From inspiring to polarizing
Ben Carson has risked his reputation as a groundbreaking neurosurgeon to run for president — a decision fueled by his sense of destiny
The band of black conservatives gathered at a Washington hotel on a spring evening in 2013 with the future of their cause and the country on their minds.
Joining them was Ben Carson, the renowned neurosurgeon who’d electrified Republicans several weeks earlier with a sharp attack on President Obama’s policies at the National Prayer Breakfast.
Above: Ben Carson at a campaign rally on Dec. 8 in Atlanta. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)
Now a half-dozen of Carson’s admirers — all prominent African American conservatives — wanted him to go further. Over dinner in a palatial room at the Willard InterContinental, just two blocks from the White House, they courted Carson with views that had long set them apart from much of black America.
Niger Innis, spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, said he thought Obama would make it easier for a country to accept a black conservative as president. Antiabortion activist Alveda King told Carson that he “was a role model for my son, not like Obama,” whom she deemed so liberal that his inspirational pull went no further than his race. And pizza magnate Herman Cain, who’d briefly been a Republican presidential front-runner in 2012 before being derailed by disputed sexual-harassment allegations, was eager to confront liberals in the next election cycle.
Nothing reveals more about politicians than the decisions they make — why they chose to do something, how they made it happen, what came of it. In the days before the first votes are cast in Iowa and New Hampshire, The Washington Post is exploring one key choice by each leading presidential candidate and explain the insight it offers into the way he or she might operate in the White House.
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“Kick their butts!” he exhorted the group as they dined in the Willard’s private Holmes Room.
It was Cain who’d invited Carson to the gathering, and the others suspected an unstated reason.
“It felt as if we were witnessing a passing of the torch,” Innis says.
But only if Carson was willing to trade his identity as a medical pioneer — the first doctor in the world to separate twins conjoined at the back of the head — for something far more polarizing: a black GOP presidential candidate.
The decision to remake himself would be the culmination of a long political journey for Carson. But it also would reveal his sense of destiny and supreme self-confidence.
He knew a run for the White House was likely to exact a steep price on his carefully cultivated public image. His against-the-odds rise from poverty to accomplished pediatric neurosurgeon had made him an African American hero. In speeches, books, and a movie about his life based on his autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” he was inspirational, aspirational and apolitical. Though he’d always been conservative, he publicly bragged about being a registered independent.
And he’d already deflected another attempt to persuade him to step into the political arena. After his prayer breakfast appearance, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial proclaiming “Ben Carson for President.” In response, Carson told reporters he did not wish to wade into the “cesspool” of modern politics.
Then he did it anyway.
Ben Carson in 2002 visiting a patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. (Yoni Brook/The Washington Post)
A political transformation
He’d flirted with running for office before.
About 11 years ago, Carson made an appointment with Michael Steele, a black Republican who was serving as lieutenant governor of Maryland. Steele remembered the surprising discussion: Carson was thinking about entering into politics. Steele told him to be cautious.
“All the fancy résumés and wonderful things you’ve done won’t matter when someone wants to come after you,” Steele said he told him. “I ended that discussion, and I remember it well, by saying, ‘Why would you want to sully such a wonderful reputation as a neurosurgeon with politics?’ ”
Carson just laughed.
He then sought the counsel of Donlin Long, who was the head of the neurosurgery department at Johns Hopkins. According to Long, a group of Republicans had approached Carson about a run for the U.S. Senate.
Long suggested a deeper question: What do you want to do with your life?
“There was no way he could do both,” Long explains. “At his age, at that point in his career, he had to decide whether he was going to be a politician or a physician.”
Carson, now 64, chose medicine — the realm that had made him famous.
In 1987, after he’d cut the brain blood vessel that connected conjoined infants Patrick and Benjamin Binder, a young Carson stood in front of microphones and a gaggle of reporters at his first major news conference to describe the surgery. The public fascination with the Yale-educated, square-jawed, soft-spoken black surgeon led to book deals, biographical plays and public speeches, in which he would promise young people that through faith in God and diligent study that they, too, could lift themselves out of poverty.
Carson felt the message had a special resonance for African Americans. Early in his medical career, he grew tired of seeing “able-bodied people who were not working,” he said in a December interview with The Washington Post. They had grown dependent on welfare, he concluded, and he quietly found himself swayed by President Ronald Reagan’s argument that government had become the problem, not the solution.
