morning, in a big black volunteer’s van, riding to his grandmother’s old church after sucking down his iced tea and happily taking a few selfies on request (he’s also pioneered the video selfie—20 or 30 seconds of talking into the camera about how happy he is to meet the person he squeezes in to the frame next to him, usually with some New Jersey reference jammed in), Booker said, “there’s no grace in that terminology.”

“If that’s what [McConnell’s] definition of mobs are, then our country from its founding has seen the same kind of righteous mobs,” he said. “This nation, I feel it in the core of my being: what we need right now is magnanimity. What we need right now is not leaders that are going to pit us against each other, but leaders that are going to call us to unify.”

When I said that sounds like he was making an argument for shaping the national conversation through a presidential campaign, he tried to say he could do it as a senator, but he didn’t resist for long.

“We need people that are going to be the stitching that holds this nation together. And that’s part of my life purpose,” he said.

Then into the church. He stayed for three hours.

Booker’s team had built a schedule of campaign stops with local candidates to lead up and build up to his appearance at the dinner, so he’d come in familiar to them. As famous as Iowans are for being nice, they’re also famous for being dismissively demanding of every politician who comes through. The easiest quote for a campaign reporter to get from a local activist is about how each candidate will have to put in the time, doesn’t matter who they are. These are Democrats no one outside the state has ever heard of, but who can tick off how many times Barack Obama sat in their living room, or who was where when on Gary Hart, or how early they signed up with Jimmy Carter back when he surprised everyone in 1976 and first turned the Iowa caucuses into a big deal.

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