Cory Booker and the Difficulty of Heroes

It was one of those split-seconds that lasts an eternity. To his back there was nothing but flame, and in front there was nothing but the choking blackness of smoke. He was confronted by stark reality: this might be it.

It wasn’t, of course, and in saving his neighbor from a house fire, Mayor Cory Booker added one more item to his ridiculous list of superhuman acts. It’s a list that includes chasing muggers, patrolling city streets, organizing pickup basketball games in high crime areas, and mentoring inner city kids… all while in office as the mayor of Newark, New Jersey. If a political hero can be found amid the cynicism and slimy dealings of American politics, Cory Booker is it.

In fact, Booker’s popularity and growing legend have somehow raised his status to that rarefied air formerly occupied only by the great Chuck Norris.

Billy Joel didn’t start the fire. But Cory Booker put it out. —Jim Geraghty

Cory Booker knows where to find Carmen Sandiego. —Senvara

Die Hard was initially entitled “Cory Booker’s Thursday”. —Jesse Taylor

After the incident, Smoke was treated for Cory Booker exposure. —Zandar

Cory Booker goes into Freddy Kreuger’s dreams and fixes Elm Street’s potholes. —Brian Braiker

When Chuck Norris has nightmares, Cory Booker turns on the light & sits with him until he falls back asleep. —Miles Grant

The tweets display a certain level of sarcastic bemusement, but make no mistake about it: Cory Booker has injected hope into the politics of trying to reverse urban decay (an area more needy of hope right now than almost any other) and into politics generally. By calling him a hero, we are really talking about hope: The hope that this larger-than-life and seemingly too-good-to-be-true figure is everything he says he is, the hope that his love of the city will somehow change the fortunes of Newark, and the hope that the rise of Cory Booker will inspire more self-sacrificing and incorruptible politicians like him across America.

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Humanity longs for heroes. I know this because heroes are my weakness. I constantly seek leaders of wisdom, competence, and passion to inspire and motivate me. Cory Booker is just one of a long list of people for whom my admiration falls just short (hopefully) of idolatry. A shortened list might include Booker, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Bobby Jindal, C. S. Lewis, Jeremiah Burroughs, A. W. Tozer, Joshua Chamberlain, David Petraeus, and Eric Liddell. A more personal list might include Graham Martin, Bruce Black, Mike Sacco, Christopher Smith, Mike Maggard, and Darin Anderson. At the top of both lists is my father.

Chief among the qualities of the hero is calm in the heat of battle. Cory Booker possesses this quality in spades. To know what to do, and when, and why, is extremely difficult. To process and express those things in the moment of crisis is even more difficult, and those who do it well separate themselves from the rest of us. The quarterback hitting the right target, the captain issuing an emergency command, the executive negotiating a deal, the fireman (or mayor!) rushing into a burning building; all these seem able to slow time to a crawl while they carefully make the best decision.

Growing up, I couldn’t get over my dad’s complete control of his environment. When he played games he had never seen, he mastered them in a couple tries. When his child was injured or his biking partner crashed his bike, he was dead calm while finding the fastest way to deal with it. When people told him he wouldn’t be able to negotiate the price of an expensive rug in Turkey, he got it for 40% off. It seemed nothing could phase him or prevent his mastery of a situation.

Of course, even that sort of calm would be useless without skills to back it up, and so another clear element of the hero is competence. Cory Booker is amazing, but he is no mere accident. His work ethic has distinguished him throughout his life. He poured tremendous time and energy into his education at Stanford, Oxford, Yale, and again in learning the needs and qualities of Newark. He asks good questions, prepares carefully, and pays close attention to the details that affect his job.

My father is that way too. After receiving high grades at an excellent college, he studied for and passed his CPA exam without going to a master’s program. Without asking for promotions, he rapidly climbed the career ladder. Relatively late in life, despite an extremely successful business career, he decided to attend seminary. In typical fashion, he studied hard, received near perfect scores, and graduated with highest honors and the faculty theology award.

My father’s worldly success could have been embittering to me had he not lived with altruism and integrity, but the true hero has those things as well. My dad was a real dad in every sense. He was home consistently, and in fact, it wasn’t until later in life that I learned he likely sacrificed a lot of money to make that happen. He played with his kids, coached our sports teams, and took us on vacations. He was an elder at our church for 18 years. And when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, he nursed her every step of the way until she passed.

When Cory Booker established himself in Newark, he lived in the poorest and most crime-ridden of areas… a practice he continues to this day. When President Obama offered him a position in his administration, Booker turned it down to stay focused on Newark. Though his enemies love to paint him as a child of privilege, Booker has never given anyone opportunity to say he is corrupt or solely out for himself.

