DES MOINES — Ben Carson sees bullies everywhere.
Maybe that’s what happens after years of being walloped by stronger kids, and ridiculed by the smarter ones at his inner-city schools in Boston and Detroit.
The bullying is central to the stories Carson tells about himself. Onstage here today in Iowa, where all presidential campaigns begin, he starts with a tale about studying hard enough to best his tormentors.
“I went from the bottom of the class to the top of the class, much to the consternation of the students who called me ‘dummy,’ ” he says with a grin. “Now they were coming and saying, ‘Benny, Benny, come help me with this problem.’ I’d say, ‘Come sit at my feet while I instruct you, youngster.’ I was perhaps a little obnoxious, but it sure felt good to say that to those turkeys.”
Fifty years, a pioneering career as a pediatric neurosurgeon and six best-selling books later, Carson, 62, gleefully recites this story as though it happened yesterday.
But he didn’t come to Iowa just to tell his parable about schoolyard jerks. He’s inside this meeting hall, before a sellout crowd of nearly 400 people at the Polk County Republicans’ end-of-summer fundraiser, to discuss bullies of a different order. He wants to talk about the “secular progressives” in the news media, politics and academia who will stop at nothing to change the nation as we know it. He also wants to do this in Iowa, while raising money for local Republicans, coinciding with the start of his new PAC, which will “lay the groundwork” should he decide to run for president.
“The vast majority of people in this country actually have common sense; the problem is they’ve been beaten into submission,” Carson says, standing onstage between two mounted moose heads and beneath a series of chandeliers made of antlers. He speaks softly, almost as though he’s reading a child to sleep. But this is a scary story. If Republicans don’t win back the Senate in November, he says, he can’t be sure “there will even be an election in 2016.” Later, his wife, Candy, tells a supporter that they are holding on to their son’s Australian passport just in case the election doesn’t go their way.
“Bullies do whatever they can get away with and keep pushing boundaries until they meet resistance,” he writes in his new book, “One Nation” — one part memoir, one part political tome and one part tactical field guild for dealing with oppressors. “It is the people’s job to stop them before they become uncontrollable.”
It’s the perfect message for people who feel like the government is pushing them around. Carson’s experience — of growing up poor and black, thinking he might not make it past his 25th birthday and going on to become a world-class surgeon — may be unusual here in Polk County, but his feelings of being disrespected are universal.
His views seem to resonate in particular with evangelicals. And, for people who fear they will be pilloried by the “PC police” for speaking their minds on same-sex marriage, or how black voters are bought off by “goodies” from Democrats, or how President Obama’s health-care law is akin to slavery, Carson is a godsend. He isn’t afraid to say any of these things.
It started in February 2013 when he confronted bully numero uno. Speaking just feet away from Obama at the National Prayer breakfast, Carson gave a blistering critique of the Affordable Care Act. Then, as he describes it in an interview, “everything exploded.” The next day, the Wall Street Journal ran a column titled, “Ben Carson for President.” This gave birth to the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee, which has raised $8.7 million (as of July, Ready for Hillary had raised about $8.25 million). His new book will be No. 1 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list next week (he loves pointing out how much better it’s doing than Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “Hard Choices,” No. 6 on the same list).
Carson says that at the time of the prayer breakfast, he was planning a relaxing retirement. He even bought an organ with designs on honing his musical skills and spending his days away from “The People’s Republic of Maryland,” as he calls it, in sunny Florida.
He did retire from surgery last year, but his retirement plans changed.
“Sometimes I realize there are forces greater than me,” he says. “I am an instrument that’s being used to help restore this country.”
Last week, he took his “One Nation” tour into the politically important state of Iowa, where, in addition to signing books in various Barnes and Noble stores, he headlined three Republican fundraisers. (Carson, however, does not identify himself as a Republican, saying he wishes there were a “Logic Party” he could join.) He entered the state Sunday saying he was thinking about running and left his final crowd Monday night saying, “There’s a strong chance that [he] will.”
Carson ends this speech in Des Moines to chants of “Run, Ben, run!” Sherill Whisenand, co-chairman of the Polk County Republican Central Committee, makes an announcement over the loudspeaker that Carson has won the group’s presidential straw poll, with 62 percent of the vote.
“In this room tonight, I can probably count on both hands the amount of regular people that come to most meetings,” Whisenand says later. “These are new people we’ve never met. . . . He’s clearly reaching people who aren’t always part of the process.”
