Ben Carson: The ultimate outsider who could save the Republicans

How an African-American neurosurgeon with no political experience has become a top candidate for the Republican nomination for president

Jabin Botsford/New York Times/Redux

Jabin Botsford/New York Times/Redux

Update: Ben Carson has confirmed he will seek the Republican nomination. 

The Shadrach of American politics is sitting beside the fiery furnace in a grey suit and a cheery blue tie, waiting for bad old King Nebuchadnezzar to throw him in. “I’m not sure that Ben Carson and I even agree that today is Wednesday,” the monarch is saying. Hearing this, awaiting a public execution, a battalion of eager Babylonians in the hotel ballroom cluck and stomp and clap. But the Reverend Al Sharpton stops them short. “He has the right,” says this country’s go-to raja of race. “And he has the ability to be respected by a community that he rose from.”

The setting is a Sheraton on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. The audience is the annual conclave of Sharpton’s National Action Network, a coming-together of thousands of African-American achievers, apostles and agitators, who range from chiefs of police and big-city mayors to street-level organizers and the daughters of Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King.

“This is what’s wrong with America,” says Sharpton, as some in the audience jeer at his invited guest. “I do not expect people to agree with me, even though I’m always right.”

With this as a backdrop, the plenary session offers tepid applause as Dr. Benjamin Solomon Carson, Sr., M.D.—eminent pediatric neurosurgeon, creationist and Seventh-Day Adventist, champion of juvenile literacy and eponym of the Carson Scholars Fund and Carson Reading Rooms nationwide, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, steady-handed separator of Siamese twins, subject of a biographical movie starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., and (still unofficial) candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States in 2016—rises to address an audience that is as black as he is.

“The person who has the most to do with your life is you,” the physician declares, puncturing with a single phrase the conference’s perennial focus on homicidal policemen, employment discrimination, “the school-to-jail pipeline,” and systemic racism as the engines of inner-city poverty, illiteracy, addiction, rage and hopelessness. “We need to talk about stuff we don’t talk about,” he goes on. “We need to talk about the fact that 73 per cent of our babies are born out of wedlock, and that baby is four times as likely to grow up in poverty. Unless we talk about it, nobody else is going to talk about it.”

The room goes silent.

“People say, ‘Ben Carson doesn’t love black people,’ ” the surgeon chides the (nearly) all-black crowd. “What a bunch of crap that is.”

If Carson, former director of pediatric neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, is to be the Republican nominee in 2016—and if he is to defeat Hillary Clinton next November to become the second consecutive African-American president of the United States—it is because of a speech he gave 26 months ago with President Barack Obama sitting just two chairs away.

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This was at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Carson, whose Medal of Freedom was presented by George W. Bush in 2008 in recognition of his extraordinary medical career, tore into the sitting President’s Affordable Care Act, in particular, and into the liberal agenda in general (“People are afraid to say Merry Christmas at Christmastime”), with such in-your-face, truth-to-power effrontery that he instantly became a favourite son of the faith-and-firearms right.

Suddenly, Carson, who never has held or run for elective office, was scoring highly in various “straw polls” far in advance of the actual 2016 caucuses and primaries. He was second (to Mitt Romney, who no longer is running) in last fall’s Bloomberg-Des Moines Register presidential survey, won a clear victory at the Polk County Republican dinner in Des Moines and captured the straw poll at the Western Conservative summit in Denver.

But since his explosive coming-out, Carson has been uttering opinions that have inflamed the ire of the left-wing media while enchanting many of his brothers and sisters in Christ.

To wit: a comparison of the rag-tag insurgents who won the American Revolution with the barbaric decapitators of Islamic State: “They got the wrong philosophy, but they’re willing to die for what they believe, while we are busily giving away every belief and every value for the sake of political correctness.”

And: “You know Obamacare is really, I think, the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery. And it is . . . slavery in a way, because it is making all of us subservient to the government, and it was never about health care. It was about control.” And: saying in the presence of a reporter from GQ that Obama’s neat attire and clean image makes him appear “like most psychopaths.” And: declaring that homosexuality must be a matter of choice, because so many people “go into prison straight—and when they come out, they’re gay.”

“People say that if you don’t want them to be married, then you hate them,” Carson counterpunches at the Sharpton confab. “Well, I don’t really care what any man says. I care what God says.”

Unluckily for Carson, he is far from the only Bible-quoting, gun-toting Republican in the field. In fact, there are more than a dozen of them. Nearly all the others come to the fray with extensive senatorial (Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham) or gubernatorial (Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee) experience. All are, or profess to be, fervent Christians.

The last man to be elected president without previous service in state or federal government was Dwight Eisenhower—and all Ike did before throwing his five-starred hat into the ring in 1952 was command the Allied armies against Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Going all the way back to George Washington himself, no one has become the U.S. president without previously having been a state governor, member of Congress, military commander or cabinet secretary.

In March, Carson’s “exploratory committee” gathered US$2,143,945 from 40,130 donors, an average of $53 apiece. But Cruz, the Calgarian-Texan firebrand and filibusterer, pulled in $31 million in a single weekend after making his formal declaration of candidacy. And Bush, the former governor of Florida, already has tens of millions banked for the attack-ad demolition of his primary rivals and, later, for the destruction of the wife of the man who defeated his own father’s bid for a second term back in 1992. (Carson will make his own formal declaration in early May.)

