Ben Carson is Having a Moment as a presidential candidate. After a first debate in which Carson distinguished himself primarily by speaking softly, his poll numbers have risen appreciably in Iowa, New Hampshire and across the nation. So as round two of the GOP debate season starts this evening, it’s worth asking an important question: Is Ben Carson qualified to be president?
Donald Trump is clearly nervous about Carson, as he told Face the Nation’s John Dickerson, “Ben’s a doctor, and he’s not a dealmaker.” Since Trump’s background is even more suspect, that’s not the most persuasive criticism.
On the other hand, Carson has stressed that his background as a neurosurgeon proves that he possesses important leadership qualities and decision-making skills, which sounds like a dubious claim. That claim was enough for Vox’s Dan Diamond to write a jeremiad about how surgeons should be kept as far as possible from the Oval Office. Diamond also quotes Malcolm Gladwell as an authority on the subject.
More surprisingly, Diamond failed to mention the biggest personality flaw that most surgeons possess, a flaw that is worth discussing more fully. I bring this up because a) it’s relevant to Carson’s candidacy; and b) it allows me to insert the Greatest Movie Scene Ever Involving a Surgeon:
(Let’s just take a moment here to acknowledge that this is the only scene anyone ever remembers from the film “Malice,” and that the way Baldwin says the word “lawyer” in this scene is priceless.)
As the child of a surgeon, who often said “when I’m appointed czar” before spouting his political views, I know that the most stereotypical personality tic of surgeons is their world-class levels of arrogance. I love my father dearly, but if he ever were appointed czar, I would have no choice but to lead the partisan resistance. Most surgeons possess so much self-confidence that they should be kept away from the levers of power. And, indeed, Diamond does reference studies demonstrating that surgeons are often bad at administrating and other executive functioning skills.
But this is where Carson sounds different from every other surgeon I have encountered.
As John Dickerson noted in Slate after back-to-back interviews with Trump and Carson, what Carson has stressed during his campaign is a quality that is often said to be alien to the surgical mindset: humility.
I asked Carson on Face the Nation why it was important for a president to have humility. “Because you need to be able to listen,” he said. “One of the things that I have discovered throughout the many things that I have been involved in is that we have some incredibly talented people in this country. … And you have to be humble enough to be able to listen to other people and recognize that, sometimes, they might actually know more than you do and be able to integrate that. There’s nobody who knows everything. But we have an incredibly talent-filled nation … everybody seems to think that whatever they do is the greatest thing. If you’re a politician, only politicians can solve the problems. If you’re a businessman, only businessmen can solve the problems, a lawyer, doctor. That’s ridiculous. What we need to do is put our talents together, understand what our goals are, and then utilize all of our talents to accomplish them.”
This is a theme that Carson has written about during the campaign, but it’s a theme he stressed long before he was a candidate for president as well. And that makes him extremely unusual compared to most surgeons. Any surgeon who stresses humility is already speaking differently than 99 percent of the surgical community.
None of this should be interpreted as an endorsement of Carson’s platform. Everything I have read about Carson’s policy preferences sounds pretty bonkers. But he does pose an interesting contrast to Donald Trump. Say what you will about Carson, but he has communicated quite clearly that he could change his mind if exposed to new information or expertise.
This message is very different from Donald Trump’s bombast. And it’s extremely different from the way most surgeons seem to think about the world.