He didn’t talk much then about his political evolution from a “flaming liberal” to a staunch conservative. He was still trying to reconcile his belief that Republicans generally did not care about African Americans. And Carson was quickly becoming a prominent figure in black America, drawing the praise of liberal civil rights activists such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Both said they reached out to Carson but could never get a read on him. He was always courteous, but always elusive.
“We just exchanged words of respect, but it never really went beyond that,” Jackson recalled.
In the spring of 1994, Carson found himself in a room at the Supreme Court for a weekend of networking events with the Horatio Alger Association, an exclusive society of high-fliers who started their lives in dire poverty.
Attending was Justice Clarence Thomas, whose conservative ideals made him such a pariah among African Americans that Carson was somewhat skeptical of him.
Carson prays before lunch with his family at their Upperco, Md., home on a summer Saturday in 2002. (Yoni Brook/The Washington Post)
In “Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas,” a biography written by two Washington Post reporters, Carson said he challenged Thomas immediately when they met. He asked why Thomas was against busing when it was largely seen as a key instrument to help desegregate schools.
“He told me he didn’t want these kids thinking they have to go somewhere else to be successful,” Carson recalled in the book. He concluded that Thomas’s argument “made a lot of sense.”
After his induction into the Horatio Alger society, Carson befriended other members such as Terry Giles, a prominent white lawyer who grew up pumping water in the Ozarks, and Bob Brown, an African American who had raised hogs in rural North Carolina and became an adviser to President Richard M. Nixon.
Together, they would laugh at each other’s “I was so poor” jokes. Behind the humor was a subtle affirmation of the American Dream and a reminder that the up-from-the-bootstraps narrative was not exclusive to Carson. His friends at Horatio Alger shared similar traits: They grew up poor, many of them raised by a strong single parent or a grandparent who did not accept excuses. They were service-oriented. And they usually voted Republican.
“I came to realize that many of my political beliefs were based on nothing other than propaganda,” said Carson, who was a registered Republican for a time before switching his party affiliation to independent in 2001.
Murray Carson, the eldest of his three children, said his father would come home and devour programming on Fox News, particularly “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity and Colmes.”
“I don’t know why people were so surprised he was so conservative or would run for office,” said Murray Carson, a 32-year-old Web programmer. “At our home, he loved talking about this stuff.”
Carson autographs one of his books for a student after an appearance in April in Greensboro, N.C., where we was raising money for the Carson Scholars Fund. (Jerry Wolford for The Washington Post)
The chosen one?
As he neared retirement, Carson could not stop talking about the state of the country.
In 2011, he co-authored a book with his wife, Candy, called “America the Beautiful” that detailed his increasing conservatism. Carson advocated tough punishments for terrorists, proposed a flat tax, expressed his admiration for the tea party and voiced disdain for political correctness.
He had grown frustrated at organizers who asked him not to utter the words “Jesus Christ” during his speeches. Most of all, he worried about the legacy of Barack Obama, the president who had eclipsed him as an inspirational figure among African Americans. Carson hated the explosion of the national debt and questioned whether those who supported Obama saw anything beyond the fact that he was the first black president.
Carson began to wonder whether his voice could help to loosen the liberal grip on black America’s politics. He had spent decades building up a reservoir of goodwill. He had given hundreds of college scholarships through the Carson Scholars Fund and planted reading rooms in more than 100 low-income schools throughout the country.
“I always wanted to do what was needed to strengthen the country,” Carson said. “But I was preoccupied” with medicine.
President Obama listens to keynote speaker Ben Carson at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Obama would not be smiling for all of the speech. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
At the prayer breakfast in 2013, he took his outrage public, criticizing Obama’s policies while standing at a lectern a few feet from the president. Carson talked about the country being in danger of falling, like the Roman Empire, from “moral decay and fiscal irresponsibility,” and he lambasted Obama’s signature health-care overhaul. As the president’s smile wilted into a grimace, a viral video and a conservative folk hero were born.
Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator who serves as Carson’s business manager, was thrilled. “We’re going to rachet it up,” he remembered thinking.
And they did. The newer, bolder Carson was on television comparing homosexuality to bestiality, causing such an uproar that he was forced to apologize. Then he called the president’s health-care law “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” Many who admired him were stunned.
