Two More Claims of Greatness

No one wants to be ordinary, but all of us – after the usual stuff where the self-help books and the motivational speakers, and teachers and preachers, tell us everyone is special and extraordinary, in their own way – figure out we really are kind of ordinary. We make peace with that. When the next guy in a cheap suit is up there in front of the room, saying that everyone has potential for greatness, we doze off, or look left and right. These people will change the world, or at least get rich and famous? Yeah, sure – we remember what happened to “the most likely to succeed” in high school. Each of them disappeared without a trace.

Most men live lives of quiet desperation? No, that’s not true. Most men are just fine. They figure out what makes them reasonable happy and make do with that. Do your best. Act well your part. There all honor lies. Or don’t quote Alexander Pope – but understand that there’s something deeply foolish, if not shameful and embarrassing, in claims of greatness. No sensible people make such claims. Those who do, run for president. What sensible person does that?

That’s a rhetorical question, and now there are two more who have decided to hang the sense of it and make the claim that they are not ordinary at all. They were extraordinary in other ways, in narrow fields, so they must be extraordinary in general. At least that’s the idea:

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former tech executive Carly Fiorina – novice politicians whose attacks on Democrats have made them conservative stars – declared Monday that they were running for president as Republicans.

Carson, 63, held a slickly produced event in his home town of Detroit, where the candidate took the stage after several musical numbers, including “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”

“I’m Ben Carson, and I’m a candidate for president for the United States,” Carson said, before declaring – no longer correctly – “I’m not a politician.” Carson will now visit Texas, where his mother is gravely ill, before flying to Iowa to campaign.

Fiorina, 60, made her announcement in a Web video and an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” After losing a Senate race in California in 2010, Fiorina has re-launched her political career by lobbing attacks at the Democratic front-runner, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It was the neurosurgeon and the corporate CEO, and both say that they were good at one thing so they are obviously good at all things:

Carson, a pioneering black surgeon, began his political rise by attacking President Obama’s health-care law – with Obama sitting nearby – at a prayer breakfast in 2013. Fiorina, a pioneering female executive, has relentlessly criticized the most prominent woman in the race.

And there’s a bonus, along with a liability:

Carson and Fiorina can articulate conservative frustrations with Obama and Clinton while blunting a potent line of Democratic counter­attack: that, if you dig deeply enough, some criticism of Obama and Clinton has its roots in racism or sexism.

If the pair wants to do more than disrupt the race, they will have to expand beyond the role of punch-thrower. And they will need to avoid the problems that usually sink nonprofessional politicians running for president: verbal gaffes, rattling skeletons, poor preparation.

Not to mention the tendency to think through sensitive subjects out loud, on camera. “I don’t wander off into those extraneous areas that can be exploited. I have learned that,” Carson said during a TV interview Sunday evening.

Okay, they’re both a little raw, but this is a black man and a woman. That should count for something, and Carson is a bit better placed:

In March, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed him with the support of 6 percent of GOP voters. With the electorate divided among a number of candidates that puts him in the middle of the pack. In South Carolina and Iowa, that kind of number puts Carson in the top six. The bad news for Carson is that recent surveys have shown his standing tick down as others have formally announced that they are running.

That means he has to say he is a special person, so he did:

In his announcement Monday, Carson sought to expand his political persona by returning to his personal story. He was raised by a single mother, graduated from Yale and the University of Michigan’s medical school, and became the youngest director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, the first black person to hold the position.

In a video that played before he spoke, Carson’s message seemed to be that, if he became president, he could imbue the country with the qualities that underlie his personal success.

“Healing requires a leader with calm, unwavering resolve,” the video said. “We have the fortitude to heal, the imagination to inspire and the determination to revive our American dream.”

Then Carson took the stage, without notes, and gave a meandering speech about his hope for a less-intrusive government, about personal responsibility and about his upbringing in Detroit. “I remember when our favorite drug dealer was killed,” he said at one point.

He also showed the confident, iconoclastic side that has defined his time in the political spotlight. Carson’s tendency to speak his mind has won him some critics – particularly for his assertion that Obama’s health-care law is the “worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”

In an interview after his speech, Carson said that his supporters were too numerous to be denied.

And then there’s the CEO:

For Fiorina, 60, the first challenge of her campaign will be to raise her poll numbers out of George Pataki territory. She gets only about 1 percent support among Republicans nationally. Even in this race, that’s low.

