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02 Oct 2009 01:24 pm

Booker: Too Controversial for Washington?

Cory Booker's public, comic feud with Conan O'Brien continued today.  Booker is starting a program to offer better health care to Newark's residents, and O'Brien joked last week that "the health care program would consist of a bus ticket out of Newark." Booker subsequently made a YouTube video -- one that's gotten 140,000 hits, he said today -- putting O'Brien on the no-fly list for Newark International Airport, and ending with the statement, "Try JFK, buddy."  

O'Brien soon offered a retort, saying that if he wanted to get to Newark, he could just jump in any sewer, since they all lead there.  And today, after being asked about the feud by MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell, his interviewer, Booker jabbed back again, saying he thinks Conan's remarks may have stemmed from personal jealousy -- "I've got no-care hair," Booker said, while O'Brien's hair must take hours to style.  He told the audience that he'd recently heard from President Obama, who'd invited him and O'Brien to come to the White House and "have a beer."

Booker's in a good spot to have some fun: Newark's reputation couldn't have been lower at the time that he was elected mayor, in 2006.  Under his stewardship, crime has fallen dramatically and some budget discipline has been restored.  Many handicaps remain, but the city is in a very different situation than, say, Detroit or Buffalo.  It's near the heart of the New York mega-region, and has extremely good rail connections into Manhattan and out into the New Jersey suburbs -- in the long run, it has high upside.

Booker views Newark as a laboratory for policy experiments, he told O'Donnell, and he hopes it will be an "incubator for national change" on issues ranging for prisons to health care to education. The mayor has looked to partner aggressively with venture philanthropists to try many new approaches to solve the city's problems, measure the results, and expand what works.  On health care and other issues, he said, "We don't have time to wait for a national solution; we've got to find solutions now."  O'Donnell pressed him on how his new health care initiative -- aimed at expanding access to prescription drugs and preventive care -- could serve as a model for larger policies, since it's funded in part by the Heinz foundations, and Booker largely elided the question.

Booker's skill as a speaker has been widely noted.  He is funny and self-deprecating, and talks skillfully and specifically about policy issues while still hitting big themes, in particular the need to find areas of national consensus.  Here's his comment on how we might approach gun control, for instance. 

The discussion today ranged frequently into national issues, and O'Donnell asked Booker about his national ambitions.  Would he consider a cabinet post?  He joked that he'd become too controversial to pass a White House screening.

Ever?  "I can't tell you what's going to happen 10-15-20 years from now," he said.

Watch the full video of this session:


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