Senator Cory Booker at the 2023 USGLC Tribute Celebration

December 5, 2023 By USGLC

Full Transcript

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: All right, everybody.

The formal program is just about over, but let’s start the party right now. I am overwhelmed to be here. My mom has this saying. She goes, “Behind every successful child is an astonished parent.” Holy crap. Look at this kid.

I’m standing before an incredible room. I mean, literally, this is America. I was walking around, and I saw human beings from every continent, DNA going back to every continent on the planet Earth, but we are all Americans. I saw folk in this room who pray different, who look different, who come from different geographies, who don’t like the New Jersey Giants.

And yet we are one people, one nation, and striving to do what every generation has tried to do, which is put more indivisible back into this one nation under God.

And so I am thankful to everybody here for the people working for government, State Department folks, people working for various agencies, incredible military leaders who have just blown me away, even just in the conversations I’ve had tonight. I am so overwhelmed by the NGO representatives here and the corporate American leaders who understand  what a privilege it is as a company to not just have a single bottom line but a double, triple, quadruple one as well.

I want to thank friends who helped bring about my presence here, from Margaret Crotty to my Rabbi who literally looks at me and says, “I love you so much. I know you’ll understand if I catch the Acela back to New York.” My Rabbi, Andy Tisch, she promised me you would watch these remarks. And holy crap, Liz, thank you very much for who you are. You are luminescent. You are brilliant. You are amazing. You are wise. And that dress is, tonight, wow.

Our Secretary of State is a remarkable human being who’s lived his entire life in service. The Senator and I watched him in a full combat, all-Senate meeting today. He didn’t duck for cover. He stood in the saddle and did what we do is make sausage, difficult analogy for me as a vegan.

And then to Joni Ernst. Joni has been a real friend. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we come to one accord, but she and I every day work to represent the best of American values, which is, first and foremost, understanding that no matter what, we need each other. We have common dignity. Common values.

And I had all these prepared remarks, but Blinken and Ernst stole them all. So let me make a few quick points, and first, maybe I’ll come about this from my own unique American journey. I am the child of Civil Rights-generation parents who, right here in D.C. and in their time before in their HBCUs, were on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. And what was amazing to me about these parents—and a lot of you all have them—is that they were relentless in making me love this country of which I was coming up. They would say things to me, “Boy, don’t you dare walk around this house like you hit a triple. You were born on third base.”  My father and mother would be like, “You drink deeply from wells of freedom and liberty and opportunity that you did not dig. You eat from banquet tables, lavishly set forth by your ancestors, and that comes with an obligation.”  Even when I finished all this school—Stanford, Oxford, Yale—my dad looks at me and goes, “Boy. You’ve got more degrees than the month of July, but you ain’t hot.”

Life ain’t about the degrees you get. It’s about the service you give, because that is the American way.

We are a nation defined, not by what you get, by what you give. It is of our values, of our ideals. These Civil Rights parents who talked so much about the Civil Rights movement helped me understand that it was not this reductive movement for the rights of Black people. It was an expansive movement that understood that we are interconnected and interwoven. As Martin Luther King said, we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And that this nation is founded on that ideal.

We have a Declaration of Independence, but you read the document, and it speaks over and over again to a declaration of interdependence, to the spiritual understanding that we all may not pray alike,  we all may not look alike, have the same ethnicity or like the same sports teams, but we belong to each other. We need each other. We are interdependent. That’s why the document ended with these profound words of how we make this country work. We must mutually  pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. I worry about that sacred honor, this understanding that this nation will live or die not on the external events of what happens to us but the internal ability for coalitions like this to form. I say this all the time on my side of the aisle,  a bunch of folks gathered together. If everybody in your coalition  agrees with each other on everything, your coalition is not big enough.

Well, my coalition is Team America, and we may not agree, but when we come together, when we see each other, when we bring people off the sidelines and out of the shadows, when we bring hidden figures together with white men, we literally defy gravity and go where humanity has never gone before. And so here we are  with this ethos and understanding of interdependency, but this is the great thing about America. That interdependency does not stop at our borders.

God, if anything, on the negative, we see now with Ebola and with COVID, we see now with climate change, we see now with terrorism that these are crises as darknesses that do not know borders, and they threaten us. But on the positive side, we also know that human innovation, that genius, that prosperity bleeds over borders as well, that arts and artists, that visionaries change the world too.

