Ben Carson’s star rose from rough beginnings

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This article is part of a series of profiles of the 2016 presidential candidates that will appear on the NewBostonPost in the months leading up to the nominating conventions. 

Oh! That mine enemy would write a book! I had written a book, and it has furnished a matter of abuse for want of something better.
— Thomas Jefferson, March 1789.

(NewBostonPost graphic)

(NewBostonPost graphic)

Dr. Ben Carson might commiserate with Thomas Jefferson, who famously lamented the way his political opponents used one of his books against him.

Carson, 64, a retired neurosurgeon and political newcomer who has shot to the front of the pack in Republican presidential polls, has written several books.  One, his autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” which was turned into a made-for-TV-movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr., has furnished plenty of ammunition to rivals.

Media accounts have highlighted imprecise anecdotes contained in the book, including Carson’s claims that he was offered a “full scholarship to West Point.”  The service academy does not give individual scholarships, although a West Point education is free to all who are admitted. But Carson recently admitted that he never actually applied.

Politico pounced on the concession, issuing a story entitled, “Ben Carson admits fabricating West Point Scholarship,” although Carson’s staff maintains that he “admitted” no such thing.  Carson did concede, however, that the he was not actually offered a scholarship in the technical sense of the term.

What is undisputed is Carson’s participation in high school Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Inspired by his older brother Curtis, Carson entered ROTC during 10th grade, aiming to attain the rank of colonel.

He succeeded and became a decorated cadet.  When he became a “full-bird” colonel, Carson was the only one at that rank in Detroit. The achievement as the city’s top cadet led to a meeting with General William Westmoreland (former commander of American forces in Vietnam from 1964-1968).  Carson maintains that based on his ROTC rank and his stellar academic record, he was told by Westmoreland that he could attend the prestigious military academy.  He instead chose to apply to Yale.

Carson’s autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” was turned into a made-for-tv-movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr.

Months before the publication of the Politico report, Carson elaborated further on his meeting with Westmoreland during an August question-and-answer session on his Facebook page. Asked if the West Point story related in his autobiography was true, Carson replied:

“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. (It was all the money I had). I applied to Yale, and thank God they accepted me. I often wonder what might have happened had they said no.”

Politico later revised its headline to read: “Exclusive: Carson claimed West Point ‘scholarship’ but never applied.” But the media firestorm has not died down.

Earlier this month, Salon published a piece entitled “Ben Carson is a pathological liar.” And GOP rival Donald Trump released an Instagram video referring to Carson in similar terms.

But if Carson, like Jefferson, has any regrets for writing “Gifted Hands,” he isn’t showing them.  The retired doctor knows what it’s like to live under trying conditions. His upbringing reveals many of them.

Motor City motivation

When Carson was born in 1951, Detroit was in the midst of celebrating its 250th birthday. It staged an ongoing party of grand proportions.

“All men everywhere look to Detroit,” Detroit Times editor John Manning wrote ahead of the city’s birthday week of celebration.

“Everybody says Detroit is a magic city, and it is.”

Unfortunately, the magic failed to filter down to the Carson family. The story is now well-known:  Ben’s mother, Sonya left school in the third grade, and at age 13 married a Baptist minister named Robert S. Carson. Sonya told Detroit Magazine in 1988 that, after having two children, she discovered her husband had another family.  She referred to her former husband in that article as a “bigamist.”

The couple split up, and Robert went to live with his other family — leaving Sonya solely responsible for raising her two boys, Ben, 8, and Curtis, 10. She worked as many as three jobs at a time to provide for her family.

Although the broad outlines of this story appear to be true, earlier this month, the British news source reported that some of the details may not be.  In fact, the British newspaper unearthed documents indicating that Sonya was unmarried at the age of 14 and was registered in school at least until the 5th grade.   There is no evidence, however, that Ben Carson had any knowledge that details his mother told him about her life were inaccurate.

Reading and Religion: the keys to Carson’s success

One thing is clear: Sonya Carson, who worked as a domestic housekeeper, understood keenly that reading held the key to to success for her sons.  So, she forced her children to turn off the television and pick up books. Many books.  Sonya told Detroit Magazine in 1988 that she required her sons to read two books a week and to present her written book reports on each.  At the time, her young sons were unaware that their mother struggled to read them.

Despite his mother’s best efforts to insulate her children from their rough urban setting, growing up without a father in the home made life emotionally difficult for young Ben.

