It was Ben Carson week in America. The Republican front-runner, the party’s current choice to face Hillary Clinton in one year, the man Republicans now think can beat her and become our next president, was almost the only man in the news, but for odd reasons. He was being odd:
The Wall Street Journal called out Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson Thursday for wrongly claiming the Founding Fathers “had no elected office experience.”
In a Facebook post late Wednesday, Carson wrote: “Every signer of the Declaration of Independence had no elected office experience… What they had was a deep belief that freedom is a gift from God.”
The Journal pointed out the historical inaccuracy Thursday. Thomas Jefferson, Sam Adams, John Hancock and many other signer of the Declaration of Independence all held elected seats in colonial assemblies, Benjamin Carp, an associate history professor at Brooklyn College, told the paper.
A spokesman for the Carson campaign, when asked about the error, told the paper that the retired neurosurgeon had since edited his post to clarify the signers had no experience in “federal” office.
Of course they didn’t. They hadn’t invented our federal government yet. That rendered the whole thing moot – odd, but moot. It wasn’t worth arguing about anyway. He was talking about amateurs and God – all you need is God and you’ll do wonderful things. Expertise doesn’t matter. Experience doesn’t matter. He says that a lot. He’s running for president and has neither – but he has God. He just chose the wrong example, but history isn’t his strong suit. He was a famous neurosurgeon. That’s admirable, but this time he didn’t get away with using the line that almost always works on any topic or on any issue – “Trust me, I’m a doctor.”
Well, people do ask doctors about auto repair and fine wine and the weather, as if doctors know everything, and that’s seductive. Old habits die hard, but the day before it was this:
Ben Carson stood by his long-held belief about ancient pyramids in Egypt, that they were used to store grain, rather than to inter pharaohs. Asked about this Wednesday, Carson told CBS News, “It’s still my belief, yes.”
The subject came up when Buzzfeed published a 1998 commencement speech delivered by Carson at Andrews University, a college founded by Seventh-Day Adventists.
“My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids to store grain,” Carson said. “Now all the archeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But, you know, it would have to be something awfully big if you stop and think about it. And I don’t think it’d just disappear over the course of time to store that much grain.”
Archeologists howled. They’d found the pharaohs’ tombs in there. What about that? All he could say was that the secular progressives were ganging up on him – they don’t get the God stuff – and he’s a doctor too. Trust him, but Kevin Drum doesn’t trust him:
It’s not even a religious belief. Muslims don’t say the pyramids were for grain storage. Neither do Mormons or Jews or Christian Scientists or Southern Baptists or Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. There’s nothing in the Bible about this. It’s not a religious belief. It’s just Carson’s weird, personal theory.
What’s more, this isn’t something like evolution or the Big Bang, where the evidence is arcane enough that lots of people feel comfortable dismissing it. Our knowledge of the pyramids is plain and unambiguous. I mean, thousands of Christian tourists have been inside. They aren’t hollow. They have lots of passages and rooms. We’ve found burial chambers and sarcophagi. We can read the hieroglyphics on the walls. Anyone with a TV set knows this.
What’s more, Carson’s defense is ridiculous. He figures Joseph needed something big to store all that grain in the Bible, and something that big would still be around. But why? He could have stored it in lots of little things. He could have stored it in medium-sized things. Ten thousand silos a few yards on a side would have provided the same amount of storage space and been a helluva lot easier to construct. Only an idiot would store grain in a few humongous pyramids. Was Joseph an idiot?
No, but someone is:
His pyramid theory isn’t a religious belief. It has nothing to do with dogma, nothing to do with scripture, and nothing to do with any kind of divine intervention. It’s just a dumb personal invention – plain old secular dumb.
So there were two days of talk about this stuff – Carson was an odd guy – but things got even odder on Friday:
As retired Baltimore neurosurgeon Ben Carson has reached the top in several recent national polls, he is also experiencing new scrutiny as a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
On Friday, his name dominated political news with a Politico report that his campaign “admits fabricating a West Point scholarship” in his autobiography, though that reference was later taken out of the story. The story also quoted a West Point spokeswoman as saying the famous military academy had no record of an application from Carson.