For all his honours and clinical reputation, Carson is not even the only medical man in the Republican race. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has been polling within range of the inevitable Hillary herself in some recent swing-state surveys, is an ophthalmologist who can parry Carson’s uplifting tales of safely detaching conjoined twins with his own stories of helping the blind to see. One of Sen. Paul’s supporting groups, subtly enough, is named Vision4America.

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What separates Carson from the herd at this early stage is his colour (he is the only African-American in the Republican field), his temperate bedside manner, his distance from state-house cat-fighting and Washington gridlock, and the retro-viral video of that insolent (to the left) or courageous (to the right) anti-Obama speech that he made in 2013 with Obama himself sitting just an arm’s length away.

Ricky Carioti/Washington Post/Getty Images

Ricky Carioti/Washington Post/Getty Images

“When he did the Prayer Breakfast, I thought, ‘That’s who he is,’ ” says Dr. George Jallo, Carson’s long-time collaborator in pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins. “He is always calm. I don’t think I have ever seen him get upset. He is not an emotional person. He’s a very straightforward person. What his beliefs are is what you see.”

Jallo is asked: “Could you envision him as president of the United States?” He replies: “I don’t follow politics. I still think of him as a great neurosurgeon.”

In New York, as soft-spoken, measured and self-controlled as always—in contrast to Sharpton’s thunder and lightning—Carson spins a life story so extraordinary, it seems to belong in the Pentateuch.

It begins 63 years ago in a Detroit family that collapsed when Mom found out that Dad had another wife and children across town, and continues in Boston, where the mother (herself one of 24 children; married off at the age of 13) checks in and out of mental institutions. It returns to the Motor City as young Benjamin (“the class dummy”) veers toward indolence and anger, then sees him spared and protected (like Shadrach; like Daniel in the lions’ den) by a series of deus ex machina interventions: a $10 bill lying on a sidewalk when he is a bankrupt freshman at Yale; seeing the answers to a chemistry exam appear in a dream; a belt buckle blunting a knife thrust to the belly of his best friend.

“I’m not sure when I actually turned to God,” Carson writes in his bestselling autobiography, Gifted Hands, one of his eight books. “I do know that when I was 14, I finally understood how God can change us.”

By 2014, respondents to a Gallup poll had elevated Carson to No. 6 on a list of the world’s most admired men, behind Obama, Pope Francis, Rev. Billy Graham, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, but ahead of Stephen Hawking, Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin.

“ ‘Carson’s a strange guy,’ ” he says of himself in Manhattan, mocking his critics. “‘He’s a neurosurgeon, but he doesn’t believe in science.’ That’s a bunch of crap. I don’t believe in something from nothing. I don’t believe that everything came from the Big Bang fully formed. People say: ‘Carson believes the world is only 6,000 years old.’ I never said I believed that. What I said is that God is God, and he can create a world as old as he wants it to be . . . That’s the wonderful thing about God. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to talk to him.”

It is not Sharpton and his devotees who are going to crown or not crown Carson at the Republican national convention in Cleveland next summer. It is the white-bred, white-bread Christians of the Hawkeye State of Iowa, and the granite-eyed old women and men of the mountains of New Hampshire who hold the key primary cards.

They are voters such as a retired hospital food-service worker from Merrimack, N.H., named Pamela Skovira, who attended a meet-and-greet with Carson last week, then told this reporter that “he’s not a politician, for one thing, and he still knows right from wrong, while everybody else in politics these days doesn’t seem to be able to figure that out.” Skovira, who supported Mitt Romney in 2012, looks around her country now and sees that “everything that could go wrong is going wrong. Obama has taken us down such a bad trail, we don’t have anybody’s respect.”

Carson, on the other hand, “has the ideals and the morals and the ethics that I value, and he’s not afraid to speak up for them. It’s not because he’s a doctor. It’s his upbringing and his ethics.”

At the convention of the National Action Network, Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark, N.J., is asked about Carson as a possible president and Baraka snaps, “He’s a fine doctor.” The same question is put to the congressman from Harlem, Charlie Rangel, and the 84-year-old, much pleased with himself, beams back: “I’m glad his doctorate is in medicine and not in politics.”

Even one of the few African-American Republicans in the crowd is hesitant about backing Carson all the way to the Oval Office. “I’m a conservative,” says Neill Franklin, a retired senior Maryland state police officer who now heads an organization dedicated to opposing “the wasteful futilities and harms of our current drug policies.” “I’m not trying to be gentle, or anything like that, and I’m not saying that I could never support Ben Carson. But even though he came up from an impoverished background, I somehow feel that he is a little removed from some of the communities that need our social programs to get to a place where they can thrive. He didn’t raise himself up. He had a very strong mother.”

Franklin is asked: “Do you mean that you wouldn’t vote for him just because you both are black?” and he replies, “I do see race as one of the important things, but, when it comes to choosing a president, you have to put race aside. Right now, I’d have to go for Rand Paul.”

It is the rise of Obama in reverse: In 2016, the Republican Party could nominate an African-American for whom African-Americans will not vote. “In the black community, we don’t need to wait for other people to help us,” Carson declares to the people of Babylon.

“Dr. Carson, you may not be my choice for president,” Sharpton retorts to a chortling crowd, “but if I ever need surgery, you’re my man.”

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