The good news is that a lot of people don’t know Fiorina yet: About 3 in 5 Republican-leaning voters had no opinion of her in a Monmouth University poll last month. And in a recent swing through Iowa, Fiorina attracted unexpectedly large crowds, more than 100 at some events.

“We have time,” she said with a laugh during a conference call with reporters Monday morning. “There has been greater reception to my candidacy than I think many might have expected…”

All she has to do is explain she’s special too, if not extraordinary:

Fiorina is racing to introduce herself to voters with this simple biography: She started her career as a secretary in a small real estate firm, married a former tow-truck driver and worked her way up to become chief executive of Hewlett-Packard.

“It’s only possible in the United States of America for a young woman to start as a secretary and become a CEO and maybe, just maybe, run for the presidency of the United States,” Fiorina said during a forum for potential candidates in Iowa in late April.

That’s a cool story, but it’s not what it seems:

Before she was a secretary, she graduated from Stanford University in 1976, with a degree in medieval history and philosophy. She enrolled in law school at UCLA, following in the footsteps of her father, Joseph Tyree Sneed III, a law school professor and federal appeals court judge. But Fiorina dropped out of law school after one semester and took a job as a secretary at a real estate investment brokerage firm in Palo Alto, across the street from the headquarters of Hewlett-Packard. For two decades, Fiorina did sales, marketing and strategy work for several major telecommunications companies.

In 1999, she became chief executive of Hewlett, making her the first woman to lead such a large corporation. But that pioneering achievement did not end well. The dot-com boom hurt Hewlett, and Fiorina was criticized for seeking the public limelight as her company struggled. She was forced out in February 2005. Fiorina received a $21 million severance package.

They fired her ass and she got a golden parachute to just go away, and then there was this:

Just hours after the Republican Carly Fiorina announced her presidential run, she was criticized on a website bearing her name, for causing the loss of 30,000 jobs while serving as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard. … Fiorina appears not to have registered her dot-org domain name. However, she does have carlyfiorina.com registered. The dot-org page, carlyfiorina.org, has this message: “Carly Fiorina failed to register this domain. So I’m using it to tell you how many people she laid off at Hewlett-Packard.” The site then displays several arrays of frowny faces. It continues: “That’s 30,000 people she laid off. People with families.”

That number has been a subject of discussion for years. Fiorina, who ran HP for about six years from 1999, oversaw the company’s merger in 2002 with PC-maker Compaq. She was fired by the board in 2005.

Everyone remembers her out here:

She has made her business experience a centerpiece of her campaign – something that was also true when she ran for Senate in 2010 against incumbent California Democrat Barbara Boxer. As NPR’s Ina Jaffe reported during that campaign: “Boxer loves it when Fiorina brings up jobs going overseas. Each time, it gives her another opportunity to remind voters that as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, Fiorina laid off tens of thousands of American workers before she herself was fired.”

“She shipped 30,000 jobs overseas,” Boxer said at the time. “And through all that pain, what did she do to show any sacrifice? She took $100 million. That’s what happened on Wall Street.”

Fiorina herself has never disputed the number. In fact, she told InformationWeek in 2006 that HP’s merger with Compaq resulted in the job cuts.

“In the course of my time there, we laid off over 30,000 people,” she said. “That’s why I understand where the anger came from.”

One must explain these things carefully:

Fiorina has also been quick to point out, as she did in a 2010 interview with NPR, that, overall, jobs were created during her tenure as HP’s CEO. “Companies go through tough times … but net-net we created jobs,” she said.

PolitiFact, the political fact checking website run by the Tampa Bay Times, notes that “some of those jobs may have resulted from acquisitions, and some may have been abroad.”

Yeah, well, whatever, but bit there’s the inside story:

A handful of ex-employees said in interviews that Fiorina struggled to connect with rank-and-file staff. Her two immediate predecessors, Lewis Platt and John Young, had no doors to their offices. Under Fiorina, the CEO’s office was closed off to most employees who didn’t make appointments. As CEO, Platt would regularly sit with employees in the third-floor cafeteria, asking about their families or talking over the latest 49ers game. Fiorina didn’t mingle, according to her former colleagues.

