Mr. Dickens Goes to Washington

In this holiday season as in many others, Americans will renew their affection for Charles Dickens, whose iconic 1843 novel A Christmas Carol is a Yuletide favorite among readers and fans of its many film adaptations.

But if America seems to love Dickens, it’s perhaps useful to remember that Dickens really didn’t care that much for America. Or so England’s most celebrated novelist decided a year before A Christmas Carol appeared, when he took an 1842 journey to the United States. His critique of the country continues to resonate today, since some of his complaints seem as fresh as this week’s headlines.

Dickens came prepared to like what he saw. As an enthusiast of political reform, he was drawn to the idea that America was empowering the common folk he lionized in his fiction. Dickens voyaged across the Atlantic, says biographer Claire Tomalin, “to test out the hope that a better society was being established there, free of monarchy, aristocracy and worn-out conventions.”

Shortly after his arrival, though, Dickens was disillusioned. “This is not the Republic I came to see,” he lamented. “This is not the Republic of my imagination.”

He saved some of his harshest words for Washington, D.C., which he depicted as a literal and moral swamp. “Few people would live in Washington, I take it, who were not obliged to reside there,” he concluded, “and the tides of emigration and speculation, those rapid and regardless currents, are little likely to flow at any time towards such dull and sluggish water.”

Charles Dickens, American Notes, 1842, "In The White House"

Dickens’s spirits weren’t lifted by his visit to Congress, where he found lawmakers rife with partisanship and incivility. His description of Capitol Hill’s hangers-on is inimitably Dickensian:

I saw in them, the wheels that move the meanest perversion of virtuous Political Machinery that the worst tools ever wrought. Despicable trickery at elections; under-handed tamperings with public officers; cowardly attacks upon opponents, with scurrilous newspapers for shields, and hired pens for daggers; shameful trucklings to mercenary knaves, whose claim to be considered, is, that every day and week they sow new crops of ruin with their venal types, which are the dragon’s teeth of yore, in everything but sharpness; aidings and abettings of every bad inclination in the popular mind, and artful suppressions of all its good influences: such things as these, and in a word, Dishonest Faction in its most depraved and most unblushing form, stared out from every corner of the crowded hall.

Dickens was no innocent about politics. He’d cut his teeth as a writer covering the British Parliament, and watching his own country’s elections, he said, had never tempted him “to damage my hat by throwing it up into the air in triumph.” Even so, he was incurably romantic, harboring the hope that humanity was capable of compassion and selflessness. Dickens sustained that optimism in the face of his own foibles, which included personal scandals and a sometimes blinding vanity.

If American Notes, Dickens’s account of his trip, showed people as they are, then A Christmas Carol, with its miser converted to a life of virtue, is Dickens’s vision of what we might be.

And even in commenting on American politics, Dickens was not immune to considering the bright side of things. He hopefully explained to his readers that Washington, so bucolic in its origins, was probably selected as the seat of government in part because it would be “remote from mobs: a consideration not to be slighted, even in America.”

On this point, if he visited today, the romantic Mr. Dickens might find another source of disappointment.

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“This is before and this is after. Before and after,” Cory Booker is saying on Snapchat. He’s just met a young fan with an Afro and is drawing the contrast to his own shiny bald head. It’s a routine he will repeat again later in the day and as he crisscrosses the country before the midterms. The New Jersey senator can’t say no to a selfie. If you are standing around looking idle, he’ll probably ask you to take one and upload the photo to his social media accounts for his millions of followers.

Social media are Booker’s bread and butter. They are good advertising, and they are free. But Booker senses that he’s not so much giving something as getting it. Without fail, he asks the first name of everyone he meets and is almost certain to repeat it back at least once. Booker is fond of tweeting out Dale Carnegie quotes and makes good on one of the guru of self-improvement’s famous rules: “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Booker says that his favorite books are by Kurt Vonnegut and James Baldwin, but it’s Carnegie that seems really to have stuck. He follows up most of these encounters with a “Booker bear hug.” “I’m a hugger,” he tells me, as if I hadn’t already seen ample evidence of this fact.

Booker is spending a chilly, late-October day shuttling around New Hampshire stumping for Granite State Democrats. He visits the University of New Hampshire in Durham and a community center in Portsmouth with Chris Pappas and has a town hall at Dartmouth with Annie Kuster. (Both candidates will win easily on November 6.) There are photo-ops aplenty. Instagram posts are generated, tagged, and uploaded. The trip is a social-media success. Booker’s presence is that much better known in New Hampshire.

