Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson — now making the transition from living legend to scrutinized candidate — faced new questions Friday about the way he tells his powerful life story.
For years, Carson has said he was offered a “full scholarship” to the U.S. Military Academy when he was a high-achieving high school Army ROTC cadet in the late 1960s. But Carson never applied to West Point, was never accepted and never received a formal scholarship offer. In fact, West Point does not offer scholarships; all cadets attend free.
The story was first reported Friday by Politico. Carson responded to the resulting controversy by saying that when he spoke of an “offer,” he referred to informal, verbal statements of encouragement from military leaders he met through the ROTC, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps .
“I was told that because of my accomplishments, they would be able to manage to get me into West Point and that I wouldn’t have to pay anything,” Carson said on the Christian Broadcasting Network. He said he decided not to apply and went to Yale University instead to pursue medicine. “There was no application process [at West Point]. I never even started down that path,” Carson said.
Carson’s campaign cast the episode as new evidence of persecution of the candidate by the news media. Tension between Carson and the media came to a boil Friday night in Florida, where at a combative news conference the candidate asked why President Obama had not been subjected to such scrutiny.
“The words ‘a scholarship was offered’ were a big deal, but the president of the United States’ academic records being sealed is not?” he said.
The original Politico report declared that Carson had “fabricated” a story about “his application and acceptance” at West Point. It also claimed that the candidate had “admitted” the fabrication.
Carson’s campaign vehemently denied those statements.
The Politico story seemed to mischaracterize a small but key detail in the way Carson has told the story. In many cases, Carson implied only that he received a formal offer from West Point. He never said explicitly that he had been accepted or even that he had applied.
“It gives journalism a bad name,” said Armstrong Williams, Carson’s close friend and business manager. “It only fits into Dr. Carson’s narrative of a witch hunt” by the media.
By mid-afternoon, Politico posted a new version of its story that no longer included the wording that Carson had “fabricated” a part of his biography. Later in the day, the news site posted an editor’s note stating that the story should have made clear that Carson never claimed to have applied for admission to West Point.
“We continue to stand by the story,” Politico spokeswoman Lauren Edmonds said in a statement. “We updated it to reflect Ben Carson’s on the record response to the New York Times and other new details, which underscore the validity of our original reporting.”
As the day went on, conservative media voices chimed in to agree with Carson. “It’s almost like the Politico is the official leak machine for the Republican establishment,” Rush Limbaugh said on his syndicated radio show. Radio host and blogger Erick Erickson replaced an entire post about “the beginning of Ben Carson’s end” with one about a “demonstrably false” Politico report.
Carson, 64, achieved worldwide fame for his daring surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and for his story of rising out of poverty in southwest Detroit. This week, as Carson has challenged Donald Trump for the lead in the Republican presidential primary contest, there has been a new focus on Carson’s personal beliefs and on the way he tells his life story.
First, the Web site BuzzFeed posted a 17-year-old video of a commencement speech in which Carson offers an alternative theory about why the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids. In Carson’s telling, they were not built to be tombs, as historians and archeologists say. Instead, they were built for grain storage, in keeping with the biblical story of Joseph, in which the patriarch counseled the pharaoh to store up grain for years of famine.
Carson told CBS News this week that he still believes that the pyramids were granaries, saying the proof was in sealed chambers inside the structures. “You would need that if you were trying to preserve grain for a long period of time,” he said.
Then, CNN sought to verify a key part of Carson’s life story: that, as a young man in Detroit, he had committed acts of violence, including smashing a boy’s nose with a thrown rock, attempting to stab a friend in the abdomen and threatening his own mother with a hammer during an argument.
CNN interviewed nine people who knew Carson during his childhood and who said that the violent incidents did not fit their recollections of him.
Carson said CNN did not speak with the right people. “I was generally a nice person,” he told the network. “It’s just that I had a very bad temper. So unless you were the victim of that temper, why would you know?”
It was an unusually odd situation: a presidential candidate insisting, in the face of skepticism, that he really did have a history of violence.
The part of Carson’s life at issue Friday — the “offer” he got, or did not get, from West Point — is a story that Carson has told repeatedly in books, interviews and speeches.
He tells it in the context of his rapid rise through high school Army ROTC, which ended with him as the top-ranking cadet in Detroit.
“I was offered a full scholarship to West Point,” Carson wrote in his 1990 memoir, “Gifted Hands.” “I didn’t refuse the scholarship outright, but I let them know that a military career wasn’t where I saw myself going. As overjoyed as I felt to be offered such a scholarship, I wasn’t really tempted. The scholarship would have obligated me to spend four years in military service after I finished college, precluding my chances to go on to medical school.”
In that account and others, Carson seems to rely on loose, broad definitions for the words “offer” and “scholarship.”
In fact, applicants to West Point must be sponsored by a member of Congress or the secretary of the Army. If accepted, they attend tuition-free: There are no “scholarships” at West Point beyond the benefits that all cadets get.
Doug Watts, a spokesman for Carson’s campaign, said Carson never completed the process for acceptance by West Point and never had an official sponsor. Indeed, in “Gifted Hands,” Carson makes clear that he actually applied only to one school: Yale.
“Each college required a ten-dollar non-returnable entrance fee sent with the application,” Carson wrote. “I had exactly ten dollars, so I could apply only to one.”
Still, his campaign spokesman said, it was proper to say Carson had an “offer” of a scholarship because military leaders had told him that his acceptance would be a sure thing.
“He was told by the ROTC commander that he could have an appointment,” Watts said. “Dr. Carson rejected the offer, did not apply or pursue admission. Had he done so, and been accepted, that would have been tantamount to a scholarship, the same that all cadets receive.”
In one of his books, Carson also made a similar claim about a scholarship offer from another school.
“The University of Michigan had offered me a scholarship, but I wanted to go farther from home,” he wrote in his 1999 book, “The Big Picture.”
A spokesman for the University of Michigan, Rick Fitzgerald, said he could not confirm that account. The university no longer has records from that time. Carson’s camp said the scenario was similar to that involving West Point: He had decided to apply elsewhere and never submitted an application.
Alice Crites and Robert Samuels contributed to this report.