The political education of Ben Carson


Photo: Richard Shiro/AP

In 2013, Ben Carson told Glenn Beck that he had no plans to run for president. “I would be a terrible candidate,” he said.

Two years later, that statement has proven to be both true and largely inconsequential. Carson has been a bumbling candidate, but it hasn’t mattered. He has risen to nearly a first-place tie with Donald Trump in national Republican presidential primary polls, and has stayed there since early September.

Carson’s rise coincided with the first Republican debate. In early August, Carson was in a virtual three-way tie for fifth place, stuck at 6 percent in the polls. Viewers apparently liked what they saw from Carson on the debate stage in Cleveland, perplexing political observers who believed the soft-spoken retired neurosurgeon would be a nonentity.

Carson is now at 21 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average, trailing Trump by only 2 points. He is second to Trump in Iowa and runs in third place — just behind Carly Fiorina — in New Hampshire. And in the third quarter of 2015, he raised $20 million, with donations coming from more than 300,000 supporters.

Like Trump and Fiorina, Carson is popular because he is not a politician. He spent most of his career as a neurosurgeon, rising from an impoverished childhood in Detroit with a single mother to become head of the Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgery division at age 33, and the first surgeon in the world to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head. His inspiring personal story is married to a willingness — some might say compulsion — to speak plainly and without regard for political propriety.

Most people’s virtues are also their vices, but that is especially so for presidential candidates whose personal traits are magnified under the searing scrutiny of a campaign. For Carson, his blunt, often heedless rhetoric has attracted GOP base voters who are in such a rebellious mood that they judge candidates on their willingness to appall the establishment, rather than on their specific policy positions. That’s allowed Carson to thrive during this angry populist moment.

The question, though, is whether these same qualities that are clearly resonating during the speed-dating phase of the campaign become serious liabilities when voters begin to settle down to make more pragmatic judgments about electability and governing abilities. A day spent recently with Carson discussing everything from immigration and the Black Lives Matter movement to gun control and Kanye West, raised some serious questions for me about this particular candidate’s readiness for that phase of the campaign.


Ben Carson speaks at a town hall in Ankeny, Iowa, in October. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)

It was a beautiful fall day in Iowa when I hopped into Carson’s SUV in downtown Des Moines. He had just finished an interview at WHO 1040 Radio, Iowa’s most popular talk-radio station – where Ronald Reagan once worked – and was on his way to a rally with about 1,000 people at a community college 20 minutes north.

For 20 minutes, as we drove past cornfields drenched in a bright mid-morning sun, Carson and I talked. He sat with his legs bunched together to the left, with a large black bag on the seat between us in the SUV’s middle row. He spoke so quietly I had to hold my recording device up near his face to make sure it picked up his voice.

Carson’s lack of political experience is refreshing to many. But one result has been that his time as a frontrunner has lacked a consistent message. In theory, his candidacy is about improving the nation’s fiscal standing, improving education in America, and being able to disagree without demonizing political and ideological opponents. But Carson keeps obscuring these points because he does not hesitate to speak his mind on a variety of topics that most politicians would have the discipline to avoid.

A video compilation of Carson’s controversial remarks would constitute a political handler’s highlight reel of how not to answer questions from the media. The candidate has said he does not trust Muslims to be president (he’s since said he could accept a Muslim president as long as they rejected Sharia). He’s talked about the mass shooting in Oregon in a way that sounded like he was criticizing the victims for not doing enough to fight back (he claims his remarks were taken out of context). He has said that the theory of evolution is demonic, and that the U.S. is becoming like Nazi Germany.

Given Carson’s flair for impolitic comments, I was surprised to find the 64-year-old candidate curiously opaque when we spoke about matters of importance to conservative voters. At one point I mentioned that rival presidential campaigns were criticizing his views on abortion. “And what is my position on abortion?” he asked, prompting me to explain what his critics were saying.

I told him other candidates had pointed out that in 1992, Carson had said, “I would never advocate it be illegal for a person to get an abortion.”

He indicated that he did not believe that now — “I have definitely changed my views.”

But when I asked Carson whether he would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned, and abortion made illegal without exceptions – both nearly standard positions these days for GOP candidates – he refused to answer.

“I favor life. That’s what I favor,” Carson said.

