Two days before Christmas, with his presidential campaign fading fast, Ben Carson sought to take control at his manse in the countryside west of Baltimore.
A video crew was in the front living room preparing to film a campaign ad. A photo shoot was being prepped in the basement. The Associated Press had come calling, and more members of the media would show up after The Washington Post had its turn. In a matter of hours, Carson’s children and grandchildren were expected to arrive for the holiday.
Amid all that commotion stood Carson, both completely surrounded and almost entirely alone — the sole staffer on hand was a financial adviser, and the two spoke only glancingly.
Unless something in his campaign changed fast, Carson was in danger of going the way of Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain — fad candidates who wilted before a single vote had been cast. This was the day he had marked to stop the fade.
At first, Carson seemed unsure what to do. He suggested talking in a guest bedroom. But that wasn’t right. He then considered a living room next to the video crew, but that, too, seemed off. At last, he settled on the basement — a man cave befitting a world-renowned neurosurgeon. There was a pool table, a ping-pong table and a giant, rounded leather couch. On the walls were dozens of framed honorary degrees.
Carson took a seat in the curve of the couch and proceeded to explain that his staffers had let him down. Spent too much money. Kept trying to get him to change — to be more pugnacious, Trump-esque, even. A shake-up would come as soon as the next day — or maybe not for a few weeks — but it would come.
The Post would report his remarks a couple of hours later. By nightfall, Carson had walked them back and expressed “100 percent confidence” in his staff.
Nevertheless, a shake-up wasn’t all that Carson talked about over the course of the 45-minute interview. He also reflected on his improbable year, discussed the role that race has played in his campaign, opened up about his struggles with foreign policy and, without ever naming him, detailed many things he doesn’t like about Donald Trump.
There was a backbeat of bitterness to much of what Carson said — especially about perceptions in the Republican Party and in the media of Trump as strong and he as weak, and that someone of his stature could somehow be unqualified for the nation’s highest office.
Throughout, he spoke in the same soft, deliberate manner to which voters have become accustomed. In person, he also makes direct eye contact and is entirely comfortable with long, awkward pauses. At times, his silence and stare seemed like a challenge.
Costa: It’s been quite a year for you.
Carson: It’s been a pretty amazing year, no question about it. Highs and lows. Obviously, going through a process like this is pretty brutal. Everybody told me that it would be, so that doesn’t particularly surprise me.
Ginsberg: What’s been brutal about it?
Carson: Well, the fact that people try to find a scandal. Of course there are no scandals, which is pretty frustrating for them, I’m sure. When they couldn’t find a scandal, they try to impugn your integrity and say, “You’re a liar.” Just stuff. Then they would put it out there. When it’s refuted, they never come back and say, “Oh, I guess that actually did not happen.” They just go on to the next thing as long as they’ve figured out a way to hurt you.
Ginsberg: Is there a specific example you’re talking about?
Carson: There have been several, like when they said, “You never took that class at Yale.” Then when it was found, they said, “Eh, let’s just move on to the next thing.” The West Point story. When they said, “You never tried to stab anyone, you’re kidding.” Then they find a Parade magazine article from 1997 where my mother was talking about it. They go, “Eh, move on.” It’s always “Move on, whatever.” I guess you can expect that, but it’s a little disappointing in terms of the integrity you’d expect to see.
Ginsberg: Can you describe what that’s like? You’ve been in the spotlight for a long time and almost always in a position of being praised.
Carson: Well, it’s not pleasant. The encouraging thing was there were so many people saying, “You know they’re going to do this, just hang in there.” Every place I go, that’s all people say: “Please don’t quit. Please stay in there. We need you.” That is encouraging. But it’s discouraging to know that we’re at that stage in our country where people don’t care so much about the truth. It’s just what’s sensational, what’s the shiny object. It’s all “Who’s in the football game? Who’s on ‘Dancing With the Stars’? Who’s yelling the loudest?” And I’m not sure that’s what we need right now because we’ve got some real big problems in our country.
Costa: But if the process, Dr. Carson, has become so 24/7 and focused on media and celebrity, why do you continue to participate in it?
Carson: Because the country is worth saving. Now, if the people who preceded us had had the attitude of “It’s bad, I’m not going to fight for this,” where would we be? You’ve got to fight.
Ginsberg: You just offered a pretty good description of Donald Trump. Are you concerned about it getting worse? Is he taking the party in a direction it shouldn’t go?
Carson: I would certainly prefer a more uplifting type of campaign where you really dealt more with the issues and aren’t sort of tearing other people down. I think it’s so serious in terms of the global jihadist movement and what they want to do to us. For us to be engaged in self-destructive behavior and helping them out just doesn’t seem like the right thing to me.