These qualities stand out, because too often our heroes fail us in this area. We place our hopes in their hands and live vicariously through their actions as if our support and adoration were key to their success. But when they fall, we are devastated; not because they are less competent, but because their successes are robbed of meaning when done for the purpose of self-promotion. History and pop culture are littered with characters of great competence whose lack of integrity killed any chance they had at being called heroic; think of names like Richard Nixon, Jerry Sandusky, Ted Haggard, or Bobby Petrino.
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Heroism is a beautiful thing, but as I studied it I realized something else: Heroism is usually the result of cultivation and of circumstance. Consistently successful people are good at picking their battles, their friends and enemies, their industries, and the way they are seen by others. And yet they are also subject to circumstance. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “Time and chance happeneth to them all.” When you study the lives of your heroes, you see that they take great interest in creating the right conditions for success, and circumstances worked out well for them. But I imagine there are just as many people who seem not to be heroes, because despite their careful attention to their personal PR, life got the better of them.

Cory Booker, by all accounts, is a heroic figure. I cannot recommend the documentaries about him (Street Fight and the Brick City series) highly enough. But Mayor Booker knows that his success isn’t merely about his hard work, it is also about the timing of his life, the prior conditions of the city he governs, and the people who support him. Further, much of his “success,” is a matter of communication. Through Twitter and documentaries and press releases and speeches and a thousand other things, he retells his story in a way that inspires us to put our faith in his qualities and in his vision.

This is where the story gets personal. My entire life I have been extremely jealous of my dad… not that I want him to have less, but that I wish I were more like him. I wish I had his drive, his intelligence, and his ability to master his circumstances. This desire drove me to distraction and caused me to ignore my own qualities because I didn’t see how those qualities could help me become more like my dad.

But my dad is a hero in every sense, and I am not. He has both the gifts and the hard work, but he also has the ability to carefully pick and choose the battles that give him the best chance to succeed, and he has been blessed by God with excellent opportunities to make use of the gifts given to him. I, on the other hand, am quite poor at choosing my battles, and my misconceptions about myself have led me to misapply whatever gifts I have.

Realizing this fact has exposed a huge hole in my theology… I simply don’t trust that a sovereign God knows WHO should be given certain things and WHY that person should be given those things. He is the Invisible Hand guiding the circumstances that exalt certain people and bring others low. And I am too prideful and selfish to see that he has blessed me with riches far beyond what most people in the course of history have had at their disposal. Instead I wish I were someone else.

Contentment is easy to talk about, but I constantly fail at practicing it. I look at the heroes in the culture around me, and I think I should be them. I want people to be inspired in their lives by my actions, and I want them to have hope because they see my sincere desire to help others. I want to be Cory Booker, and I want to be my father. But if I am ever to grow in wisdom, I need to realize that heroes have been given their place by God, and in the same way he has given me mine. I will never be Cory Booker, and I will never be my father. But I can be faithful. And that is what God has been asking of me all along.

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • Chad Howard

    This motivates me. Thank you.

  • Roseshel O’Rourke

    But, you ARE a hero. You are a dad and a husband, I see in your profile. To me, a Dad who stays with his family and a husband who stays with his wife, IS a hero…probably more than you know. For a girl who grew up in a divorced family with a single mom, and later went through a divorce herself, I look at someone like yourself who STAYS as a hero. God bless you. Thank you for the inspiring story.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Thanks, Roseshel!

    It’s probably the case that many of us struggle in various ways with the disconnect between what we expect of ourselves and what the results actually turned out to be; and it is probably also the case that we are quite poor at measuring ourselves.

    I think for me, the challenge has always been about trying to live up to my personalized definition of “hero” and then despairing when I see myself fall short. That’s when the mistake in my understanding of God is most apparent.

    May God grant all of us grace to see ourselves as he sees us, as heroic creatures that are somehow also needy and entirely dependent on Him!

  • Roseshel O’Rourke

    I agree, Ben. For me, understanding grace is hard. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that God loves me for no other reason than the fact that He created me, with or without my past sins and those I work hard not to fall into now. His grace is beyond human comprehension. If God thinks we are that special and even lovable and worth all the effort of putting his Son through life, then death on the cross and then resurrection, then why can’t we believe we are all pretty special? I think you hit the nail on the head — as long as we know that we are these things because of HIM, we can remain humble when we realize the source. As soon as our heros lose site of that, pride and greed take over and they quickly fall. I came across your site because I was looking up information on Cory Booker. So now I can add Ben Bartlett to the hero list, too. :) (just a side note…I shared this on my Facebook because I was looking for real-life heros OTHER than my boyfriend and my dad. My boyfriend is very humble and gets a bit embarrassed when I tell people how wonderful he is. So as a joke, I posted outrageous, silly things about him. Then, I followed it up with your article and info. on Mayor Booker so he can see that it isn’t just him I admire, but anyone who truly lives out their faith and is more like Jesus). But lucky for me, the godly man I admire seems to like me, too. :))) So, we try to glorify God together. Thanks for using your writing talent and sharing it with the rest of us. God bless you and yours! <3


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