In the run-up to Election Day, Booker visited 24 states on 39 trips. He went three times to Ohio for Sherrod Brown and three times to Florida for Bill Nelson. He flew to North Dakota to help Heidi Heitkamp and to Nevada to stump for Jacky Rosen (three times). Many of the states he hit are key to the 2020 presidential race, in which Booker says he is only “considering” throwing his hat. But he’s out in these states seeing where his message sticks and where it needs work. His crowds are usually young and diverse—throngs of energetic progressivism—and they swarm him for photos. He loves every minute of it, documenting his travels stop by stop on Instagram. If Booker doesn’t snap a selfie, was he really there?

The creative use of technology is at the core of Booker’s political strategy. After campaign events with Democratic activists in Iowa in October, his staff scanned social media for photos with the boss and printed them out. Booker then signed the images, adding personalized notes, and they were mailed out to the folks who posted the pictures. It’s something Donald Trump is known to do, to mark his approval of someone or something. But it’s hard to imagine any other Democratic presidential hopeful—Julián Castro, for instance, or Elizabeth Warren—having the self-confidence to do it.

And Booker is nothing if not confident. He’s almost vain in the certainty that he can win over an audience, and so certain that he often focuses on telling stories of his falling short. In Hanover, he describes an encounter with a homeless man in Newark. He and his driver, Kevin, are pulling out of a McDonald’s. Booker’s a vegan, but can’t resist the fries. “I’m thinking about putting a bill in to schedule McDonald’s French fries because they’re so addictive,” he says. They see a homeless man rooting through the garbage, and, as Booker tells it,

I go “Hey man, you okay?” And he tries to brush me off. And I go, “Sir, hey man, you alright, you need anything?” And he turns around and looks at me and he says, “I’m hungry.” Now I don’t know what faith anybody is here. For me and my faith, I think it says something in the Bible about if you have two McDonald’s French fries and your neighbor has no McDonald’s French fries. I think it was in the Sermon on the McMount. And so, I know what I have to do. So I open up these French fries and that aroma hits me and I suddenly lose a little bit of my will to give it up and my hand’s shaking and I pull the fries out and I hand him the fries and he pries them out of my hands. I feel somewhat good; he feels happy. He looks good and then we’re about to drive off again, but he looks at me and goes, “Hey man, do you have any socks.” Now, for anybody here that’s worked with the homeless, it’s probably one of the hottest items. But I don’t carry extra socks in my car so I look at the guy and I say, ‘I’m sorry, man, I don’t have any socks,’ and I turn my head thinking that Kevin’s going to drive off. But he doesn’t. He puts the car in park, reaches between the steering wheel, kicks off his shoes, takes off the socks he’s wearing, and hands them out the window. Now I’m the senator who talks about love and all this stuff. I’m three blocks from my house where I have pairs of socks that I have never even worn yet. But in that moment I didn’t have the moral imagination to see how I could live my values and love my neighbor. That’s the rub, guys, that’s where we are in America. That little bit extra. That little bit more.

Booker’s freewheeling approach to campaigning is through stories, and it’s not so much about electoral politics or specific policies as it is about weaving the events of his life into a “moral moment in America.”


Another story Booker likes to tell is that of his parents, newly promoted executives at IBM in the late 1960s, trying to buy a house in New Jersey’s upscale Harrington Park. They were repeatedly turned away by real-estate agents who tried to make it impossible for black families to purchase property in predominantly white neighborhoods. Agents would tell families like the Bookers that the houses they were interested in had already sold. When white couples inquired, the same houses would be for sale. Undeterred, his parents worked with activists and the Fair Housing Council to fight this system of discrimination. They sent a white couple in their stead to the house they wanted to make sure it was still for sale. It was. The white couple then pressed ahead with purchase, but at closing time, Booker’s father showed up with a lawyer to buy the place. After an altercation that included being attacked by a Doberman Pinscher, the Bookers got their house in Harrington Park.

Booker’s mother, Carolyn, tells me that they took up this fight to make it “more difficult for someone to discriminate against other people.” It was, she says, “the right thing to do.” Booker, though, likes to riff on his late father’s joke that with the family (which included his older brother Cary) moving into Harrington Park they became “the four raisins in a tub of sweet vanilla ice cream.” The country’s racial history is an ever-present issue for Booker, one of only three African American senators, but he wants to see his complicated heritage as a source of communion rather than anger. Some of his ancestors were slaves but several were slave owners—and one was a Confederate soldier. A DNA test revealed that he’s 47 percent African, 45 percent European, and 7 percent Native American (which is about 70 times more Native American than Elizabeth Warren).