He lied about being accepted to West Point? That was a bit more serious, but that can be explained:
Barry Bennett, Carson’s campaign manager, said in an interview that Carson’s book, “Gifted Hands,” was accurate when Carson wrote, “I was offered a full scholarship to West Point.”
“I would not have used the word ‘full scholarship.’ I would have said ‘nomination,’ but it’s not a fabrication, it’s not a lie,” Bennett said in an interview. At West Point, tuition and other expenses are paid by the government.
It was all a misunderstanding:
Bennett said that Carson, who he said was the top high school Junior ROTC officer in Detroit, was offered a nomination to West Point by ROTC officials in the city. He said he did not have names, but that the campaign and others are trying to locate them to corroborate Carson’s story.
Later, Carson told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that his account of the West Point episode “could have been more clarified. I told it as I understood it.”
That won’t wash:
Clearly, however, Carson has left an impression that the offer to go to the academy came from West Point itself. On Facebook in August, Carson took a question from someone named Bill, who “wanted to know if it was true that I was offered a slot at West Point after high school. Bill, that is true. I was the highest student ROTC member in Detroit and was thrilled to get an offer from West Point. But I knew medicine is what I wanted to do. So I applied to only one school.”
Carson went to Yale, and that was that, but not really – he kept lying about this – and maybe about this too:
Carson was also involved in a contentious interview Friday morning on CNN. Anchor Alisyn Camerota badgered him about reports by the network that it had been unable to locate some childhood friends or family members Carson mentions having assaulted in his autobiography.
In his book, Carson says he once tried to stab a person he refers to as Bob. On Friday, Carson told CNN that person was really a family member by another name who did not want to be identified. Other childhood friends mentioned in the book could decide for themselves whether to come forward, he said.
And then his campaign manager came to the rescue:
Bennett said the political attacks were a function of national polls over the past week showing him ahead of Donald Trump and all other Republicans for the nomination. “Somewhere, there is a panicked candidate running for the Republican presidential nomination who is spreading a lot of dirt,” Bennett said.
Everyone is out to get him, but trust him, he’s a doctor.
Some trust him, and Josh Marshall covers how the rest of the day was going:
A lot of conservatives are now deciding that Carson is innocent of fabricating an admission to West Point. But the basis of his exoneration is apparently that Carson is so totally ignorant of how tuition, the service academies and apparently just life in general work that he may have claimed something that is demonstrably false but not known it. Erick Erickson first wrote a post saying the Carson was toast. But he then struck that post and replaced it with another basically exonerating him. To be fair to Erickson, unlike some others, he’s not exactly exonerating Carson but saying that he has “more wiggle room on this story than the Politico suggested.”
That may barely be true. But ‘wiggle room’ is the key point.
So there’s the wiggling:
Now, the pro-Carson pushback is based on what Carson claims was a banquet where he met with General William Westmoreland 1969. The idea seems to be that at the banquet Westmoreland or some people from West Point said something to the effect of ‘You’ve got great grades, you’re an impressive young man, you should or could go to West Point, etc.’ That is not at all implausible since Carson was a young African-American man at the top of his ROTC class at the height of the Vietnam War. According to Carson’s campaign manager, the West Point folks at the banquet “told him they could get him get an appointment based on his grades and performance in ROTC. He considered it but in the end did not seek admission.”
Now, there’s a separate point that you can’t get “scholarship” because West Point doesn’t charge tuition. You commit to being in the Army after your graduation. In effect, you’re already in the Army. But setting that aside, the best explanation of Carson’s story is that representatives from West Point said they could help him getting an appointment to West Point and he interpreted this as getting an offer of admission or a “scholarship”.
One might imagine that eighteen-year-old Carson didn’t grasp the distinction. Maybe. But it’s basically impossible to believe that the sixty-something Ben Carson telling people this on Facebook a couple months ago didn’t realize that, by any reasonable standard, he was saying he was offered admission to West Point and turned it down.
