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.
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.
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.