In Des Moines, a man who used to drive a limo for Carson in Baltimore showed up because he always has admired him. “He doesn’t see color because all he knows is the inside of a brain,” he says. In Davenport, a black physician who grew up in inner-city Chicago says no other politician has come as close to representing him in terms of background and principles. In Cedar Rapids, a woman named Rebecca Stone drove from Chicago in a rainstorm, arriving at a Barnes and Noble three hours early, and nearly burst into tears when she met him. “His story is just so remarkable. I know he would be an incredible president,” she says in the parking lot, clutching an autographed copy of his book.
Las Vegas oddsmakers wouldn’t recommend putting a big bet on Carson’s presidential chances. Even his friends give him the nickname “Long shot.” But Stone is right about one thing: His story, which he recounts in his book “Gifted Hands,” is remarkable.
Carson’s mother was one of 24 children, got married when she was 13 and divorced when she found out that her husband had more than one family. The combination of growing up poor, having a broken family and facing constant bullying from classmates made Carson a tinderbox of a child. Once, he tried to stab his friend in the gut, only to have his knife break off on his buddy’s belt buckle.
As he tells it, he locked himself in a bathroom afterward and prayed to God for the ability to control his temper. It worked. His mother told him to stop watching television and to read more, and just like that he became a better student. He attended Yale, got his medical degree at the University of Michigan, at 33 became the youngest director of a major division in the history of Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital as head of pediatric surgery, and rose to worldwide fame as the first surgeon to separate twins conjoined at the head (note: His middle name is Solomon, perhaps the first person ever to consider dividing a baby).
When “Gifted Hands” was published in 1990, the Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote a blurb on the back calling Carson “a model to all the youth of today.” Carson became so famous that when the Farrelly brothers made the 2003 comedy “Stuck on You” about conjoined twins, they asked him to make a cameo. He agreed to do it only if the movie premiere was held in Baltimore. For that day, Charm City felt like Hollywood. Here’s how broad his appeal was, politically speaking: He said in an interview this week that he turned down offers from George W. Bush and Obama (in 2009) to become surgeon general. He said that he found the job too ceremonial and that it wasn’t worth the pay cut.
If it all sounds like a made-for-TV movie, that’s because it is. Cuba Gooding Jr. played Carson.
It’s easy for people to say there are two Ben Carsons: the one who wrote the inspirational “Gifted Hands” and the one who is jumping into the political arena with both feet. Carson says that anyone who reads his past works can see that he’s writing about the same stuff as always: the importance of self-reliance, education and standing up to those trying to bring you down.
“Go back and read my books, they are exactly the same things,” he says in an interview at the Cedar Rapids Marriott after his second Republican fundraiser. He squints through his rectangular glasses, talks slowly and flashes an easygoing smirk. “But now, because they’ve classified you as a sellout or Uncle Tom, then all the things that they praised you about before they’ll say, ‘No, we can’t hear that, that’s not right.’ ”
That’s one way to look at it. Another is that Carson has upped the tenor of his language, daring people to criticize him so he can shoot them down as nothing more than bullies trying to silence him.
Since the Prayer Breakfast, Carson has been in the news for saying the health-care law is “the worst thing to happen in this nation since slavery,” for seeming to compare same-sex marriage to bestiality, and for saying that “America is very much like Nazi Germany.”
Does he worry that perhaps comparing Obama supporters to Nazi sympathizers may sound like something a bully might do?
“You can’t dance around it,” he says. “If people look at what I said and were not political about it, they’d have to agree. Most people in Germany didn’t agree with what Hitler was doing. . . . Exactly the same thing can happen in this country if we are not willing to stand up for what we believe in.” So stand up he does, citing Nathan Hale and Patrick Henry along the way. He wants his only regret to be that he has but one life to give. Or at least give him sound bite or give him death.
For there he is with a new contract on Fox News Channel and a column in the Washington Times. There he is on television debating Jesse Jackson about the recent killing in Ferguson, Mo., saying that a white police officer’s fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown, who was black, had “nothing to do with race.” There he is on Bill O’Reilly’s show saying sure, he doesn’t have political experience, but he didn’t have experience separating conjoined twins when he did it for the first time. And this weekend, he’ll be in Texas at a summit for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.
“If he can do all those things he did as a surgeon, I promise you he can figure out our immigration system and reduce the deficit,” says John Philip Sousa IV, who in addition to being the famous composer’s great-grandson also started the Draft Ben Carson PAC.
Even Carson can’t pretend that he isn’t excited about being back out there scrapping with people who want to see him fail.
“I have to admit that it’s heady stuff,” he says. “You pull up to a bookstore and there are 500, 1,000 people there. I walk in and everyone starts applauding and chanting, ‘Run, Ben, run!’ It’s everywhere I go, and it makes me realize how important it is to keep going.”
Can he become president? Probably not. But man, it will feel good for him to give it to those turkeys if he proves everyone wrong.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the fundraising total for the Ready for Hillary PAC. This version has been updated.