“Say it ain’t so,” Sharpton said were his first thoughts when he heard Carson’s slavery comparison.
“We’ve had black Republicans before, so it’s not that he’s on the right that is particularly surprising,” Sharpton said. “It’s that he’s so far right.”
That winter, a conservative activist named Mike Murray knocked on the door of Carson’s new retirement home in Florida.
Carson answered the door in shorts and a T-shirt. He invited him to the living room, and Murray sat near Candy Carson’s organ. Over three hours, Murray told Carson he wanted him to be the face of an organization that would push for the repeal of Obamacare.
“I’m concerned about being too political,” Murray remembers Carson replying.
But Murray was persuasive. “People are hungry to hear from you,” he said, “and you could do this the right way.”
Together, they ventured throughout the country, urging legislators and voters to sign a petition. Everywhere they went, Murray recalled, people told Carson that he was the right one to deliver the hard truths about the state of the country.
Carson basked in their admiration. He said he began to believe that the country needed “someone who has been able to utilize the strength of lots of other people, as well as their own intellect, to solve problems that no one ever solved before. Maybe that would be a more useful skill set than time in Washington, D.C.”
“It has to be someone,” Carson thought, as he recalled it in an interview earlier last year. Then he chuckled. “Maybe it just happens to be me.”
Then came a sign from the divine, according to Murray. The two men had agreed that Carson would call the 100,000th person to sign the health-care petition. The woman did not want her full name made public, Murray said, but he identified her in a mailer as a woman named Emily from Virginia.
When Carson reached her, Murray said, she told the neurosurgeon that her dying son was once one of Carson’s patients. He helped to save him. Now she wanted him to run for president to save the country.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Murray said. “Everyone will think she was a plant.”
In a February 2014 email to supporters, Carson wrote that he might have received “a wink from above.”
That November, Carson grabbed a voter registration form in Florida. In the party field, he checked “Republican.”
Ben Carson introduces his wife, Candy, in May at his campaign announcement event in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)
‘Take the Risk’
Carson had written a whole book about making tough choices. In “Take the Risk,” he laid out four key questions: “What’s the best thing that can happen if I do this? What’s the worst thing that can happen if I do this? What’s the best thing that can happen if I don’t do it? What’s the worst thing that can happen if I don’t do it?”
Now he asked himself those questions about a presidential campaign. The best thing that would happen if he ran? “People would respond positively to my message,” he said, “and we could get back on the right track to restore the concept of fiscal responsibility.”
The worst thing? “I would lose” — something that he hates to do — “and you’d get someone who had very bad ideas in there,” he said.
He considered the best-case scenario if he didn’t run — the election of another candidate who would do a good job. But that seemed far less likely than the worst-case scenario — another failed president.
Before he made any decisions, there was one person Williams wanted to Carson to see.
In January 2015, Williams drove him to the steps of the Supreme Court.
“Are you kidding me?” Carson told Williams, starting to laugh.
Awaiting Carson in his chambers was Justice Thomas.
“He warned me,” Carson recalled. “If you’re black and conservative, anything is fair game in terms of trying to destroy you.”
Giles echoed Thomas’s warning during a visit to the Carson home.
“Everyone loves you,” Giles said he told Carson. “If you run, at least half the country is not going to like you anymore. Are you ready for it?”
The warnings would quickly prove true. Carson would be derided for suggesting that millions of armed Jews would have survived the Holocaust. He’d be laughed at for pronouncing the name of the militant group Hamas as if it were a Mediterranean chickpea dip. Some of the details in the Carson autobiography about his temper would be questioned by reporters and disparaged by GOP rival Donald Trump as impossible-to-believe “crap.” And his campaign would first soar and then stumble, with top advisers resigning in a New Year’s Eve campaign shake-up.
But as Giles and his wife sat with Ben and Candy Carson on the porch of their Florida home, Carson was resolute.
“I need to do what is best for my family and my country,” Carson told Giles. “If somebody dislikes me for that, that’s okay with me.”
“He seemed ready,” Giles said, “so I was in.” The doctor-turned-candidate had spoken: The country needed a new direction. And so did he.
Carson prepares to speak about national security at a December event in Manchester, N.H. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)