In “Gifted Hands” Carson wrote that he grappled with a “pathological temper” that resulted in him attempting to stab a friend and threatening to hit his mother with a hammer.

Carson credits God with helping him learn to control his temper.

“I’d dreamed of being a doctor since I was eight years old,” Carson wrote.

“But how could I fulfill the dream with such a terrible temper?”

Carson credits his success in life to his mother’s insistence on two things: religion and reading.

Carson, who moved with his family for a short time to Boston to live with a relative, says it was his mother who taught him to pray. Those lessons were reinforced by his teachers “at the religious school in Boston” who told him “that God would help us if we only asked Him.”

In one anecdote, Carson recounts trying to stab a Detroit friend in a fit of rage, only to hit his belt buckle and break the blade without injuring his intended victim. He says he then bolted to the sanctuary of a bathroom, where he had a revelation.

“In that small hot bathroom I knew the truth. I knew I could not handle my temper alone,” Carson wrote about the incident, which occurred when he was 14.

Today, Carson, baptized as a boy in a Seventh-day Adventist church in Detroit, is not afraid to drop references to God in his conversations with the media.

He began to work on controlling his temper by memorizing Biblical proverbs and ultimately went on to excel in high school in Detroit.

Disrupting the dominant narrative

Carson’s story that he overcame a troubled youth and a life of poverty with a steady diet of reading and religion runs counter to the prevailing narrative that the poor and powerless can rise above their circumstances only with the aid of the government.

It did not take long, therefore, for the media to attempt to poke holes in Carson’s story.

Carson upon his graduation from Yale. (Ben Carson campaign)

Carson upon his graduation from Yale. (Ben Carson campaign)

Earlier this fall, CNN dispatched a team of reporters to verify the veracity of Carson’s claim that he once had a violent temper.

After interviewing ten people from Carson’s youth, nine of whom could not recall any instances of Ben Carson exhibiting violence or anger, CNN released a piece entitled, “A tale of two Carsons,” suggesting that Carson had made the story up.

Of course, the fact that Carson may have hid his temper from some people does not mean it did not exist.  And Carson responded to questions about his truthfulness by posting to Facebook a 1997 Parade Magazine article in which his mother said that her son had once tried to stab another kid. A former Johns Hopkins colleague also came forward and said that Carson told him about the attempted stabbing in 1987.

But this has not stopped the press from desperately seeking discrepancies in Carson’s biography.  Recently, the Daily Mail called into question the veracity of Carson’s claim that he once tried to hit his mother with a hammer.  The Mail pointed to Sonya Carson’s 1988 interview with Detroit Magazine where she said that Ben raised his hand to strike her, but that it was she who raised the hammer in self defense.

Although Carson critics view these “gotcha” stories as evidence that the candidate is less than honest, none of the discrepancies thus far uncovered in any way contradict Carson’s central claim: that as a young man he struggled mightily to control his volatile side – and that it was books and faith in God that, ultimately, helped him succeed in spite of deep personal flaws.

Paging Dr. Carson

And succeed he did.

Carson’s stellar academic record ultimately won him admission to one of the most prestigious colleges in America:  Yale.  It was there, in New Haven, Connecticut, that Carson met his future wife, Lacena “Candy” Rustin, a fellow Yale student.

Dr. Ben Carson holds a model of the heads of conjoined twins during a 2004 news conference. (AP)

Dr. Ben Carson holds a model of the heads of conjoined twins during a 2004 news conference. (AP)

After graduating from Yale in 1973, Carson worked at several different jobs, including as a bank teller and a crane operator before entering the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.

He and Candy married in 1975.  Carson earned his medical degree in 1977.

Carson completed a residency in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and by 1984 had risen to the position of director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, specializing in traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord tumors.

At just 33 years old, Carson became the youngest physician in Johns Hopkins history to lead a major hospital division.

His successful 1987 separation of the conjoined Binder twins, Patrick and Benjamin, in a 22-hour operation earned him worldwide fame. Ten years later, he performed the surgery again, this time for conjoined Zambian twins, Luka and Joseph Banda. In 2008, for his pioneering work in the field, President George W. Bush awarded Carson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But not all of Carson’s surgeries were successful.  In 2003, he was part of a team that separated adult twins Ladan and Laleh Bijani.  Carson said he never believed the operation had much chance of success, and that his medical team tried to talk the sisters out of it. But the women said that remaining conjoined was a fate worse than death and insisted on moving forward.  The twins died within 90 minutes of each other.

