Did Cory Booker Create an Imaginary Friend?

Newark Mayor Corey Booker is being scrutinized for stump speeches he gave referring to an acquaintance named “T-Bone.”

Photo by Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images

National Review came out with a tantalizing story Thursday claiming Cory Booker fabricated a character named “T-Bone” in countless stump speeches and interviews. Between 2001 and 2007, Booker told T-Bone’s story to multiple news outlets: A Newark drug lord, T-Bone once threatened to “put a cap in [Booker’s] ass.” From the story:

The T-Bone tale never sat right with Rutgers University history professor Clement Price, a Booker supporter who tells National Review Online he found the mayor’s story offensive because it “pandered to a stereotype of inner-city black men.” T-Bone, Price says, “is a southern-inflected name. You would expect to run into something or somebody named T-Bone in Memphis, not Newark.”

Price considers himself a mentor and friend to Booker and says Booker conceded to him in 2008 that T-Bone was a “composite” of several people he’d met while living in Newark. The professor describes a “tough conversation” in which he told Booker “that I disapproved of his inventing such a person.” “If you’re going to create a composite of a man along High Street,” he says he asked Booker, “why don’t you make it W. E. B. DuBois?” From Booker, he says, “There was no pushback. He agreed that was a mistake.” Since then, references to T-Bone have been conspicuously absent from Booker’s speeches.

Speaking at Yale Law school in 2007, Booker told a story about T-Bone admitting to Booker that he had a warrant out for his arrest [emphasis mine]:

I found myself in this awkward position of trying to counsel this guy to turn himself in, to actually go to prison, because I knew he would. He looks at me hard and begins to tell me about his life story. And some of what shocked me and silenced me is that he told me the exact same life story, up until the age of 12 or 13, as my father. Exactly the same. Both of them were born in extreme poverty, both of them were born to a single mother who could not take care of them. Both of them were taken in by their grandmothers, but they were both too rambunctious for their grandmothers to handle, and by the age of 10 they were turned out onto the streets.

The rest of the story is worth a read. If true, this is a uniquely exaggerated case of a candidate finessing his background story for up-by-the-bootstraps cred. Jason Horowitz underscored that self-manufactured hardship in his recent profile of Booker:

Skeptics look at his life story — suburbs, Stanford/Oxford Rhodes scholar/Yale Law, followed by his choice to live in crime-ridden housing projects and to conduct hunger strikes on drug corners — and see a made-for-TV candidate with an eye on the Oval Office.

Still, judging by the polls, even a made-up drug dealer is unlikely to stop Booker from steamrolling Steve Lonegan in the general.

Update: Booker campaign spokesman Kevin Griffis responded to me and pointed out Booker’s Esquire interview from 2008 as evidence that T-Bone is a real person—his name just isn’t actually “T-Bone”:

T-Bone’s actual earthly existence has been fodder for public debate,  leading Booker to admit that although T-Bone’s corporeal being is “1,000 percent real,” he’s an “archetype” of an aspect of Newark’s woe whose actual nom de crack may not actually be T-Bone. Which pisses off a historian like Clement Price.

“The mayor addressed it then,” Griffis says. “This is a partisan attempt to revive a fake controversy from five years ago and make it a 2013 fake controversy.”