“One of the hallmarks of the HP culture was MBWA – management by wandering around,” said Brad Whitworth, who worked at HP from 1980 to 2003 in various roles including leading corporate communications. “I don’t think Carly considered that a good use of her time, even though she was great at it. She was so very good at mass media that she’d much rather fire up the network and do a broadcast to thousands than sit down with employees in their workspaces.”

She also struck many as a self-promoter. After she became CEO, Fiorina’s portrait appeared next to those of Hewlett and Packard in the lobby of the company’s Palo Alto headquarters. Veteran HP staff members noted that Platt’s and Young’s images weren’t exhibited in that way. Today, there is no portrait of current HP CEO Meg Whitman on display.

Hey, she’s special. Deal with it. After all, it could be that she’s due – her father, Joseph Tyree Sneed III, who died in 2008, was a law professor at the University of Texas, Stanford, and Cornell, the dean of Duke Law School, a deputy attorney general under President Richard Nixon, and then a longtime senior judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Some people are just special. Mitt Romney was. Some people are just born to it.

Think about it. It’s hard to imagine a successful two-term president who came from a broken home with the absent father and hardly enough money to get by and no one in the family who had ever had an illustrious public career, who started out ordinary – except that there was Bill Clinton, and there is Barack Obama. Okay, scratch that, but Jonathan Allen points out the essential problem here:

For the time being, Fiorina’s running for president, and she’s proposing policies that, while hardly ambitious, would have real impact on Americans.

Few think she has a shot at the nomination or the presidency, in part because it’s not obvious why she’s running. She doesn’t have a clear ideological lane in the GOP field. It’s hard to label her brand of Republican politics – part technocrat, part budget hawk, part social-policy individualist – and even harder to see how it garners her a constituency.

She’s trying to run as an outsider on her (mixed) record as a businesswoman. She said Monday that there’s a yearning for someone “outside the professional political class.” But, up against a Republican field that has far more experience in government at the federal and state levels – and, in many cases, more fleshed out policy prescriptions – it will be tough for Fiorina to prove that she has the mechanics of governing down to implement Republican priorities.

The result is a candidacy built on a relatively conventional and small platform by a candidate whose chief claim to the presidency is that she hasn’t spent any time in government. When asked what her top agenda items would be in the Oval Office, she responded first by saying, “I think it’s critically important now that we use technology to really re-imagine government.”

The conference call with reporters Monday, the day of her announcement, went downhill from there. She said she was extraordinary. No one saw why.

Ben Carson, on the other hand, has the opposite story, as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie explains here:

Carson is an icon in the black community. His book Gifted Hands – the story of his rise from inner-city Detroit to the pinnacle of his field – made its way to countless black kids in countless black homes. “Carson is a great American success story,” writes Joel Anderson for BuzzFeed, “a rags-to-riches hero who embodied achievement against long odds. His achievement turned him into an icon of black triumph, a Horatio Alger figure in hospital scrubs.”

But otherwise he’s just ordinary, except for the persistent paranoia:

Carson’s announcement speech was light on substance, but it’s clear he doesn’t stray far from the rest of the Republican pack. He’s opposed to Obamacare, of course; called for an end to social programs that “create dependency”; and told supporters, “It’s time to rise up and take government back.”

With that said, there is one important difference between Carson’s rhetoric and that from the rest of the presidential field: It’s in the paranoid style. Throughout his speech, Carson made reference to the assorted conspiracies of the far right. People are afraid to speak up, he said, because the “IRS might audit them.” The government, he continues, just wants you to “keep your mouth shut.” Likewise, he says, we can’t trust unemployment statistics because, he claimed, “You can make the unemployment rate anything you want it to be.”

If you go beyond his presidential announcement to look at his political rhetoric during the past year, you see a similar touch of the paranoid. In one interview, he warned that anarchy from “this pathway we are going down” could lead to the 2016 election being called off, as Obama declares “martial law.” In another, he accused Obama of using immigration to bring in new voters who will be “dependent on government.” He’s compared America under Obama to Nazi Germany, and in a speech at the 2013 Values Voter Summit, he called Obamacare the “worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”

That’s a different kind of special:

It’s this paranoid approach to conservative politics that separates Carson from Herman Cain or Allen West or any of the other black Republicans who have come to fame in the Obama era. Indeed, if Carson has fellow travelers, they are conservative provocateurs like Glenn Beck and right-wing politicians like Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin. Like Carson, their styles are defined by conspiratorial thinking, and like Carson, they largely appeal to the older, whiter, and most conservative voters of the Republican Party.