Boosted by evangelical support and his ubiquity on the bestseller list, Carson started to catch on over the summer. By early fall, he had become the “it” outsider in the year of the outsider and, soon after, he had done what no one else has been able to do: overtake Trump as the front-runner.
But Carson’s standing was fleeting. Trump started attacking, scrutiny from the media grew, he began to stumble — and then, the Republican nomination race became all about terrorism.
Ginsberg: It seems that six or eight weeks ago, your message broke through in a big way. You vaulted to the top of the polls, and people responded to that. Since then, it’s gone down. What do you think happened?
Carson: Unfortunately, Paris happened. San Bernardino happened. Somehow the narrative has been projected that if you’re soft-spoken and mild-mannered, there is no way you can deal with terrorism, with national security, that you’re not a strong person. That’s the narrative that is out there. Is that true? I’m not sure it is.
Ginsberg: Do you think that’s the narrative or a gut feel among many Americans, particularly Republicans?
Carson: No, I think it’s a narrative that’s been put out there. We want to be comforted, we want to be comforted quickly, and we go for the bright, shiny object as the solution rather than being a little more cerebral. You know, if you think back to Abraham Lincoln, he was not a loud, bombastic person by any measure. Ungainly, lanky, uncouth, but very courageous and very strong. What I’ve been emphasizing on the road lately is that strength is not defined by the decibels of which you say something or by the gesticulations associated with it, but by the accomplishments of one’s life. What have you faced, and how have you faced those things?
When I was appointed director of pediatric neurosurgery, pediatric neurosurgery at [Johns] Hopkins wasn’t on the map. By 2008, it was ranked number one by U.S. News & World Report. A weak person doesn’t do that. A weak person isn’t named one of 89 living legends by the Library of Congress on the occasion of its 200th anniversary. A weak person isn’t selected by CNN and Time magazine as one of the 20 foremost physicians and surgeons in America. That was before they discovered that I’m conservative. A weak person doesn’t have all of these honorary degrees. Most people of accomplishment have one, maybe two or three honorary degrees at most. It’s the highest award that a university gives out. I have 67. That’s probably not indicative of a weak person who doesn’t get things done.
Costa: Has this campaign helped or hurt that reputation, that legacy?
Carson: Without question, it will hurt it. But it’s not about me. I’m willing to sacrifice that legacy and that reputation if we can get our country turned around. One person is not a big deal as far as I’m concerned.
Ginsberg: How do 67 honorary degrees make you qualified to lead the country in a post-Paris, post-San Bernardino environment?
Carson: It doesn’t. But what does is the strength of character it takes to accomplish the kind of things that would make someone want to give you an honorary degree.
Ginsberg: So you feel like your standing has gone down a little bit because of the way you project yourself, as opposed to the policies that you’ve put forward? You’ve had some missteps on the latter.
Carson: In terms of missteps, I think that people simply can’t sometimes understand what I’m talking about. They say, “You couldn’t name any coalition members [to counter the Islamic State].” That’s absolutely absurd. What I was saying was that it’s the wrong question, who’s the first person you’re going to call. I was setting the stage for what you really needed to do. But everybody said, “Oh, he doesn’t know any of those countries down there.” That’s just craziness. As far as the China thing was concerned, I probably shouldn’t have said that. I said that on the basis of what some people in the CIA tell me. And of course, subsequent information came out that there is some Chinese [involvement in Syria]. But they made it seem like I’m saying there are a bunch of Chinese boots on the ground. Well, everybody knows that Chinese have physical characteristics that would make them pretty easy to identify in a setting like that. Give me a break. But they just jump on. That kind of stuff is frustrating. But it’s something that I’ve learned. You continue to learn that everything you say is going to be dissected and used in a negative way, if possible. I’m learning. I wish I didn’t have to learn that.
Costa: What are you going to do to improve, in terms of staffing? There are also a lot of reports out there about the amount of money the campaign is spending.
Carson: I’m looking at every aspect of the campaign right now. Everything is on the table, every job is on the table. And we’re going to analyze it very carefully. We’re working to do that because even though it’s not anywhere near as bad as they try to make it out to be, it’s not perfect and we’re going to work on it.
Costa: Since this may be your low point politically, does [campaign manager] Barry Bennett stay on? Or do you bring in someone from the outside?
Carson: All of these things are on the table for consideration. We will be doing something, there’s no question.
Ginsberg: We’re about five weeks out from the Iowa caucuses. When are you going to make these changes?
Carson: There will be changes going on, probably before Iowa.
Ginsberg: What about before the new year?
Carson: Let’s definitely say before Iowa.
Costa: Why are you going to wait a month?
