WASHINGTON—The past several days of Newark Mayor Cory Booker's life have been painfully amusing to watch.
Painful because Booker, a rising Democratic star, is such a good guy. Amusing, because rarely are Americans treated to such premier seats in the political theater of truth and consequence.
That is, tell the truth and beware the consequences.
Booker has gained much unwelcome attention from his own political party, while being nearly sanctified by Republicans, for the singular offense of telling the truth.
And then untelling the truth.
And then ... stay tuned.
To know Booker is to like him. He's one of those political figures whose persona telegraphs "honest broker." Educated at Stanford, Oxford and Yale Law School, he's also a popular mayor in one of America's toughest, most challenged cities. Open-minded and solution-oriented, he's what we hope for in public officials. Or say we do.
But honesty is not always a rewarding trait in politics, especially during high-stakes election years, as Booker promptly learned when he recently spoke from the heart on "Meet the Press." He said that attacks on Bain Capital, where Mitt Romney made a fortune, were "nauseating" to him, as were similar attacks from the right to resurrect the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
"I have to just say from a very personal level, I'm not about to sit here and indict private equity. To me, it's just this—we're getting to a ridiculous point in America, especially that I know. I live in a state where pension funds, unions and other people are investing in companies like Bain Capital. If you look at the totality of Bain Capital's record, it ain't—they've done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses."
While regular folks shielded their eyes from the blinding light of Truth, political operatives left and right shifted into warp speed. Republicans produced an insta-ad capitalizing on Booker's remarks—See? Even Democrats dislike the president's attack on Bain—while their counterparts on the left began launching correctives.
David Axelrod promptly made the rounds and explained to talk show hosts what Booker really meant. (As though Americans can't understand what they plainly hear.) Others pointed out Booker's own cozy relationship with equity capital political donors. And Booker, obviously scrambling to recapture favor with the Obama campaign, posted a YouTube video before another sun had set.
What he "really" meant: "Let me be clear. Mitt Romney has made his business record a centerpiece of his campaign," Booker says in the video. "He's talked about himself as a job creator. And therefore it is reasonable—and in fact I encourage it—for the Obama campaign to examine that record and to discuss it. I have no problem with that."
Commentators have all cast their ballots as to whether Booker should have corrected himself. Almost unanimously, the answer was no.
Obviously, if you're a surrogate for the president, as Booker described himself on "Meet the Press," your job is to regurgitate talking points. No wandering around the reservation, no independent thinking, certainly no personal confessions. You absolutely do not declare the centerpiece of the president's attack on his opponent to be "nauseating."
Unless it is. And unless it's true. For you, you know when you're alone with your conscience. Or having lunch with your private equity donors, as the case may be. But definitely not while on TV!
On Rachel Maddow's show, Booker dug a little deeper: "Obviously, I did things in the 'Meet the Press' interview, as I told you, that did not land the points that I was trying to make. And in some ways, you know, frustratingly, I think I conflated the attacks that the Republicans were making with Jeremiah Wright with some of the attacks on the left. And those can't even be equated."
Worse, from the party perspective, Booker described himself as an "independent Democrat." Oops.
We may like independents in theory, but surrogates don't get to be independent. You gotta pick one or the other. This has been the immediate lesson for Cory Booker. But the broader lesson for the public is that there's no space in our body politic for an independent mind, even though more Americans describe themselves as independent than either Democrat or Republican.
Thinking outside the box may solve problems in the real world. But in the political realm, creative noodling will get you cast into the outer darkness. No matter which way you lean, The Machinery requires cogs, not cognizance.
Kathleen Parker's email address is email@example.com. (c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group.