Far away from the main stage in Philadelphia, where mega-watt political stars were delivering their carefully-polished addresses last week, I witnessed perhaps the best speech of my life by Senator Cory Booker.
My friend Carol and I had decided to drop into the morning’s Youth Council session, where Senator Booker appeared as a surprise addition.
I was delighted because his rousing address during the Monday night Convention had touched upon some similar themes as my recent book Sacred America, Sacred World.
And a CNN morning clip of him sincerely responding with “I love you” to Donald Trump’s trolling of his speech was one of the real gifts of the week’s media.
So I was primed for something wonderful, but what we received was transcendent.
Senator Booker started his address to the room of youth leaders in a goofy and off-the cuff way, fascinated by the rapid translation of his words onto an overhead screen. He tested the software with words like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and phrases such as, “how much wood would a woodchuck chuck?” We all laughed at his spontaneity.
But as he launched into an unscripted speech, Senator Booker shifted into another mode, letting us know he was going to talk about some of his most shameful moments as a political leader, giving us a window into the real heartbreak of leadership.
His talk focused on how he had been living in a high-rise public housing project with intermittent hot water, mold, and third-world conditions, simply to understand the life of those who had no other choices. As a Stanford graduate and Rhodes scholar, he could clearly have escaped to tonier neighborhoods but he chose to live there to remind him whom he is serving.
In this housing project, he became a friend and mentor to various teens that frequented the lobby, including one named Hassan Washington, who lived four floors below him.
One day, Senator Booker came home and smelled marijuana smoke amongst the group. He implored them to not take the risk and start down that path, for he knew that they simply didn’t have the margin for error of white teens. Even though whites and blacks use drugs at parallel rates, the bias in the criminal justice system could destroy their lives rapidly with a single arrest.
While he knew these teens needed more active mentorship, he nonetheless got caught up in running for mayor, with ambitions for the “big job” to really make a difference. He won the race and moved on to tackle the issues in the city that he felt could really change the lives of so many. But as the demands escalated, he neglected to keep track of and mentor the teens.
Eventually he found out that Hassan Washington had been killed. And he knew in his heart that if he had kept up his mentorship, Hassan would not have become another “boy in a box.”
Senator Booker painted us a vivid picture of going into the sweaty, packed basement where Hassan’s funeral was being held. As his guilt and grief mounted, he simply could not stay in the room. He was terrified to face the pain.
He ran back to his mayor’s office where he locked the door and wept long and hard. He could not face that a young adult he felt personal responsibility for was dead and he knew he could have prevented it.
Later, he was still broken open and crossing a schoolyard when an elderly women beckoned him to her arms. Even though he is 6-foot-3, Senator Booker crawled into her arms and sobbed like a baby. She murmured into his ear while stroking him, saying “Stay faithful, stay faithful.”
Those two words have stuck with him for years.
It was moving to hear him share the vivid details of just how deeply this story hurt him and the way it forced him to face his own failings and the side impacts of his ambition.
Ultimately, though, he turned it all into a parable on failure and courage and how to lead through hard times. The truth was that he had to face the loss and get back up and continue working for the betterment of the community.
He said, “Courage is sometimes just putting one foot in front of the other.”
I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room.
He concluded by saying, “We are not here for a Party. We are here for a purpose. We have to stay faithful by showing up to do the work. To serve and to give.”
The room erupted in an ovation.
By telling his most “shameful” moments in such a raw, broken and humbled way, he left an indelible mark on a new generation, one that sees that real political courage doesn’t come from just being strong, competent and powerful.
It also means being willing to be cracked open, vulnerable and raw.
In that session, Senator Booker revealed another kind of power that is deeper than the power that propelled him into all-star status as a football player at Stanford or the intelligence that led him into the upper echelons of academia as a Rhodes scholar.
It is a spiritual power that comes from daring to open your heart and use that as the fuel to change the world.
His speech was a pure communication of love, something he spoke about during Monday’s plenary where he urged us to put love at the center of our politics.
On the way out, Senator Booker had to hustle to his next event but was thronged down the long hallway with people who wanted to take a picture with him. One after another, people grabbed a selfie-on-the-go to treasure this moment. He patiently beamed love to every single person despite his manager hustling him along.
The next day, I was blessed to also see Senator Booker for an electrifying short address to the LGBT caucus that moved the crowd to their feet again.
He is clearly the real deal and shows us that a different kind of political leadership is possible. He marries the soul force of Martin Luther King with the savvy of a political leader, the eloquence of a preacher with the transparency of a best friend.
He has chosen to continue to live in the most economically depressed and socially oppressed parts of our society and to let their hardships continue to break him open into deeper love and more committed service.
For me, witnessing this remarkable political leader in action was the highlight of my week.
May we all take inspiration from him to forge a new path in which the heart is in the center of our politics and at the core of a new kind of leadership.