The Four Most Beautiful Words in the English Language: I Told You So

It was hard not to think of Gore Vidal’s aperçu when I read this piece on Cory Booker in the New York Times this morning.

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 here, his administration was scorned as streets remained impassable for days because the city had no contract for snow removal.

Last spring, Ellen DeGeneres presented Mr. Booker with a superhero costume after he rushed into a burning building to save a neighbor. But Newark had eliminated three fire companies after the mayor’s plan to plug a budget hole failed.

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.

Cory Booker’s promise — captured in two books, two documentaries and frequent television appearances — was to save a city that had been hemorrhaging residents, industry and hope since the riots that ripped it apart 45 years ago. But a growing number of Newarkers complain that he has proved to be a better marketer than mayor, who shines in the spotlight but shows little interest in the less-glamorous work of what it takes to run a city.

…Mr. Booker is better suited to speechmaking in Washington than to governing a state.

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.”

Taxes have risen more than 20 percent over the past three years, even after the city laid off about 1,100 workers, including more than 160 police officers. Crime has risen, and unemployment is up. Schools remain under state control, and the city’s finances remain so troubled that it cannot borrow to fix its antiquated water system. While new restaurants have risen near the Prudential Center downtown, those in the outer wards were placed under a curfew this year because of shootings and drug dealing.

“There’s a lot of frustration and disappointment,” said Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, a Democrat representing Newark. “People feel that the mayor basically is out of the city too much and doesn’t focus much on the day-to-day.

Asked about complaints from residents and business owners that garbage is not picked up, abandoned buildings are not boarded up and public spaces are in disrepair, the mayor talked about a new system that allows him to track which streets need snowplows and which departments are paying for too much overtime — even when he is out of town.

He invited a reporter to see the system in action. He then called to apologize that he could not be there: “I’m in and out of New York all day.”

Instead, his staff demonstrated the system. Mr. Booker was on his way to host a reading at a bookstore on the Upper West Side, filmed by CNN. He then spoke at a benefit at Cipriani and attended a movie premiere at Google’s New York headquarters. Afterward, he announced on Twitter, “I sat on a panel with Richard Branson.”

Yes, I told you so.


  1. Aaron December 14, 2012 at 8:50 am | #

    I think Booker’s very easy to critique. What’s harder, though, is arriving at a methodology for addressing cities like Newark. I won’t say that I’ve poured over the budget, but I’m guessing public pensions come into play as to why taxes have gone up while services are being cut. The knee jerk Republican response would be to just continue to cut taxes and services, and let the city “right size” itself. What’s a good liberal response to all of this? My concern is that everyone in both parties seems to have bought into sustained growth as the ultimate solution. Assuming that the entire world can’t actually experience eternal periods of growth, what do we do next?

    • M December 17, 2012 at 6:59 pm | #

      I think the only sane response is to let nature run its course, since that is what is bound to happen anyway. “Arriving at a methodology” for solving other people’s problems assumes that problems can be fixed and causes diagnosed, when often they can’t. Let the bad models of governance falter and let the healthy ones prosper.

      We cannot know ahead of time what will or will not work. We may as well try to “arrive at a methodology” for designing species to prosper in a given environment. There are too many variables, too many limitations on our power and knowledge. Thus experimentation and local freedom are essential, while outside interference is just that.

      The difference between the realist and Republican approaches is that the Republicans pretend a “right sizing” will occur, when it is entirely possible it won’t. “Cities like Newark” may well be doomed by social forces well outside the scope of government action, and there is nothing the well-intentioned reformer can do about it. “Right sizing,” or a natural balancing of forces, may well result in a capsized boat.

      So, “what do we do next?” We grieve, accept, and move on. Since no mechanic exists who can “fix the system,” we abandon the impossible and focus instead on individuals who suffer. We love the human beings we can, and let “humanity” take care of itself.

      • Donald Pruden, Jr, a/k/a The Enemy Combatant December 18, 2012 at 10:46 am | #

        I am not sure what your point is, except to suggest that the victims of “bad governance” should remain unassisted, and they themselves should do nothing and just hope for the best, because nothing in fact can be done.

        Having put it this way, I will not waste time replying to this point. Newark’s own victims of “bad governance” don’t need me to tell them that letting “nature” take its course is little short of sentencing them to death. As if “bad governance” was the work of “nature” and not the work of bad (reactionary) policymakers and their elected henchpersons! It is people who believe as you who participate in the “dooming” of “cities like Newark”.

        Rather, I just want readers to understand just what it is you may be saying. “M” to Newark: “Drop Dead! We’ll watch.”

        You can “grieve” all you wanna. The rest of us have work to do, so please stay of our way while we in all the “Newarks” across this great land of ours roll up our sleeves and pursue real progressive solutions to what ails us (and I suspect that coming after public pensions – earned after decades of public service work – won’t be on the agenda; it sure as hell ain’t for THIS public sector worker).

        After all, progressive solutions are the only things historically that have ever worked – which is probably why you recommend doing nothing, and why you claim (falsely) that nothing can be done by the use of government. News Flash!: The “government” belongs to all of us, and it can be made into an instrument for our genuine benefit, and not as a weapon to be used by the powerful against us. How long are we going to continue to allow its misuse, to be followed by our surrender?

  2. Benedict@Large December 14, 2012 at 10:31 am | #

    Am I missing something? What about all of this disqualifies Mr. Booker from being Wall Street’s Second Coming of (New and Improved!) Barack Obama? Aren’t these the exact sorts of things he should be doing to further entrench himself in their good graces? After all, it’s not like the people are going to buy that “community organizer” routine again. Did you notice what happened to that neighborhood after Barack “organized” it?

