Playing now, the Ben Carson show

·National Political Columnist

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson became an overnight hero to conservative commentators and activists. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP)

One of my least favorite journalism clichés is what I like to call the trick lead. That’s the one where the crafty writer starts a piece by making you think he’s talking about one thing, when really he’s talking about another.

The well-liked vice president badly wanted to run, but everyone knew the boss was behind his anointed successor, and the party was closing ranks fast.

Joe Biden in 2015? No! It was Charles Fairbanks in 1908!

You know, that kind of thing.

But if I actually were the kind of writer who would begin today’s column with a trick lead, it would go something like this:

The political neophyte has now surged to the top of the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he’s defying the expectations of pundits and establishing himself as a serious threat for the Republican nomination.

Donald Trump? No! I’m talking about Ben Carson!


If you haven’t been paying close attention to the non-Trump Republican field this year — maybe because it’s a little like studying a “Where’s Waldo?” poster where everyone kind of looks like everyone else, except that no one is actually Waldo — then let me enlighten you.

Carson is a flat-out genius (even if he doesn’t believe in evolution). Raised by a single mother in Detroit and educated at Yale, he went on to medical school and became, at 33, the chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. Not long after, he led a team of doctors in the first-ever operation to divide twins who were joined at the head. Then he turned the spelling bee world upside down by successfully implanting the brain of an Oxford professor in the skull of a fourth grader.

OK, that last part is entirely made up. But you know he could if he really tried.

Carson has never held elective office, or even run. But as the legend goes, in 2013 he spoke at one of these National Prayer Breakfasts in Washington, where he denounced the health care law and liberal government generally while standing just a few feet from President Obama, and overnight he became a hero to conservative commentators and activists.

Heeding their call, he jumped into the presidential field last May and is now in second place and gaining on Trump in Iowa. If you made me guess today, I’d say he probably wins the caucuses.

Oh, one other thing, in case you didn’t know: Carson is African-American.

It’s hard to square this with the Republican Party you hear about if you watch cable news (otherwise known these days as “Trump TV”) or hang out much with urban liberals. Conservative ideologues are supposed to be race-baiting and enraged, fueled by nativism, resentment and a deep loathing of our first black president, who they insist is a Muslim.


A Carson supporter holds copies of his books as he speaks during the Iowa State Fair. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Yet here is Carson, surging into second place in virtually all-white primary states, surpassing Jeb Bush and leaving archconservative candidates like Scott Walker and Rand Paul in the dust. And he’s not at all angry. While Trump just about writhes with insecurity and calls everybody in politics an idiot, Carson projects an easy confidence and barely speaks above a whisper.

So how do we explain Carson’s appeal?

It’s not as if he has some incredibly creative agenda. Reading through the positions on Carson’s website is like spending a few hours at an amusement park called “Banal Land.” He’s pro-life, pro-balanced budget, pro-gun, pro-traditional marriage. On the one issue where he’s less than a reflection of accepted dogma, Carson supports a guest worker program for immigrants, which should hardly endear him to conservatives.

Carson doesn’t pretend to know very much about governing or foreign affairs in particular. His campaign manager, Barry Bennett, told the New York Daily News: “The man is a world-renowned brain scientist. … I think he can memorize a list of world leaders.” Which is kind of like Bobby Jindal saying, “Hey, I’m a Rhodes scholar. I’m pretty sure I can figure out how to surgically separate a couple of brains.”

Nor has Carson done anything special to seize his moment, in the way that Newt Gingrich took over the debate stage four years ago. For whatever reason, Carson was barely given a chance to speak at the first debate last month, and his only memorable moment came when he pointed that out.

No, what makes Carson compelling to a lot of people, clearly, is the power of his personal narrative. As I’ve written a few times recently, we live in a moment when, as the social critic Neil Postman predicted exactly 30 years ago, politics has merged fully into entertainment, when characters and story arcs have supplanted expertise and worldviews.

Much like candidate Obama, who cast himself at the center of an inspiring docudrama in 2008, Carson is running as the embodiment of a story we still like to tell ourselves about America — a story about enduring opportunity and equality, the triumph of parenting and will over circumstance and prejudice.

It’s the kind of stuff that makes for an emotional TV movie. In fact, it did! TNT aired “Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story” back in 2009. It starred Cuba Gooding Jr., of “Jerry Maguire” fame. Show me the cerebral cortex!

And in this way, Carson isn’t actually all that different from Trump, really. Their presentations bear no resemblance, but their appeal is rooted in the same cultural shift. Trump is reality TV, explosive and unscripted. Carson is a miniseries, evocative and reaffirming.

There’s a danger in attaching such significance to inexperienced politicians, as we’ve learned. Obama spent too much of his presidency improvising a governing philosophy and figuring out how to deal with vast bureaucracies and recalcitrant adversaries. As much as Democrats may hate to hear it, the truth is that someone with more political experience would probably have found his footing a lot sooner.


Carson is running as the embodiment of a story about the triumph of parenting and will over circumstance and prejudice. (Photo: Charlie Riedel/AP)

Carson seems like a good guy and a great mind, and if one of my kids ever needed brain surgery, I’d bang down a thousand doors just to get in a room with him. But that doesn’t mean I want him rushing to the Situation Room when some terrorist group in Pakistan makes off with a nuclear weapon.

And yet it’s hard to blame voters for seeking some inspiration, and some authenticity, when all these governing-ready politicians seem so much the opposite. It’s hard to begrudge them their penchant for a moving story when all they get from the leading establishment types, too often anyway, are platitudes and artifice.

It was embarrassing to watch this week as Hillary Clinton’s campaign aides, speaking to the New York Times’ Amy Chozick, laid out a methodical plan for her to be more spontaneous, without a hint of irony. “I can have a perfectly fine life not being president,” Clinton herself told ABC’s David Muir, which must have sounded bizarre to voters who consider lives with healthy families and stable careers to be a lot more than perfectly fine.

Candidates like Clinton and Bush have to be more than humanistic renderings of long résumés and safe policies meant to shore up one constituency or another. In the age of narrative politics, the governing candidate has to tell a story that resonates, too — about how the country can look in 20 years, about the sometimes wrenching choices we’ll have to make to get there, about how you transcend bitterness and entrenched ideology.

Carson’s narrative may not have a whole lot to do with governing the country. But, you know, at least it’s real.