That’s what makes him special, and a loser:

Can Carson turn this paranoia into votes? Probably. If he makes it to the Iowa primaries, he’ll almost certainly find support from a portion of the electorate. But there’s no chance that he’ll go beyond a modest showing with social conservatives to win a contest or even the nomination. At most, he’ll harm a more mainstream Republican, like Sen. Ted Cruz, who needs to win as many voters on the right as possible. And after that? The former hero to black Americans will likely fade from view, as another fringe candidate running another vanity campaign.

Salon’s Jim Newell puts it this way:

Carson’s rise to prominence among Tea Party conservatives – or whatever we’re calling that element of the GOP now – should be bizarre to everyone. It’s especially baffling, though, to people like your trusty Salon writer, who grew up in the mid-Atlantic in the 1990s. Most elementary and middle school students from Maryland were at some point assigned to read Ben Carson’s autobiography, Gifted Hands – typically ahead of a visit from the man himself. Carson was raised in Detroit, rising from abject poverty to Yale, eventually becoming the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, one of the best medical centers in the world. To children and adults alike, he was the reigning regional saint. (Along with Cal Ripken Jr., who didn’t pull off masterful feats of neurosurgery but did play in thousands of consecutive baseball games.)

And now he’s a clown:

The trademark of Carson’s brief political career is an all-out assault on the common literary devices of metaphor and analogy. Obamacare is slavery, and the United States under President Obama is Nazi Germany. “I want to be clear and set the record straight: I don’t think Obamacare is worse than 9/11,” Carson found himself compelled to say at one point. He has compared criticizing police to criticizing plumbers. He knows not one thing about foreign policy but speaks about it anyway. This produces comedy. He recently opined that being gay is a choice and people become gay when they go to prison.

Carson says that he’s learned over the past couple of years not to “wander off into those extraneous areas that can be exploited” by the gotcha media. The problem here, as with so many other complaints about the gotcha media, is that the media simply transcribes the crazy things that he says. He might think that he has an off switch, but that’s doubtful. People who become conservative media stars become conservative media stars by saying crazy things. It’s part of their nature.

Newell’s prediction is the same:

Carson’s legacy will not include a stint as President of the United States. It’s a shame that he’s decided to risk his real legacy, as a brilliant world-renowned doctor who came from nothing, by playing right-wing also-ran in a presidential contest.

These things happen. There really is something deeply foolish, if not shameful and embarrassing, in claims of greatness. No sensible people make such claims. Those who do, run for president. What sensible person does that? Now we have these two.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Two More Claims of Greatness

  1. Rick says:

    It’s hard to understand Carson’s popularity. I keep thinking he is partly being pushed forward as one of Ann Coulter’s “good blacks”, offered as a contrast to the Democrat’s Obama, as she explained to Sean Hannity back in late 2011:

    Ann Coulter was coming to Herman Cain’s defense against allegations of sexual harassment. The attacks, she said Monday, were fomented by the liberal establishment because they “detest conservative blacks.” The allegations were “vicious, outrageous,” and akin to the charges leveled against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. …

    Then came these zingers from her appearance on Fox News with Sean Hannity. “Our blacks are so much better than their blacks” because “you have fought against probably your family, probably your neighbors. . . that’s why we have very impressive blacks.”

    But Carson isn’t being taken seriously, partly because Obama’s no longer running, but also because Carson has nothing to say that makes actual sense.

    Same with Carly Fiorina, who’s only claim to fame — being a big-company CEO — is marred by having been fired from that job.

    She seems to think having been in business could fool people into thinking she’s an economist — and she may be right except that her experience with firing over 30,000 people doesn’t seem to qualify her for a position presiding over a country that needs to create jobs, not vaporize them.

    One thing that stands out in my memory of Fiorina was watching her claim on ABC that a government job isn’t really the same thing to the economy as a regular job — that it’s completely different. (She’s wrong, of course. Healthy economies, which need lots of spending, don’t care who does the spending, a worker in the public sector or a worker in the private sector.) Still, I suppose most Americans might agree with her about that, but I doubt she’ll get far enough to find out.

    But both these new candidates are amusing. I hope they last long enough to lighten up an otherwise dull race.

    Rick

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