What Booker likes best is to present himself as just like whomever he is talking to. At Dartmouth, he’s a high achiever, just like his Ivy League-audience: “By the time I’m 18 years old, I’m, like, president of my class, high school All-American football player. That’s how I got into Stanford: 4.0, 1,600—4.0 yards a carry, 1,600 receiving yards.” At Stanford, he played football and got degrees in political science and sociology. He won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. There, the Baptist Booker became active in Jewish life—serving as co-president of the L’Chaim Society and studying Torah. When he enrolled at Yale law school, he founded a Jewish group. Jeffrey Goldberg once wrote that there’s “a high degree of certainty that Booker knows more Torah than” anyone else in the Senate. Booker says that Judaic thought has contributed deeply to his worldview. It helps him communicate in terms of “goodness, kindness, decency to another” and “justice.”

Yiddishisms and Jewish liturgy dot his speeches. At Dartmouth, he mistakes the day of the week. It’s Sunday, but he thinks it’s Saturday. After being corrected, he announces, “Okay, so it is not Shabbat, but I’d like to give a little d’var Torah anyway,” he says referring to the Jewish equivalent of a homily. He launches into a discourse on Abraham’s openness as represented by inviting strangers to his tent. It is one of Booker’s go-to stories. He talks about Abraham’s circumcision (“Don’t think about that for too long,” he tells the Dartmouth crowd) and recites a Hebrew verse from the Book of Isaiah, which he translates: “May my house be a house of prayer for many nations.” It is a compelling and practiced patter—and surely a strong asset in engaging one of the country’s most vocal and generous group of supporters—but it seems to confuse his audience of college progressives. “Is Cory Booker Jewish?” I overhear one undergrad asking another.

He finds his feet with them with stories of his work in Newark. In his last year at Yale law school, Booker took up residence in the struggling city about 30 minutes south of where he grew up. Initially he lived across the street from a housing project called Brick Towers but eventually moved into the project itself. There, he befriended Jimmy Wright, a police officer. Wright says that Booker was always asking questions, “always wanting to know what was going on in Newark. He was sincere.” Wright pegs this around 1997, about the time Booker took a fellowship with the white-shoe Manhattan law firm Skadden, Arps to do pro bono work in Newark.

In 1998, he mounted a successful campaign for the Newark city council. As a councilman, Booker burnished his pragmatist credentials by working with the right-of-center Manhattan Institute on a school-choice program for Newark’s failing schools. “Being outcome-focused started to change my view in favor of options like charter schools, contract schools and, yes, vouchers,” Booker said at the time. And reflecting on his work with the Manhattan Institute today, he claims he always puts helping people above politics: “I’m just a fierce pragmatist.” In 2014, he told the New Yorker that he “became a pariah in Democratic circles for taking on the party orthodoxy on education” but gained “all these Republican donors and donors from outside Newark, many of them motivated because we have an African-American urban Democrat telling the truth about education.”

Newark was Booker’s launching pad, and it’s a place he continuously alludes to on the campaign trail. “I got my B.A. from Stanford,” he likes to say, “but my Ph.D. from the streets of Newark.” In 2002, he ran for mayor against the corrupt machine of four-term incumbent Sharpe James. The campaign is memorialized in the documentary Street Fight, which was nominated for an Academy Award. At Dartmouth, Booker laments its loss to March of the Penguins. “Penguins aren’t cute,” he jokes, “they’re flightless rodents, people! I am a vegan, with the exception of penguin meat.” The audience laughs.

Booker’s mayoral bid brought him into circles important for his political future. He raised more than $2 million, and wealthy Manhattanites vied to have fundraisers for him in high-floor offices and full-floor apartments. Andrew Tisch, the co-chair of Loews, attended one at the Skadden, Arps offices in the Condé Nast building. He saw in Booker “a guy who can write his own ticket for whatever career he chooses. He has chosen politics. He has chosen Newark. He’s genuine, he’s plain-spoken, he’s action-oriented. He’s a real activist politician.” Bill Ackman, the founder of the Pershing Square hedge fund, was another advocate. He wrote Booker a check after chatting with him for an hour and later held a fundraiser for the candidate at his Central Park West apartment.