That wasn’t very clear. So I asked if he instead believed that Roe should remain the law of the land. Again, he didn’t answer the question, talking about how he would appoint Supreme Court justices who “believe in life” and “understand that a baby in the uterus is a human being and is protected by the Constitution.”

“What does that mean for Roe, though?” I pressed.

“It means that we will try to protect human life because all people in our country have a right to the protections of the law,” Carson said.

After four attempts, I moved on. But it was puzzling to me why — when it seemed clear that Carson was pro-life — he refused to be precise about how he would approach laws governing the issue if he were elected president. When I asked Carson’s spokesperson Deana Bass afterward why that was, she said Carson preferred to focus on the process rather than the outcome. She later sent me a text message saying that Carson had been “pretty clear about appointing judges who value life.”

Uncertainty about Carson’s views on abortion go back to 1992, when he appeared in a political ad arguing that Maryland voters should reject a ballot amendment that would have preserved abortion rights in the state in the event that Roe v. Wade was ever overturned. There was an uproar, and Carson disavowed his involvement with the ad, asking the anti-abortion group to remove it.

Carson was defensive about this. “I came from a background where I was a Democrat, and where I was a fairly radical Democrat and had a different belief system,” he told me. “That has changed over the course of time. Does a person not have a right to have an alteration in their thinking over the course of time?”

People change their views on one issue or another all the time in politics. But they usually provide some justification or explanation — even if flimsy — and try to establish what their new position is. See Hillary Clinton on same-sex marriage.

Perhaps Carson’s lack of clarity on Roe can be ascribed to what he himself has called his own “political inexperience.” At this point in a presidential campaign, however, it’s the kind of basic question on a core belief that is usually ironed out.


Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Examine enough of Carson’s statements, and it becomes clear that the issues that trip him up the most are those dealing with conservative shibboleths, like abortion — or guns.

In 2013, Carson told conservative interviewer Glenn Beck that he was in favor of state government restrictions on the purchase of semi-automatic rifles. This past July, he backtracked from that position, telling Beck’s website, The Blaze, that he hadn’t known the right political answer on guns in 2013.

“When I entered the political arena, and I was asked the question about guns, I didn’t know at that time that you always start that off by saying how important the Second Amendment is and that you will never compromise that,” Carson said. “That was simply a matter of political inexperience.”

It was a remarkably candid admission that there is a political script that most successful candidates must follow — and at odds with the view that Carson’s status as an “un-politician” gives him a measure of freedom and independence that other candidates lack.

Carson’s repositioning on guns also reveals a truth about politics and the Bulworth kind of straight-talking figure that voters claim they crave. In reality, there is a great deal of difference between saying things that offend your ideological opponents and saying things that offend your supporters. Conservatives think of the former as being politically incorrect and of the latter as being simply wrong. Those voters who are sending Carson donations cheer him for being willing to mix it up while talking about Muslims or evolution. They wouldn’t be so excited if he started challenging conservative orthodoxy.

Carson seems to know this, and yet he still hasn’t worked out a clear answer on guns. As we drove through central Iowa, Carson — who has spent most of his adult life living in Baltimore — told me he still doesn’t think that people in highly populated urban areas should have high-powered firearms.

“I prefer not to have dangerous weapons in an environment where they’re likely to fall into the hands of a crazy person, because those are the ones who are likely to carry those out,” he said. “That’s much more likely to occur in a crowded area.”

It was an odd point to make in the aftermath of the horrific Oregon shooting that claimed 10 lives just the day before at a small community college in the rural town of Roseburg, population 22,000.

And it was made more confusing when Carson circled back to say that his concerns about semi-automatic weapons are “subjugated to the Second Amendment.”

“I’m not talking about an assault-weapons ban at all,” he said.

It’s not as if Carson’s lack of clarity on guns and abortion comes from some inability to be direct and clear. He knows how to cut to the chase, and did when I asked about his faith.

Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist, and has been since he was a child. I wanted to ask how he observes the Sabbath — which for Adventists begins on Friday night and ends Saturday evening — and began with a straightforward inquiry.

“Saturday is your Sabbath, right?” I asked.