And that leads to this:
Carson’s apparent cluelessness is now put forward as his saving grace.
Marshall then covers Friday evening:
Ben Carson’s defenders rallied late this afternoon, focusing in on whether Carson “fabricated” a story about his admission to West Point or simply told a story that was demonstrably false numerous times over several decades. But Carson seemed to dig himself deeper in an angry exchange with reporters this evening.
Marshall then cites this snippet from the conservative Washington Examiner:
“Politico, as you know, told a bald-faced lie,” Carson said. “I never said I received a full scholarship. Nowhere did I say that.”
A member of the media interjected: “You just told me you got scholarship offer.”
“I never said I got a scholarship,” Carson replied, making a distinction between “scholarship” and “scholarship offer.”
The Examiner then notes that, in October, Carson told Charlie Rose: “I was offered a full scholarship to West Point, got to meet General Westmoreland, go to Congressional Medal dinners, but decided really my pathway would be medicine.” In other words, Carson now seems to be hanging his hat on whether he got a “scholarship” or a “scholarship offer.” Obviously, he got neither, since West Point offers no scholarships since there’s no tuition. And he never got an offer of anything, since he never went through the fairly lengthy nomination/admissions process.
Carson then went off on a tirade about President Obama’s allegedly secret college records and attacked the media for ignoring this Obama scandal.
“All the things that Jeremiah Wright was saying, eh, no problem,” Carson said, pillorying the media. “Goes to Occidental College, doesn’t do all that well, and somehow ends up at Columbia … His records are sealed,” Carson said. “Why are you guys not interested in why his records are sealed?”
Yes, Carson went on the attack and it wasn’t pretty. It may have seemed to some a bit pathetic – none of this was his fault and we should talk about Obama anyway – and of course poor Donald Trump must have been frantic. No one was paying any attention to him. He probably never imagined there’d be a Ben Carson Week in America. This was huge. He wasn’t.
This was also inevitable. The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman explains why:
The reason this is happening now is obvious: Carson is reaping the reward of his success, which is an uncomfortable trip to the campaign microscope, courtesy of both the press and his opponents. More reporters are coming to his events, the questions are getting tougher and more insistent, his past writings and statements are being carefully examined, everyone who knew him since he was a babe in arms is getting interviewed, and from where he sits the whole thing probably seems terribly unfair.
But it isn’t. Not only is it just what every seriously contending candidate gets, when it comes to Ben Carson we almost have no choice but to focus on his life story and the colorful things he says and believes. So even before the West Point story, coverage of Carson was already consumed with questions about whether he stabbed a guy when he was 14, his theory about the pyramids, and his wildly inaccurate beliefs about things like Medicare fraud.
It’s not true that that’s half a trillion dollars – more than half of all those payments do not go to bad guys who treat no one. No one has any idea where Carson came up with that number. He just made that up, and Waldman thinks it’s time to think long and hard about this Carson fellow:
I’m a longtime critic of the personality coverage that takes up so much of the campaign, not because we don’t want to know who the “real” person is behind the persona of a presidential candidate, but because we in the media so often ask the wrong questions when we take on this task. The problem is that the moment we set out on this voyage of discovery, we forget the whole point of the exercise, which is to get the best understanding we can of what this person would be like if they were to become president.
And here we have a problem:
For instance, let’s take the stabbing story. Carson wrote in his autobiography that before he found God as a teenager he was an angry and violent teen, as evidenced by the fact that he once tried to stab someone, whom he now says was a relative. CNN did a story interviewing a number of people, who knew him as a youth, and they say that he wasn’t the hellion he describes, but was actually a perfectly nice kid. Carson is angrily denying the allegation that he was not in fact a danger to those around him.
It should be noted that among the evangelical Christians who form the base of Carson’s support, redemption narratives are extremely powerful — the lower down you were the better, before God raised you up. The depth of the hole you had to climb out of is yet more evidence of God’s power. But the question about this is who cares?
