Ben Carson speaks during the Republican debate on Tuesday. (Photo: Morry Gash/AP)
MILWAUKEE — At the GOP debate here on Tuesday night, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson defended himself against a series of reports that have raised questions about his personal story.
“I’m an honest person,” Carson declared.
As Carson has climbed in the polls, a number of reports have highlighted inconsistencies in the claims that the former neurosurgeon has made about himself.
Those articles included a CNN piece that reported that “nine friends, classmates and neighbors” of Carson when he was a youth had “no memory” of the angry and violent incidents that Carson has described. Carson’s stories include one situation in which he said that he had attempted to stab a friend, only to have the knife blocked by the friend’s belt buckle. These angry moments have been incorporated into a narrative of personal redemption that Carson has used on the campaign trail. Doubts have also been raised about Carson’s claim that he was offered a full scholarship to the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Fox News host Neil Cavuto, one of the debate moderators, asked Carson whether these questions have “hurt” his campaign.
“Well, first of all, thank you for not asking me what I said in the 10th grade. I appreciate that,” Carson said, provoking laughs and applause from the audience.
“I’ll just forget that follow-up,” Cavuto replied.
Carson, who is one of the leading candidates in national polls of the Republican field, has sought to defend himself against those who have raised doubts about his personal narrative by claiming that he is facing “special scrutiny” that has not been directed at the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. In the debate, he contrasted his past statements with the evolving explanations Clinton gave for the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which occurred when she was secretary of state.
“The fact of the matter is, we should vet all candidates. I have no problem with being vetted. What I do have a problem with is being lied about and then putting that out there as true,” Carson said. “I don’t even mind that so much if they do it with everybody — like people on the other side. But, you know, when I look at somebody like Hillary Clinton who sits there and tells her daughter and a government official that, you know, this was a terrorist attack, and then tells everybody else that it was a video… Where I came from, they call that a lie.”
Carson’s reference to Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi attack drew loud applause from the audience.
He went on to describe the issues with Clinton’s description of the attacks as “very different” from his claims about West Point. While investigations have found no record of Carson ever applying for or being admitted to the military academy, Carson has said he was offered entrance after a private 1969 meeting with Gen. William Westmoreland, who was chief of staff of the U.S. Army at the time. Carson suggested that any questions raised by the fact that he didn’t get admitted to West Point are just misinterpretations of his story, which did not involve his actually applying to the school.
“That’s very different from, you know, somebody misinterpreting when I said that I was offered a scholarship to West Point. That's the words that they used, but I’ve had many people come and say the same thing to me. That’s what people do in those situations,” Carson said. “We have to start treating people the same and finding out what people really think, and what they’re made of. And people who know me know that I’m an honest person.”
After the Republican debate in Colorado last month, Carson was one of the loudest critics of the moderators, whom he accused of asking “gotcha questions.” Carson later became a leading voice in an unsuccessful effort by the Republican candidates to establish different ground rules for subsequent debates. Though the push to change the debate format failed, the hosts of Tuesday’s debate, Fox Business Network and the Wall Street Journal, vowed that their approach would be different and would focus on policy.