Cory Booker's Twitter Talk at SXSW Shows He's Really an Old-School Pol

The Newark mayor argued social media can be transformational for politicians -- even as he showed his traditional campaigning chops.

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Timothy Bella

AUSTIN, Texas -- We learned a few things about Cory Booker during his appearance at the massive South by Southwest Interactive conference here on Sunday:

  • If Booker ever has a son or a daughter, he'll name his kid "Jordan," which is the Newark, New Jersey, mayor's "favorite name of all time."
  • He was flooded with letters from civil libertarians saying that he infringed on Conan O'Brien's civil rights when he mockingly banned the "Conan" host from Newark International Airport in 2010.
  • He publicly envies President Obama's hair and skinny figure. "He really needs to eat some ice cream," Booker said. "I keep sending Ben & Jerry's to the White House, but the Secret Service stops it."

It was a tour de force of old-school charismatic politics -- the ability to get in front of a crowd of people and wow them with personal magnetism. Booker had hundreds of people inside the Long Center in the palm of his hand, leaning in, listening intently to every word, laughing at every joke. Many of them were also tweeting, which was encouraged, or shooting photos and video with smartphones. As well-received as Booker's Twitter presence is for its personal touch, the live version might be better. Booker stayed around to shake hands and take pictures long after the talk, offering to first shake hands with anyone named Jordan.

There's an irony to the mastery of this backslapping style for a man whose national notoriety stems from his social-media outreach and responsiveness to constituents on Twitter (as well as for his heroic exploits in real life). Adding to the irony, Booker used his appearance to argue for the primacy of social-media in politics today.

"The tools of our parents worked so well with media," Booker said. "They mastered it and organized. We're not mastering those tools. We have better tools than they had. We can create values in places that our parents couldn't even imagine."

But he wouldn't go so far during his talk, moderated by Steve Snyder of Time, to officially declare his entrance into New Jersey's U.S. Senate race. His presumed intention to run is perhaps the worst-kept secret in politics -- even the official page for the panel asked how Booker's tweeting would evolve "as a candidate for the Senate." 

"Go to CoryBooker.com, register your email, and you'll find out the information in real time," Booker said with a smile and laugh.

Still, his SXSW debut had all the makings (and soundbites) of a man who intends to continue his meteoric rise. The session felt like a formal reintroduction for the mayor, just two months after he filed papers to form a campaign committee for the likely Senate run. (Booker jokingly recanted a playful insult at a man wearing a Boston Red Sox hat when he discovered the man is a Garden State resident and therefore a potential voter. "I take back that insult," Booker said.)

The 70-minute talk was a crash course on Booker, balancing his more light-hearted interests -- characteristically, he was answering tweets backstage about Star Trek before the event -- with more serious discussion of contemporary politics. The lack of a personal touch breeds cyncism, he worries.

"What's happening is getting very, very dangerous, in my opinion, for how politics function," he said. "We're losing truth. We're losing authenticity. We are losing the soul of our politics." Booker added: "If we continue with the zero sum-gain politics, then as a country we're not going to be able to deal with the complicated problems that are still undermining the robust truth of what this democracy could be."

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Timothy Bella is a journalist living in New York City.

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