DETROIT — If Ben Carson wants you to know anything from his presidential announcement here Monday, it’s that he’s not your typical candidate.
“I’m not a politician,” he said just moments after taking the stage in his hometown to announce, “I’m Ben Carson and I'm a candidate for president for the United States.”
And it certainly wasn’t a typical announcement. Carson, a neurosurgeon and political neophyte, sat in the audience of his own announcement while a choir sang a version of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” He took the stage at the Detroit Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts without notes to give a meandering speech about his hope for a less-intrusive government, about personal responsibility and about his own upbringing as a poor black child in Detroit.
“I remember when our favorite drug dealer was killed,” he said at one point. Carson wrote the speech just the night before after learning that his mother only has days to live. His plan had been to travel to Iowa directly after the announcement for his first political rally as a declared candidate. Instead he will travel to Dallas to say a final farewell to his mother.
Carson also touched on the unrest in Baltimore, a city he used to call home, saying: "People have lost hope and therefore an opportunity arises to break into a place and to loot it and stuff your pocket with things," he said. "Some people actually find it easier to collect benefits than to work a minimum-wage job. So can you really blame someone who decides to take that. But what it is doing is extinguishing the can-do attitude."
The announcement is the latest stop on a sudden journey to conservative superstardom. Carson, 63, burst onto the political scene in 2013 when — addressing the typically nonpartisan National Prayer Breakfast — he spoke about the dangers of political correctness, put forward the idea of a flat tax, and criticized President Obama’s health-care law. What made it stand out: He did it right beside a steely-faced Obama.
That week, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial titled “Ben Carson for President.” He made the rounds on Fox News, where at one point Sean Hannity told Carson that he would vote for him “in a heartbeat.” By August of that year, there was a "National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee."
The media whirlwind was hardly his first brush with fame. Before taking the conservative world by storm, Carson was famous for an up-from-his-bootstraps life story in which a young black kid growing up in poverty became, at the age of 33, the youngest major division director in Johns Hopkins Hospital history.
He was the first pediatric neurosurgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head and wrote a best-selling book, “Gifted Hands,” about his life. Actor Cuba Gooding Jr. played the doctor in a movie about his life story.
His plan at the beginning for 2013 was to retire from medicine and spend his days in Florida relaxing and learning how to play the organ. But that all changed after the Prayer Breakfast speech, in large part because of the efforts of John Philip Sousa IV (yes, he’s related to the composer) and Vernon Robinson, who started the "Draft Ben Carson" effort. To date, according to Sousa, the group has raised close to $16 million — more than the Ready for Hillary PAC raised — has gotten a half-million signatures encouraging Carson to run, and has 30,000 active volunteers across the country.
“I continue to travel around five or six states a week,” Carson told The Washington Post in an interview. “And wherever I go there are huge enthusiastic crowds of people saying, 'You're our hope.' That made me believe that I owe it to those hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who feel that way.”
Carson has made a name for himself as a “tell it like he sees it” insurgent. This has won him fans for his bluntness. It has also won him critics for exactly that reason. He’s gotten himself into political hot water by saying that Obamacare is the “worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” said the current-day United States is “very much like Nazi Germany” and said that allowing same-sex marriage could lead to allowing bestiality.
Carson said that if he could go back in time, he'd have said things differently. But he’s not about to lose his apolitical way of talking.
“I'm not even asking everybody to vote for me,” Carson said on stage. “I’m just asking everybody to listen to what I'm saying, what politicians are saying, and make a decision based on your intellect.”