Sharpe James fought back with a smear campaign. He called Booker a “carpetbagger” and the “faggot white boy,” and attacked his campaign as, variously, a Republican plot, a Jewish plot, or a KKK plot to take over Newark. Booker lost in 2002, but with a stronger infrastructure, he won four years later. He was a hands-on mayor. He shoveled snow for constituents, saved a woman from a burning house—sustaining second-degree burns in the effort—and went on a food-stamp diet to bring attention to poverty in his city. Jimmy Wright, Booker’s policeman friend, became his inspector general and says the new mayor really struggled to balance the city’s budget and had to lay off police and city officials. But he points out Booker’s success in bringing business to the city. “I know Trump says something to the effect that Cory ran Newark into the ground, I really don’t know what he’s looking at or what information he’s referring to. Think about it, Cory came to Newark, and major businesses came to Newark.”

And Booker’s two terms did bring major investment into Newark. Amazon-owned Audible moved to the city, as did Panasonic, and Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million to the city’s schools. Zuckerberg and Booker first met in 2010 at the famous Allen & Company retreat in Sun Valley. With Zuck in his corner, other tech and business industry dollars soon followed; Laurene Powell-Jobs and the Andreessens co-hosted a fundraiser in 2013 when Booker ran for the Senate. Booker, recall, termed Obama’s 2012 attacks on Mitt Romney and Bain Capital “nauseating.”


Booker won the 2013 special election to fill Frank Lautenberg’s Senate seat—and won a full term the next year. In his time on Capitol Hill, he says he has focused on “environmental justice” and “criminal justice reform.” But any name he has made for himself has been in opposing President Trump’s judicial nominations. His performance on the Judiciary Committee during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings drew headlines and boosted his progressive cred. But his acts of “resistance” also had their comic moments. He said he risked expulsion from the Senate for releasing classified documents that he dramatically said showed Kavanaugh as an advocate of racial profiling. He called it his “ ‘I am Spartacus’ moment.” But the documents had already been declassified, and he’d been told so by an attorney from the Bush library. For anyone not looking simply to defeat Kavanaugh by any means, Booker was just grandstanding, and the Spartacus moniker seems likely to stick.

Booker replays his opposition to Kavanaugh for the Dartmouth audience. He calls the nomination “a moment in our history that just made me so angry.” “I sat in those Kavanaugh hearings, and I watched this brave, courageous woman come forward and tell her truth. And another one, named Ramirez. And the world’s greatest deliberative body, the world’s greatest deliberative body says, we’re not even going to go and examine the evidence. . . . We couldn’t even listen,” Booker laments, getting emotional. “I left the Senate floor. I took my vote. I didn’t even stick around for the final vote. I got on the plane, and I flew to Iowa.”

The national spectacle of opposing Kavanaugh also resurrected an incident from Booker’s own past. In 1992, while at Stanford, Booker authored a newspaper column called “So much for stealing second,” which recounted a New Year’s kiss when he was 15. He admitted in the piece that he “slowly reached for her breast” and “after having my hand pushed away once, I reached my ‘mark.’ ” The “groping ended soon,” he wrote, but “next week in school she told me that she was drunk that night and didn’t really know what she was doing.” Booker’s actions, his age, and the situation were all reminiscent of the charges brought against Brett Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford. During the question-and-answer period at Dartmouth, one of the students thanks Booker for having been “wonderful in the Kavanaugh hearings.” “You’ve really placed yourself at the forefront of advocacy for survivors of sexual assault,” he says, but then asks about the old column. Booker ably wriggles out with a long-winded answer. “I’m this kid that grew up in a toxic . . . a culture of toxic masculinity,” he says:

I wrote an article trying to be very provocative as a campus leader to call . . . really a column speaking to men and knowing that as a ball player at Stanford that perhaps I could be a voice that people would listen to. Now what is outrageous to me is that that column could have been written today by someone on this campus. It’s not dated. It’s just not dated.

He ends by praising the questioner, “first of all it sounds like you’re a pretty woke dude so God bless you for that,” and condemning sexual violence. The response is hearty applause and flashing iPhones. Annie Kuster then offers her own thanks for his role in the Kavanaugh hearings. Opposition to the conservative justice supersedes all personal liability.

Yet Booker knows how fleeting such praise can be. In January 2017, his opposition to Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to the post of attorney general—Booker actually testified against Sessions, something that had never before happened in a Senate hearing—had the praise for his “resistance” pouring in. But before the week was out he was being hammered by the very same progressives for opposing a Bernie Sanders bill aimed at lowering prescription drug prices. Vox headlined a piece: “How Cory Booker went from progressive hero to traitor in under 2 days.” Orthodoxy is everything in the new Democratic party.

“Cory Booker is running for president in New Hampshire,” Kuster began her introduction of Booker at Dartmouth. He recoiled playfully, and everyone laughed. But everyone also understood that this was exactly why he was here. It was why the students were here, too. No one came for Kuster. Booker seemed to have no clue who she was until he was introduced to her by his staff. But so many students showed up to the lecture hall to see a future presidential candidate that local Democratic organizers had to turn some away.

