When he was in high school, Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat and possible White House contender, groped his classmate as they kissed. He reached for her breast, and when she swatted his hand away, he made another attempt.
The incident resurfaced this week as Booker joined calls for an FBI investigation into the allegation of high-school-era sexual assault leveled by Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court.
But the skeleton in Booker's closet seized on by outlets such as Fox News and the Daily Caller wasn't really in his closet. The senator himself chose years ago to air the issue, marking a notable contrast with instances in which accusations of impropriety burst forth as a result of media investigation or opposition research.
In 1992, Booker, then a student at Stanford University, wrote a column for his college newspaper in which he recounted the groping and used his own behavior to underscore, in starkly personal terms, how his views had shifted on gender and sexual respect. He credited his work as a peer counselor with the transformation.
"After having my hand pushed away once, I reached my 'mark,'" he wrote. "Our groping ended soon and while no 'relationship' ensued, a friendship did. You see, the next week in school she told me that she was drunk that night and didn't really know what she was doing."
"Senator Booker's Stanford Daily column has been the focus of disingenuous right-wing attacks that have circulated online and in partisan outlets for the past five years," a spokeswoman for Booker said in an email. "These attacks ring hollow to anyone who reads the entirety of the column, which is in fact a direct criticism of a culture that encourages young men to take advantage of women – written at a time when so candidly discussing these issues was rare – and speaks to the impact Senator Booker's experience working to help rape and sexual assault survivors as a college peer counselor had on him."
Kavanaugh has denied forcing himself on Ford at a high school party. But the ensuing debate has raised questions that go beyond his case, like the one posed by Bari Weiss of the New York Times when she asked Tuesday on MSNBC, "Should the fact that a 17-year-old, presumably very drunk kid, did this, should this be disqualifying?"
Whether it makes a difference if the "very drunk kid" owned up to the behavior is the question raised by Booker's case, which is under a spotlight intensified by the senator's own jockeying as he weighs a run for the presidency. He told New York Magazine in an interview published this week that it would be "irresponsible" not to consider running for president.
Booker, who studied political science and sociology and played tight end for the college football team, wrote a regular column for the Stanford Daily. He often broached difficult subjects, from racial profiling to anti-gay prejudice, with the rhetorical flourish that would come to characterize his political speeches.
Shortly after the verdict in the Rodney King case – in which Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of the taxi driver, spurring the 1992 Los Angeles riots – the student recounted instances of being profiled by police. "I'm a black man. I am 6 feet 3 inches tall and 230 pounds, just like King," Booker wrote. "Do I scare you? Am I a threat? Does your fear justify your actions?"
In another piece, also penned in 1992, he wrote about efforts to overcome his own bigotry. "I hated gays," he admitted. "The disgust and latent hostility I felt toward gays were subcategories of hatred, plain and simple."
But there was one topic that gave him particular pause. The piece, published Feb. 19, 1992, was titled, "So much for stealing second."
"When I hesitated in writing this column, I realized I was basking in hypocrisy," he wrote. "So instead I chose to write and risk."
He began with a personal story.
It was New Year's Eve 1984. Booker was 15. As the ball dropped in Times Square, he leaned over to give a friend a hug, he wrote, but she returned the gesture with "an overwhelming kiss."
"With the 'Top Gun' slogan ringing in my head, I slowly reached for her breast," continued Booker, who grew up in Harrington Park, New Jersey, outside of Newark, where he was elected mayor in 2006. It's unclear which movie slogan he meant. As a columnist in the Star-Ledger observed this week, the Tom Cruise action film didn't come out until 1986.
"After having my hand pushed away once, I reached my 'mark.' "
He said he didn't enter a romantic relationship with his New Year's Eve companion, though they began a friendship.
In the college newspaper, he described the episode as emblematic of his adolescent understanding of intimacy. "Ever since puberty, I remember receiving messages that sex was a game, a competition," he wrote. "Sexual relations were best achieved through luck, guile, strategy or coercion."
Drinking, he added, accelerated unsafe encounters. He recalled the counsel of a friend: "With liquor you'll get to bed quicker."
When he first arrived at college, it was more of the same, Booker said. He enumerated statements fired off at the Palo Alto, California, campus, from the casually sexist to the alarmingly violent.
"What do you think happened? She invited me back to her room at 3 a.m."
"I've got to find a way to snatch that snatch."
"The best thing for that girl would be to be tied down and screwed."
By his sophomore year, Booker wrote, he had grown so distressed by these sorts of comments that he had "snapped from one extreme to the other." A female friend of his called him a "man-hater." He admitted to running his mouth, referring wryly to his "soliloquy" on "The Oppressive Nature of Male Dominated Society And Its Violent Manifestations: Rape, Anorexia, Battered Wives." His aim was not just to convince her that he was "sensitive" but "to convince myself that my attitudes had changed."
His shifting views had most to do with his work as a peer counselor, he wrote, a role in which he listened to the "raw truth" of experiences of rape. What makes sexual violence possible, he reasoned, are the attitudes and dialogues that precede it – his own friends trying to "get some" or to "score."
He confessed to having no good conclusion for his column. "All I have are poignant visions," he offered.
"I see myself at 15 trotting around the bases and stealing second," Booker wrote.
He ended with a bit of imagery that could just as well conclude a stump speech: "I now see the crowds, no, not the spectators, but the thousands, the millions who are rarely seen or heard."
"I've seen enough."
The 1992 column was unearthed by the Daily Caller in 2013, when Booker was first running for Senate. The then-mayor didn't comment on the episode, nor has he had much to say about it since. His conduct and his mea culpa were public knowledge when voters elected him in the 2013 special election and chose him again in 2014.
The piece has mostly circulated in conservative outlets, such as Townhall and the Washington Times. On Thursday, it reached the Star-Ledger, the largest newspaper in New Jersey. Paul Mulshine, a conservative columnist, said the accusation by conservatives that the New Jersey senator was guilty of sexual assault was "nonsense, of course. The sort of behavior Booker recounted was common in the 1980s and early 1990s."
Still, the columnist argued, the 1992 account "puts the senator in an awkward position regarding the allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by psychologist Christine Blasey Ford." He mocked a moment from the questioning of Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee when Booker threatened to release secret emails, even if it meant being banished from the Senate, and said, "This is about the closest I'll ever come in my life to an 'I am Spartacus' moment."
"Looks like 'Spartacus' had roamin' hands," the column was headlined.
The columnist suggested that both recollections – Ford's and Booker's – might be faulty, with the senator's story representing a useful case for the point he was trying to make. In addition to the reference to a movie that had not yet come out, the columnist noted of Booker's recollection of the ball dropping, "I find it hard to imagine a bunch of high-schoolers going to a New Year's Eve party at which beds were placed near the TV."