How ‘Star Trek’ Pushed Cory Booker to Make It So

NEWARK — In the month before officially becoming a presidential candidate, Senator Cory Booker spent his nights rewatching all 172 episodes of “Star Trek: Voyager.”

This is not a coincidence.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek,” was an idealist. His vision for the future, as conveyed in the franchise’s many iterations, was a progressive utopia where racism and poverty were mostly eradicated in favor of a thirst for learning.

From there, you can draw a straight line to Mr. Booker’s 2020 presidential campaign which he has tried to define in terms of relentless optimism and an upbeat appeal to healing the nation’s divisions. Mr. Booker, 50, has been obsessed with “Star Trek” since a young age. His father, Cary Booker, one of the first black executives at IBM, introduced him to the original series after it had already gone off the air.

At his home in Newark recently, Mr. Booker gleefully displayed some of his memorabilia, including a set of “Star Trek” PEZ dispensers and the “Star Trek Encyclopedia” from his bookcase. There is more in his Senate office. Take it from a Trekkie: That’s not casual fandom. Recently, Mr. Booker attended San Diego Comic-Con, and a picture of him beaming while flashing the Vulcan salute went viral. His girlfriend, the actress Rosario Dawson, also adores the franchise.

Mr. Booker discussed his fandom, the political leanings of certain Star Trek captains and how the show has influenced his politics. The conversation has been condensed and edited.

We only have a handful of subscribers from the Klingon home world, so we’re going to have to keep most of this in English.

[Laughter] O.K.

What did your father see in Trek?

It was hope.

“Star Trek” was more than just an escape. It was a portal to say the future is going to be different. It’s incredibly hopeful and a belief that we’re going to get beyond a lot of these lines. We’re going to unite as humanity. It’ll be a place where your virtue guides you, the highest of human aspirations. I think there’s something about that he found really powerful.

Do you think you took it in differently as a person of color?

I took it in through that lens because I really believe that was the lens that compelled my father. My dad loved UFOs. When that television series “Project Blue Book” came out, that was another thing. He was fascinated by the universe and excited about it.

This idea that we as humans, where we are right now, are literally just not even at the foothills yet of the mountains of discovery that are out there. He was a man of infinite hope. “Star Trek” gave him that. It showed him that we are going to overcome so much of the stuff that rips at humanity now.

This I’ve never talked about. I had — they’re not dolls, they’re action figures. I had every “Star Trek” action figure you can imagine.

You collected them?

You say collected them. Adults collect. Kids play. So for me, I played with them. My brother and I, as little kids, created whole universes of “Star Trek” on our own. This isn’t fan fiction. This is two young kids whose father was really excited about “Star Trek.” I still remember, I had multiple Spock and Kirk action figures, and I would dress them differently so they would be different characters. This is me as a young, young kid. First grade, second grade. My brother and I would create worlds, forts and spaceships.

Your campaign, in many ways, is Gene Roddenberry’s ideal vision. It’s very optimistic. I look at the world we live in today. And it’s hard for me to see how we end up in the utopia Roddenberry envisioned hundreds of years from now. Do you find yourself struggling with that?

My parents were unflinching in telling my brother and I about the ugliness in the world. We would hear really rough stories of racism and bigotry. It’s almost as if my parents wanted my brother and I to have no illusions about how cruel the world could be. Yet, it was always told with an antidote to that, which was how good and virtuous the world is as well. Growing up with a story of, “This house you’re living in, people tried to stop you from being in this incredible home because of the color of your skin. But guess what? There were do-gooders that came and foiled that attempt.”

You’ve said several times that you take after Picard.

He’s my favorite captain by far.

Why are you so drawn to him over the other captains?

Besides his great haircut, I do love how profoundly intellectual he is and how reasoned and thoughtful. I was just rewatching the episode with him and Wesley Crusher, basically the one where Wesley is leaving and they get trapped and Picard is injured [Season 4’s “Final Mission]. He is incredibly affectionate toward him in a very restrained, British way. You could still see that he is still a nurturing leader. There’s something about his style that I’ve just found compelling.

Is there a character in “Star Trek” that reminds you of Trump?

[Pause] Wow. I mean, the first thing that popped in my mind, which I’d have to think about — just the Ferengi in general.

Quark? [The Ferengi bartender, mostly seen on the show “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Ferengis are known for the relentless pursuit of profit over all else.]

I would definitely not say Quark because there was something about him — he showed some decency and kindness in many episodes.

When you ask me about Trump, what comes more to mind, is just this idea that he is a throwback to a lot of the things that my father would say our species has got to evolve out of.

I’m going to read you a quote from Ted Cruz from when he ran for president in 2015. “I think it is quite likely that Kirk is a Republican and Picard is a Democrat.” Do you agree?

Kirk is from Iowa. It’s so hard for me to answer that question because in the same way, if you look back 50 years ago, blacks were Republicans. So I’m trying to think if you want to look at the classical ideas of the party. I really think where the Republican Party has jolted, that it is now the party of Trump, I definitely do not think either of them would be that.

Your father passed away in 2013. If he was here right now, what’s the one episode you would watch with him?

There’s an episode of “The Next Generation,” [a show] he wasn’t as crazy about as I was. But one of my favorite episodes is a strange one because it’s not really a typical “Star Trek” episode. Season 5, Episode 25, “The Inner Light.” This really spoke to me. When I watched this, I was so one-dimensional in my life and so driven on this pathway. This came out before I became a professional.

Over the years, it spoke to me more and more. I was living this intense life: captain of a city [Mr. Booker was mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013] and didn’t have a family life. “The Inner Light” is this moment where Picard gets some ship that sends a beam out and, literally, Picard is transported to another world and lives 40 years. He has a beautiful family and struggles and learns an instrument. It’s just this amazing whole life. And then he wakes up on the bridge. And he has lost all of that.

The reason why the probe was doing it was because a civilization was ending and they wanted people to not lose that civilization. He didn’t lose 40 years of his life, but he lived an entire lifetime.

The episode really broke me up. For my dad, who lived this incredible life, in the end, he fell into dementia. I think he started to lose perspective on the achievements of his life. In many ways, I was taught by him that we think life is about the big battle. The big election. The big win. But really, I think what my dad taught me — but I felt like he was losing perspective in the end — was that really, life is about the small moments. The every day acts of human kindness.

There’s something beautiful about that episode that just talked about a life well lived.

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