Before visiting Dartmouth for the town hall-esque campaign event, he joined Senator Jeanne Shaheen at the University of New Hampshire for a rally. Dartmouth got time for questions; the University of New Hampshire got pizza. But both got dozens and dozens of selfies, Snapchats, and sweaty Booker bear hugs.

And at both events Booker talks about his difficulty with some of the language in our Founding documents: “Native Americans referred to as ‘savages’ in our Declaration of Independence,” he says, recycling a refrain from his 2016 Democratic National Convention speech. He quotes (without attribution) founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson’s line “We have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than poor and innocent” (also recycled from Booker’s 2016 Democratic National Convention, though then with attribution). This line is applauded at University of New Hampshire but gets loud cheers at Dartmouth.

He comes off well, as a moderate who’s trying to navigate the politically turbulent waters of the Democratic party. During the question-and-answer time, the Dartmouth students put Booker through the progressive wringer. “Katie from New York” asks him how he can regulate Facebook when he’s so friendly with Zuckerberg. “José from New Jersey” asks about teacher compensation and “Kos from Maine” presses him about fake news. This is a politically engaged generation hungry not just for authenticity but for purity. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks to them and for them. And so does Cory Booker. But I wonder what this cheering crowd would think about the fundraiser that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump threw for Booker at their apartment on Park Avenue in 2013. Would they be impressed or pissed off by the who’s who of Wall Streeters that he thanks in the back of United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good. Marv McMoore, 25, a former president of College Democrats of America, acknowledges that Booker has been a “progressive champion in the Senate” but says “there are some tough questions he’ll have to answer, should he decide to run. Many progressives have real questions about his record on prescription drug prices and his reflexive support for Wall Street.”

And there are other things he’ll have to answer for, too. There’s the 1992 Stanford Daily column about how “I hated gays.” “While I was highly adroit at maintaining an air of acceptance,” Booker wrote, “I couldn’t betray my feelings. I was disgusted by gays. The thought of two men kissing each other was about as appealing as a frontal lobotomy.” He writes that conversations with Daniel Bao at Stanford’s peer-to-peer counseling group, The Bridge, helped to “move me past tolerance.” And to show just how far he’s come, during Mike Pompeo’s hearings for confirmation as Secretary of State, Booker grilled him: “Do you believe that gay sex is a perversion: yes or no? Yes or no, sir? Do you believe that gay sex is a perversion, because that’s what you said here in one of your speeches. Yes or no: Do you believe gay sex is a perversion?”

Booker, an unwed man nearing 50, is himself sometimes accused of being homosexual. His mother told Oprah that her son is just waiting to find “a woman like her.” But Booker prefers to meet the charge head on with rejoinders like, “So what does it matter if I am?” He’s been in and out of his fair share of heterosexual relationships, including some with prominent women like the poet Cleo Wade, and the charge hardly sticks. Steve Lonegan, the longshot Republican challenger for the Lautenberg seat in 2013, nonetheless tried to make Booker’s marital status a campaign issue. He accused Booker of “acting ambiguous” to attract gay voters and of liking “to go out at 3 o’clock in the morning for a manicure and a pedicure.” Booker didn’t fire back at Lonegan, and he keeps his cool at such trolling today. Were he not to, he would undercut the amiable presentation that he see as his presidential calling card.

Booker claims to see a path forward in “small acts of kindness, decency, and love.” When he hears the “moral vandalism coming from the highest offices in the land” he tells the crowd at Dartmouth, “it’s not time to curse another human being or descend into hateful rhetoric. It’s time to decide that I’m going to be light in this darkness, I’m going to be love, I’m going to be a part of a revival of civic grace in America.” And he tells me, “There are a lot of incredible Americans who supported Donald Trump. . . . I say time and time again we’ve got to stop vilifying each other because we’re in different parties.”

It would be hard to get farther from Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment. But it is also hardly the message the Democratic party is buying. These days it’s the party of Eric Holder’s “when they go low, we kick them” and Michael Avenatti’s mudslinging on cable news. It is a party whose brightest star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, recently joined a sit-in out front of Nancy Pelosi’s office. Booker may preach love and understanding, but the party faithful want a fully credible progressive, one who’s willing to weather the rough and tumble of Trumpian politics and fight fire with fire. Booker’s message seems too much, too soon. When we re-take power, Hillary Clinton neatly summed it up in October, then “civility can start again.”