“No,” came the response from Carson, sitting to my right. He looked at me and an awkward silence filled the SUV. After letting it sit there for a moment, he continued. “Saturday is God’s Sabbath, not mine,” Carson said emphatically.

It was an indication that Carson, despite downplaying his membership in the SDA church in past, believes pretty strongly in some core SDA tenets. Keeping Saturday the Sabbath is one of the touchy points within the Seventh-day Adventist church, tracing back to one of the tradition’s founders, Ellen White.

White, who is recognized by the SDA church today as a prophet and founding member of their faith, believed that Adventists would face persecution over their belief that Saturday is the biblical day of rest and wrote in her 1858 book “The Great Controversy” that in the future “the United States shall enforce Sunday observance” of the Sabbath. Defending the practice has become a key part of the faith for many in the church and conspiratorial talk of a future return to Sunday laws in America is present in some corners of the Adventist faith.


Ben Carson (center) praying during a service at the Maple Street Missionary Baptist Church in Des Moines, Iowa, in August. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty)

On occasion, Carson himself has engaged in such conspiratorial talk, arguably veering into the kind of paranoia that isn’t usually part of a presidential candidate’s repertoire. In July 2014, Carson traveled to Australia and spoke at Avondale Memorial Seventh-day Adventist Church in Cooranbong, about 80 miles north of Sydney. Before delivering an hour-long sermon, he engaged in a dialogue with one of the church’s pastors, who had asked him why he was getting involved in politics.

Carson’s answer was a rambling soliloquy that dipped into fears about an assault on free speech and freedom of religion from modern-day disciples of Marx and Lenin, people he says want to “achieve a new world order.” And there were nods to Adventist theology and apparent references to Ellen White’s prophecies about the U.S. and the Sabbath.

“I don’t know what role the Lord has for me in all this,” said Carson. “I do know that looking at prophecy, that the United States will play a big role, that there has to be a return first to a religious awakening. And more than likely any persecution — particularly of the Sabbath — will come from the right, not from the left.”

Carson’s logic was hard to follow. But he seemed to be referring to concerns about both sides of the political spectrum: that conservative cultural values were under assault from progressives and that political and religious conservatives were waging battle against the SDA Church.

I discovered these remarks after my interview with Carson and asked his campaign if he would comment on them. Carson called and left a voicemail message in which he reiterated what he had said at the church a year ago.

“My point was that Sabbath laws were already instituted in the United States — so-called Blue Laws — making it illegal for people to work and do various things on Sunday, and some of the people who had different ideals have already been persecuted,” Carson said. “But my point was also that if such a thing occurred again, it would be from overzealous people who were trying to impose their religious beliefs. My thinking is we’ve gotten past that. I certainly hope so.”

Carson’s more recent controversial statements — like about America becoming like Nazi Germany — are in the same vein. He seems to jump to the worst possible outcome, to see bogeymen around every corner. Carson’s campaign slogan is, “Heal. Inspire. Revive.” But his rhetoric is far less about inspiration than it is about a fearful future.

Take evolution, which Carson has said is part of a demonic plot. “What is Satan’s plan? To get rid of God, to disparage God, to mischaracterize God. And what is creation? Creation is God’s signature,” Carson said at a 2011 conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Or take the more recent flap about whether Carson believes a Muslim could be president. Most critics have dinged Carson for imposing a “religious test.” But if you listen to the doctor, his concern is jarringly specific. He is talking about a scenario in which a Muslim who wants to throw out the Constitution, do away with the separation of church and state, and impose a state religion through Sharia, is considered a plausible candidate for president of the United States.

When pressed on the topic by ABC’s Martha Raddatz, Carson held his ground. If a candidate refused to reject Islam’s central tenets — which Carson holds are incompatible with the Constitution — “Why,” he asked, “would you take that chance?”


Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty

Some Republicans are asking the same question about Carson. If a candidate for the Republican nomination gives muddled answers to questions about key conservative issues, steps on his own message with undisciplined comments and traffics in a paranoid worldview, why would you take the chance of losing the White House for the fifth time in seven elections?

The answer so far has been that Carson’s strengths as a candidate — his message, his inspiring personal narrative, and his politically incorrect comments — are well suited for this moment in GOP politics. Whether they will remain in alignment is unclear, but they help explain his undeniable popularity among voters.