Carson: It could be tomorrow. I’m just saying it’ll be before Iowa.
Ginsberg: What advice are you getting about changing? What do people want you to do?
Carson: They want me to be more bombastic, they want you to attack other people.
Costa: Are you talking about your own confidants?
Carson: [Nods.] They want me to act more like a politician.
Ginsberg: Are you capable of that?
Carson: Sure, I could do it, but that’s just not who I am. Why would I try to get elected based on who I’m not? I wouldn’t be happy and the people wouldn’t be happy. We’ve seen the results of that situation and we don’t need it again.
Ginsberg: Do you regret not making the shift to talking about foreign policy sooner?
Carson: You know, it is what it is. [He pauses, then breaks into a chuckle.]
Costa: If anything sums up this year, it’s that sentence.
Ginsberg: But what does that mean? It sounds like someone who is a little resigned to “what it is.”
Carson: In retrospect, if you could do everything over, you’d be batting a thousand. But it’s not going to happen.
As with Trump, Carson has connected with conservatives because he has decried political correctness — a concept he has said is preventing Americans from having the honest discussions they need to have.
But Carson, too, has been cautious, acknowledging the role race plays in America without talking too much about how it has affected his candidacy.
Costa: You frequently say we need to have a frank conversation in this country, not political correctness. In that spirit, how has race played a role in your campaign, especially with Republican voters?
Carson: I haven’t felt anything that I can notice from it. There is no question that a lot of places that I go, they are lily-white places. But people have been very enthusiastic. I have been reaching out to the African American community. I did speak at NALEO [the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials]; I was the only Republican there.
I don’t change my message because of who I’m speaking to. I am very concerned about the black community in this country. I understand the frustration they feel and they do feel they are treated unfairly. I also understand the frustration that the police feel because the vast majority of them are wonderful people. The rotten apples reflect so badly on everybody. There is no question we have to work on the relationships, work on being more sensitive as a society. People are working so hard, trying to keep it all together, and then they get a moving violation? Those are expensive, 70 bucks, and they hope it blows over. It doesn’t. Next thing you know there is a warrant for their arrest. They lose their job, their financial woes are compounded — now they’ve got a record. If we could only be a little more sensitive and say, “Look, you can pay that ticket off at $5 a week,” you may never get into those kind of situations.
Ginsberg: You said that your crowds are often lily-white and you’ve had a good reception. There have been suggestions that your race is helping you in the opposite way, that some Republicans are supporting you only because you’re African American. What would you say to that?
Carson: We have a very race-sensitive society. If you’re black in this race, no matter what you do, somebody is going to try to interpret it on the basis of your race. It’s just the way it is.
Ginsberg: But what do you think?
Carson: I don’t think it’s been much of a factor at all.
Ginsberg: Either good or bad?
Carson: Either good or bad. I don’t think it makes a difference.
One thing Carson has going for him is that his reserved manner and deep Christian faith make him well suited to appeal to Republicans in Iowa, which votes first on Feb. 1. Although he has slipped behind Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) there, Carson has a solid base and, with 40 days to go, there is still time for a turnaround. It was only a little more than 40 days ago that he and Trump were effectively tied for first place in Iowa.
The question, though, is: What strategic change could get him back on top? What external event would again make people believe that Carson is the man for these times?
Costa: In terms of the campaign, it looks like you’re producing some spots upstairs. Any ads about Trump, Cruz, or Rubio? How are you going to contrast in the next month?
Carson: I’m actually depending on the wisdom of the people. It was Thomas Jefferson who said we would get to this point, and he said before we completely lost it and went over the cliff, the people would realize what is going on and they’d wake up and stop being manipulated. They’d think for themselves. I’m hoping that that’s going to happen.
Costa: So you’re reevaluating your staff, you’re reevaluating your budget. You’re likely to scale back salaries — a shake-up driven by a desire for efficiency. In terms of message, though, it’s trusting the wisdom of the people. Does that mean you’re not going to push a specific issue or policy in the coming weeks?
Carson: The message that I have out there is the right message. That doesn’t need to change. I just think we need to get people to listen to it.
Ginsberg: How are you going to do that? Is that through ads? Through more appearances?
Carson: We have ads. We’re using social media. You know, I just — I’m just going to continue to do what I’ve been doing.
Ginsberg: And you think that will suddenly turn around your campaign?
Carson: Only God knows the answer to that. We’ll see. I have started to pivot on the road to talk more about foreign policy and national security, about what strength actually means. I think it’s resonated.
Costa: To be clear, are you in until Iowa?
Costa: Has there ever been a moment where you’ve had second thoughts about the whole thing?
Costa: Never once?
Carson: Never once.