    There is a distinct tone here suggesting that Cory Booker isn’t exactly doing his job. That’s nonsense. The author is simply mistaken about who Cory actually works for.

  3. Brendan Walsh December 14, 2012 at 11:33 am | #


    From: Corey Robin Reply-To: Corey Robin Date: Fri, 14 Dec 2012 13:25:27 +0000 To: Brendan Walsh Subject: [New post] The Four Most Beautiful Words in the English Language: I Told You So Corey Robin posted: “It was hard not to think of Gore Vidal’s aperçu when I read this piece on Cory Booker in the New York Times this morning. When snow blanketed this city two Christmases ago, Mayor Cory A. Booker was celebrated around the nation for personally shoveling o”

  4. Glenn December 14, 2012 at 12:08 pm | #

    As if anything that appears in the celebrity focused media has anything to do with the realty its consumers live in.

  5. Erstwhile Anthropologist December 14, 2012 at 12:51 pm | #

    I know Corey Booker from Yale. He was always really nice to me. Back then I was very naive, in the way that an immigrant kid with strict parents who grows up in small-town New England can be. Back then I didn’t know what neoliberalism was, thought one only needed to ‘educate’ people in order to extirpate (antiblack) racism, and didn’t know how the (power) game was played. Corey always knew how the game is played.

    So allow me to be a bit more forthright about ‘the game’ and say what someone like Corey Robin can’t say without being attacked as a racist white ‘hater’. Let us be a bit more forthright about the love affair with Booker, his deification by liberals despite his conservative-neoliberal-corporate orientations. Let us be a bit more forthright about what the love affair with Booker says about how far to the right we’ve moved as a nation since Martin Luther King’s vision for a poor people’s march (and his oft-cited ‘dream’): Booker isn’t simply an index/icon* of the triumph of neoliberalism (and an example of the ideal neoliberal subject), he is also an index/icon* of the ongoing ‘Latin Americanization of race’ (Eduardo Bonilla-Silva) and ‘racial neoliberalism’ (David Theo Goldberg). (*In relation to Pierce’s semiotics and his definition of these terms.)

    As the Black Commentator article to which Corey linked in his first post critiquing Booker notes: “Booker has the credentials that impress the liberal elite, the people who make large campaign contributions. He is an Ivy Leaguer, a Rhodes scholar no less.” But it is not simply having these credentials which make Booker loved by the liberal elite, especially the white liberal elite, it is also that he (like Barack Obama) is ‘the right kind of black person’, and this ‘rightness’ is not separate from his (or Obama’s) lightness. (If Harry Reid can acknowledge the link between light skin and electability, am I really making an outré point here?)

    Ultimately, in a country which is loathe to honestly acknowledge the link between structural racism and persistent structural poverty and the kinds of problems (again, structural) plaguing Newark, which Mayor Booker is failing to effectively remediate, his failures as mayor will not keep him from ascending to higher public office. Because as many will say (implicitly if not explicitly), Newark is filled with ‘the wrong kind of black people’, so what can be expected? And they will say, Well he may be a superhero but he’s not a miracle worker! (Because, so goes the argument, the problems of black ghettos are just ‘too intractable’, and problems of ‘pathologica’l family structures and ‘bad’ values and a ‘culture of poverty’.) So there will be more than enough people willing to overlook Cory Booker’s failings as mayor: Because it’s Newark, right?

    Maybe if more people, including in the liberal elite, truly expected more from Newark in the first place–from places like Newark and the people who live in such communities–then they would also expect more from Corey Booker and hold him to higher account. But if what you really want is the second coming of Barack Obama, another opportunity to make disingenuous pronouncements (i.e. as contradicted by nearly every statistical study on racial disparities, in everything from law enforcement outcomes to employment discrimination to family wealth to health outcomes–including for well-educated middle-class blacks) about how we are now ‘post-racial’ and have achieved Dr. King’s dream, then Corey Booker is indeed your (black) superhero.

  6. Stephen Zielinski December 14, 2012 at 1:03 pm | #

    Substantive democracy exists only in the streets. Expect nothing from the Bookers of the world. Be surprised when they manage to do good.

  7. Zagrobelny (@Zagrobelny) December 15, 2012 at 11:53 am | #

    I would still like to see that charlatan take out that other charlatan Chris Christie.

    • Donald Pruden, Jr, a/k/a The Enemy Combatant December 17, 2012 at 12:22 pm | #

      I understand the sentiment, my hopes for such a contest would have the opposite outcome: that Chalatan Christie (I like the name) would clean Booker’s clock. Why? An African-American neo-lib is little different from a neo-con. To see Booker’s political career end at the hands of a rightist governor would be the tonic that Newark’s Wretched Of The Earth could use, because then they could seek out genuine progressive candidates for Mayor that would actually serve their interests. No, Booker needs to lose so that Newark could stand a chance of winning.

  8. Peter December 17, 2012 at 11:50 am | #

    So it would make more sense to leave this on tumblr, but I haven’t got a tumblr to do that with. It might also be too late, seeing as you posted this a few weeks ago, but: if you want to do a different spin on teaching literature next to Machiavelli, I would consider looking into some of the novels of the great adventure writer Raphael Sabatini, especially “Bellarion,” which takes place in Renaissance Italy and which draws directly from Machiavelli’s writings on war as an inspiration.

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