America always, in every generation, has the choice to witness the future or shape it, to stay at home or lead on Earth. I am so proud to be in a Senate, to be in a government, to be in a community, to be a part of this coalition that knows the urgencies, but also, I’m not a fear-based person. My mama told me, “Don’t be led by fear, led by faith,” not only knows the crises that could come see us but the opportunities too. Look at Africa. By 2050, one out of every four human beings on the planet will be African. It is a city—it is a continent exploding with possibility, and yes, we need to show up with the best of American mercy and the best of American empathy and the best of American assistance. But we need to be involved there for our enlightened self-interest so that we can be a part of Africa’s growth and Africa’s prosperity and Africa’s opportunity.

And investments pay dividends. Investments pay dividends, not only on the negative side. Dollars invested in food security now save multiples of that later in political instability and crisis and displaced people but also showing up and standing up. Leaders across the continent have told me, we don’t want to work with China, we don’t want to work with Russia, we want to go the way that America has gone.

And I’ll tell you—Joni said it. I was there on October 7th. I was running in the Old City, one of my favorite places on the planet Earth, because as the name of the caucus that she and I founded,  I get to run in the Old City and see Christian churches, see the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and see one of my favorite places. I’ve touched and held my father’s hand while we both touched the Kotel. And literally, I got my phone buzzing me on my secret time in the morning to run alone, and it’s my chief of staff here telling me, get back to the hotel because  Israel’s under attack. There are missiles headed towards us.

Eventually, after the horrors, the people I had dinner with before that night lost family members, and eventually when we left over the Allenby Bridge into Jordan, we continued our work. We went the UAE. We went to Bahrain, went back to the United States, came back with a bipartisan delegation  to go to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, back to Israel again.

And it was amazing to me in a time where terrorism is seeking to destroy ideas of coexistence,  to destroy ideas of interdependence, to destroy ideas of peace, I was profoundly moved by Arab leader after Arab leader, Muslim leader after Muslim leader that are saying we now know that we must join together with Israel, join together with our neighbors, join together—as one of the leaders said, we want to be like the EU of the Middle East. And I said that’s not a perfect model, but yes, I like that.

The world is at a crossroads. Will we choose chaos and terror or strength and peace? Will we choose the road that leads into the quicksand of division and divide or get to the high ground that calls us, all of us, to the mountaintop?

This is what’s going on in Ukraine right now. It is a nation that stands at a crossroad that doesn’t just affect their destiny and their existence, but I believe it is democracy’s destiny and democracy’s existence. Ukrainians fight for Ukraine, and Ukrainians, I know, but they also fight for us.

Before this current crisis in 2017, I was in the Donbas region in a bunker with a bunch of Ukrainian soldiers thanking me for a radio that was made in New Jersey that helped them to not be so easily targeted by the Russians. And I could not tell you, as a single Senator, the junior Senator from Jersey, having all of these hardened military men on the front lines, on the line of contact, thanking me over and over again, not just for American innovation, not just for American technology, not just for American generosity in giving this technology to them to help with their defense, but they were also thanking me for the spirit of America, the hope of democracy, the light of peace and justice. That’s how they saw us.

And so I look at my Senate today, look at Congress today, look at America’s decision point here, and I think of my Civil Rights parents. King talked about what we as a people had to repent for in the 1960s, and it’s amazing at a time where lynching was still going on in America, where Blacks and whites and Christians and Jews were dying together like Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner at the hands of hate and bigotry. What did King say we’d have to repent for? He said in today’s day and age,  we will not just have to repent for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people.

This is one of those moments. Global food insecurity,  a crisis of terrorists in the Middle East, democracy  in the brink  in Ukraine, this is our moment. Will we be silent or will we rise up?

I want to end with, what might sound to some of you, a strange story. It was before I became a Senator, when I was a mayor, and my experience with foreign policy issues as mayor of the city of Newark was like parking at the International House of Pancakes. I didn’t know—

I wasn’t quite the  member of the Foreign Relations Committee and a decade-long experienced Senator like I am now. But the spirit of America is not just the American spirit. The spirit of America is the spirit of democracy. Spirit of America is the spirit of the ideals of all peoples, the Hebrew, the Jew. And the Hebrew, it says Bet Tefillah lekol HaAmim, my house be a house of prayer of all nations.