Even if he made this whole thing up this would tell us nothing at all about what sort of president he might be:
Don’t tell me, “It matters because it speaks to his honesty.” Honesty does matter, but the way you figure out whether a president will be honest about the things he does as president is to see what he’s saying about the things he’d do as president. When he was a candidate, we learned that Bill Clinton had affairs and covered them up, and what did that teach us? That as president, he’d have an affair and cover it up – not that he’d lie about other things. George W. Bush presented himself as brimming with personal integrity, all while telling one lie after another about his record in Texas and the policies he was proposing (while the press was poring over his opponent’s every word with Talmudic care to see if they could catch him in a misstatement). Lo and behold, as president he was faithful to his wife, but deceived the country about all kinds of important policy matters.
So yes, it now appears that Carson embellished his life story a bit to make his autobiography a more compelling read. Saying that he’s hardly the first prominent figure to have done that is not to forgive him, but there are more important things to consider.
One might actually consider that pyramid story:
Carson maintains that unlike “all the archeologists” who say that the pyramids were built by the pharaohs to be their tombs, he believes that the biblical figure Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. There is precisely zero evidence for this belief.
This is hardly the only matter about which Carson says all the scientists are wrong. He thinks that the theory of evolution was born when Satan encouraged Charles Darwin to devise it; all the copious evidence for evolution is meaningless. Carson also says that he once stumped a “well-known physicist” by asking him how the organization of the solar system could be compatible with the second law of thermodynamics, which states that systems tend to move toward entropy. Carson is either lying about this or wildly misinterpreted the conversation he had, because there’s no contradiction between the two. There isn’t a physicist on earth who would tell you that the solar system proves that God’s hand was at work. But people who learn only a tiny bit about certain scientific ideas often become convinced that they’ve happened upon a striking new revelation that all the so-called experts have never considered before.
That matters in a president:
When George W. Bush said he was “the decider,” he was describing accurately a large part of the job. Every day, the president’s aides bring him decisions he has to make, decisions that are often complex and uncertain. He has to weigh different kinds of evidence and make predictions about the future. People who know more than him about a particular topic – the economics of the labor market, the internal politics of Iran, the health effects of power-plant emissions – will offer him their advice based on their expertise, and he’ll have to integrate their perspective with other considerations that might come into play in a particular policy decision.
Ben Carson’s ideas about things like the pyramids, combined with what he has said about other more immediate topics, suggest not only that his beliefs are impervious to evidence but also an alarming lack of what we might call epistemological modesty. It isn’t what he doesn’t know that’s the problem; it’s what he doesn’t realize that he doesn’t know. He thinks that all the archeologists who have examined the pyramids just don’t know what they’re talking about, because Joseph had to put all that grain somewhere. He thinks that after reading something about the second law of thermodynamics, he knows more about the solar system than the world’s physicists do. He thinks that after hearing a Glenn Beck rant about the evils of Islam, he knows as much about a 1,400-year-old religion as any theologian and can confidently say why no Muslim who doesn’t renounce his faith could be president.
So what happens when President Carson gets what he thinks is a great idea, and a bunch of “experts” tell him it would actually be a disaster?
We may know that now, or we should keep trying to know that in this particular case:
This is a more acute question with Carson than with any other candidate, because he has no political record we can examine to see how he might perform. The policy ideas he has put forward range between the impossibly vague and the utterly outlandish. Even more so than Donald Trump, who has at least managed a large organization, Carson offers only himself – his heart, his spirit, his soul – as the reason why America should elect him president. In assessing him we have no choice but to look at the man, because there’s nothing else. Some parts of his personal story are irrelevant to that assessment, but some parts aren’t. And it’s those that should really give us pause.
But he’s a doctor. Isn’t that all you need to know? Next year we’ll need a new president. Is there a doctor in the house?
Yeah, but he’s a doctor. That’s all he is. We need a new president, and the presidency isn’t brain surgery. It’s harder.