“Here’s a guy who has been a healer. I’d like to see that happen in our country,” said Ed Grant, a 72-year-old retired public-school teacher, who waited for Carson to appear at a rally at the Des Moines Area Community College last month. At a time of mass shootings, political dysfunction and racial tensions, some believe Carson could be a salve.

And while Carson is running second to another outsider who relishes opportunities to be politically incorrect, his personality is the polar opposite of Trump’s. He is quiet and generally self-deprecating, a refreshing alternative for those tired of bombast, hypocrisy and empty rhetoric.

Then there is the race factor. John Philip Sousa IV, the conservative activist who formed a super-PAC to convince Carson to run, wrote a self-published book on why the neurosurgeon is “the one man who can save the America that our Founding Fathers built.” The super-PAC hands out copies at political events. I was given one at the Independence Day Parade in Wolfeboro, N.H., this summer.

One of Sousa’s core arguments is that Carson could win over African- Americans to the Republican Party because of his life story and the respect accorded him by groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And it’s true that Carson has been revered as a hero by many African-Americans for decades, at least since the publication of his autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” in 1992. The book was adapted for a TNT movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Carson that further publicized his remarkable personal story.

But Carson’s more likely appeal isn’t to black Democratic voters but to whites already in the Republican party. By supporting Carson, they have a potent answer to the accusation that their contempt for Obama is racially motivated. He assures them that they’re not racist if they make troubling assumptions about minorities, as many of Carson’s patients and colleagues did about him early in his career. And he presents a clear alternative to Black Lives Matters in response to racial tensions around the country.

On the campaign trail, Carson talks openly about how he has been affected by racism. He often tells the story of how, when he was a young surgeon, many times he would arrive in a patient’s room only to be asked when the doctor was arriving. More than once, other hospital personnel assumed he was an orderly. But Carson emphasizes that he never held these errors against any of the people who committed them.

To understand why Carson has responded to racism the way he has, it’s instructive to read a poem that Carson’s mother, Sonya, included in her introduction to Carson’s book, “Gifted Hands.” Sonya was the youngest of 24 children and could not read. But she often recited a poem to Carson and his older brother, Curtis, called “Yourself to Blame.”

“If things go bad for you —

And make you a bit ashamed,

Often you will find out that

You have yourself to blame …

Swiftly we ran to mischief

And then the back luck came.

Why do we fault others?

We have ourselves to blame.

It concludes:

“You’re the captain of your ship,

So agree with the same —

If you travel downward,

You have yourself to blame.”

Carson is a rebuke to the claims and arguments of the Black Lives Matter movement and black public intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who have argued that the U.S. government should pay reparations to African-Americans. Many whites resent the accusation implicit in the protests across the country against police brutality, feeling that they are being blamed for sins of the past. In Carson, they have a man who preaches self-reliance and personal responsibility.

As we neared our destination, I asked Carson about Black Lives Matter. He told me he rejects the idea that problems of police brutality and structural racism are the chief obstacles facing black Americans.

“The No. 1 cause of death for young men in our major cities is homicide. And that is creating a lot more death and destruction than anything that’s caused by the police,” he said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at [police brutality], but when you have something major going on and you have something that’s not as major going on, and the major thing is creating a lot of damage and a lot of havoc and killing a lot of lives, why would you ignore that and concentrate on the thing that is not doing that?”

“Are there rotten police? Of course there are rotten police. Are there rotten doctors? Yes. Rotten teachers? Yeah. Rotten journalists? Yeah, a lot of them. They’re all over the place, OK?” Carson said. He really doesn’t like the press.

During the course of our interview, Carson didn’t really laugh or even smile. So I wasn’t sure if I should give him the gift I had picked up for him the day before. I’d been in Raygun, the one-of-a-kind T-shirt store in downtown Des Moines, when I saw on the $5 sale-rack black tank tops with white letters that said, “Sharia law ain’t getting past deez guns.”

I waited until the interview was over and we had arrived at the community college to hand Carson the shirt. There was silence in the classroom as he unfolded it and read the words. I saw his spokesman’s eyes go wide, but then Carson erupted in a full-throated laugh.

“That’s good,” he said, still laughing.


Photo: Chuck Burton/AP