Carson told reporters afterwards that the deaths were tragic, but said that “What they have contributed to medical science will live far beyond them.”

In 2013, Carson retired from neurosurgery. Asked why he decided to call it a career, Carson told the Washington Post, “I’d much rather quit when I’m at the top of my game.”

The Yale connection

Less widely reported is Carson’s time serving as a member of the highly exclusive Yale Corporation, as its board of trustees is formally known. The corporation, according to Yale, has 17 members, including the school’s president. Six are elected by Yale alumni from among their ranks.

The remaining 10 are known as successor trustees and are appointed by the corporation. Carson was one of those elected by alumni and served from 1997 until 2003.

A successor trustee who overlapped with Carson told the NewBostonPost that Carson stood out for his humility and quiet self-confidence.

Ben and Candy Carson are “the sort of couple anyone would wish to have as neighbors and friends.”

“The corporation is a group that consists of individuals who are each highly successful,” explained the former trustee who asked not to be identified by name. “Each one is at the top of his or her field, and they carry themselves accordingly.

“Ben Carson was different. He never showed a shred of arrogance or entitlement or any presumption that you knew who he was.”

The former trustee said that Carson and his wife, Candy, were “the sort of couple anyone would wish to have as neighbors and friends.”

Asked whether Carson’s gentle personality is somewhat of a myth, the trustee said “(Carson’s) disposition is for real,” and added that Carson had “no affectations of any kind, which is very interesting. Ben has a very kind disposition. It’s the exact way we tend to idealize the old-fashioned, caring physician.”

In a May article in the Yale Daily News economist and author Charles Ellis ’59, another former colleague from the Yale corporation, praised Carson in as an “enormously brilliant man.”

“Ben is crackjack smart,” Ellis is quoted as saying.  But his intelligence goes beyond scientific smarts.  According to Ellis, “(Carson is) really smart at understanding other people, and he doesn’t just understand what they’re saying, he understands why they’re saying it, and the background that causes them to believe the things that they are saying.”

Ben Carson “refuses to be anybody’s slave, anybody’s puppet” – Armstrong Williams, Carson advisor

So why has the media been so hard on Carson?

Armstrong Williams, a longtime Carson advisor, attributes the media’s treatment of Carson to their dislike of black conservatives.

“Obviously these are establishment journalists,” Williams recently told NewsMax. “They feel Dr. Carson, who also happens to be an American who is black, they feel there are certain things he should not believe and subscribe to.

“They don’t want him to be truly free and speak what he believes.”

Ben Carson, Williams noted, “refuses to be anybody’s slave, anybody’s puppet.”

The Prayer Breakfast

One could say that the Carson campaign began in earnest in 2013, when the doctor gave a half hour speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington that was highly critical of President Obama, with president sitting just a few feet away on the dais.

Carson also slammed political correctness.

“PC is dangerous,” he said. “In this country, one of the founding principles was freedom of thought and freedom of expression. Political correctness puts a muzzle on people.”

Carson also lashed out at the media in a comment that served as a harbinger of things to come.

“We have imposed upon people restrictions to what they can say, on what they can think,” Carson said. “And the media is the largest proponent of this, crucifying people who say things really quite innocently.”

In 2013, Carson boldly critiqued President Obama’s policies with the president sitting just a few feet away. In that moment, conservatives found themselves a new folk hero.

America was enraptured.  The president was offended. White House officials had requested copies of Carson’s prepared remarks in advance of the breakfast, according to a report in The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress. Carson had declined.

Following the breakfast, the White House also asked Carson to apologize to Obama. He declined again.  Conservatives had found themselves a new folk hero.

Carson’s performance prompted the Wall Street Journal in an editorial to urge him to run for president.

“The Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon may not be politically correct, but he’s closer to correct than we’ve heard in years,” the editorial opined.

By August, the Draft Ben Carson for President Committee was formed.

Clearly, there is something about Ben Carson’s story and message that resonates with GOP voters.  The most recent national polling data averaged by Real Clear Politics shows the doctor from Detroit holding steady in second place among the congested field of Republican presidential candidates, trailing only Manhattanite Donald Trump, another political outsider but but one who comes from the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

The figures collected from Nov. 16 to Nov. 19 put Carson at 19.7 percent to Trump’s 28.7 percent.

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on Twitter at @evanmlips.

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