On the continent of Africa, there’s sayings that are tributes to this ideal, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Spider webs—excuse me—Spiders United could tie up a lion. But on the Senate floor, when Joni and I go on a regular basis to vote, right when we stand and face the Parliamentarian, those are the words, three Latin words, e pluribus unum, bringing people together, bringing together community, coalition, around a common spirit that is the American spirit, but it’s the human spirit, the spirit of humanity, the very ideal of love thy neighbor, but now I know that our neighborhood is not just our nation. It is a neighborhood of peoples across the globe. And the best of the American spirit is that enlightened interest that say, yes, we will fight constantly in every generation to make a more perfect union of all Americans, but we also must be a force in the world to create a more perfect union of humanity because we all need each other. America needs the Middle East, needs Africa, needs Europe, needs Asia. We are a part of a community, and when America’s at its best  is why I tell this story.

You see, when I was mayor, Hurricane  Sandy was coming in. I was mayor of my city. We had locked and prepared for it, and now the storm was coming in. It was late at night. And I decided to do one more drive around Newark in my command vehicle to make sure situations were there and prepared for the next day and all the savage challenges we would face. As I was driving, two police officers driving, me in the back seat, our car was literally blowing around as we were hitting key points that I wanted to get eyes on. And then my phone rings. Now, forgive me for saying this. It may seem impolite, but my phone rang, and when I answered it, I believed it was the stupidest question in America, because I answer the phone, and the operator goes, “Hello. This is the White House operator. Will you hold for the President of the United States?” And I’m like, who says no to that for crying out loud?

Now, I’m obviously a Democrat, and I’d be honest with you to say that I miss Obama, and I miss her husband too.

But I miss Obama, Michelle. And this was Michelle’s husband in the middle of the night calling me as a hurricane was coming in. Imagine the President of the United States in the Oval Office checking on a Senator for a midsized American city, and it was this beautiful conversation  affirming to me at a time of crisis—maybe it lasted five minutes, maybe seven at most, but then I hung up the phone with him, took a deep breath, feeling my strength, girding by determination in this storm. But then my phone rang right away, and I answered my cell phone. This time, no operator. And I answer it, and it’s the governor of my state. You all have never heard of him. He’s a guy named Chris Christie.

And as Joni and I know, there is a time and place for partisanship but not in a storm. And he and I, two Jersey boys, are again affirming each other, giving each other strength in the crisis, knowing that this storm will cost lives and billions of dollars of damage. It was a beautiful conversation with a friend.

And then I hang up the phone, and now our car is ascending on a hill in the west ward of my city. And at the top of the hill, all the telephone poles had already come crashing down along with trees. It was a mess of dangerous wire and wood. But through the night and the rain and the wind, I see a floodlight in front of them. Only the light, I could see, waving back and forth. We are slowing down. I would have stopped anyway. But as I get closer, I see a man in a yellow slicker. The car pulls to a stop right in front of them, where my window is there, and I roll down the window. And it’s an elderly Black man. And I look at him, and forgive me, but I raised my voice at him. I yell at him over the rain and the wind and I say, “What are you doing out here?”  And then he looks at me like I just asked him the stupidest question in America. He looks at mem, and he says, “Mayor, Mayor, look at this. It is so  dangerous. I’m standing out here to make sure no one comes along and gets hurt. ”

I had just talked to the President of the United States of America. I just talked to the governor of my state. I’m the mayor of the largest city. But the greatness I saw best exhibited that night  was the patriot standing on a hill in dark of night, in savage storm, holding up a light  for others.

We are Americans, and there is a storm raging right now. It is a storm raging in Europe. It is a storm raging in the Middle East and Africa. It is a crisis of monumental proportions, and the question is, where do we stand in this storm? Well, if we honor our ancestors and honor the generations yet unborn, let us take that hill again. Let us raise the torch of our nation, our ideals, and our values, and let us drive out the darkness and the night and bring on a new and better tomorrow. If we do that, we will not only be great Americans, but we will show once and for all the truth of our nation. Despite war and terror, we’ll go marching on. Thank you.