Not Ready for Prime Time

Ben Carson: Gifted Hands, Active Imagination

The candidate spent the weekend defending his life story from allegations that they were more fiction than fact.

11.09.15 6:05 AM ET

Last week began with Ben Carson’s surge in the polls and a novel request from his campaign to stream all debates online.

It ended with them crying foul at any human being with a recorder.

Until Carson’s recent leap in the polls, stories of the current Republican presidential frontrunner were only known through his books and public speeches. The almost mythical tale of a once ill-tempered child from humble means growing up to become a world-renowned neurosurgeon was repeated and praised as an American success story of a truly remarkable man.

But as the vetting continues and the next Republican debate nears, more and more of the stories from Carson’s past seem to be pocked with half-truths, misinterpretations, and exaggerations. The inconsistencies not only threaten Carson’s campaign, but it also could make the retired neurosurgeon’s greatest strength—his incredible story—into a game ending weakness.

The questions about his life spanned decades. Did Carson doctor (excuse the pun) stories about his defense of white classmates after black students rioted when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated? Was he really awarded $10 for being the most honest student in a Yale class? Did he mislead people about his relationship with West Point?

These are merely the latest entries in a series of clouded rehashes and careful backtracking. There’s the endlessly perplexing story of how he stabbed a friend, his approval of cancer-treating glyconutrients (and subsequent disavowal) and, of course, the bizarre encounter with a gunman at Popeyes.

But maybe the biggest unanswered question is why Carson would embellish his already compelling story: a kid rising from the hard streets of Detroit to the prestigious halls of John Hopkins University’s medical school, becoming one of the most respected neurosurgeons in the world.

Perhaps these mistakes, or any of his other small to medium-sized deviations from truth, wouldn’t be so problematic if there weren’t so many of them. Yet, over the weekend, the campaign led an all-out blitz against any and every one who was asking questions.

Carson and his campaign aggressively pushed back-built bastions this weekend against their new enemy: the mainstream media who have dared to try and verify the good doctor’s biography. At least in the short term, Carson has been rewarded for his counter assault through an outpouring of campaign donations to the tune of $3.5 million this week alone.

“There’s no question I’m getting special scrutiny, because there are a lot of people who are very threatened, and then they have seen the recent head-to-head polling against Hillary and how well I do. And they are worried,” Carson said on Face the Nation Sunday.

Because it’s 2015, Carson’s camp took their fight against the media to the most obvious place: Facebook. Two separate posts attempted to debunk The Wall Street Journal’s claims that Carson’s story about being awarded the “most honest student” in a Yale class was pure nonsense.

As the anecdote went in Gifted Hands, the gospel of many Carson followers and the center of many journalists’ investigations, a bunch of exams in Carson’s psychology class got inexplicably incinerated. Then his professor gave students a replacement exam that was much harder. The students began filing out of the classroom in protest and Carson was the only one who remained. Suddenly the professor returned, informed him it was all a hoax and awarded him with the honor of being the “most honest student” in the class, a prize worthy of a $10 bill. Oh and a photographer from the school newspaper showed up and took Carson’s picture.

Carson’s campaign attributed the fantastical tale of the burned exams to a parody publication called The Yale Record. Campaign manager Barry Bennett told The Daily Beast that publication, akin to the Harvard Crimson, published the fake story about the exams. When students, Carson included, read it, they were misled into thinking they had to show up for a replacement test.

“The parody of the daily news reported that new examine [sic] would be given that night and students showed up because it hadn’t yet been exposed as a parody,” Bennett explained after the campaign posted an article from 1970 to verify these claims.

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All of these discrepancies in stories, no matter how pithy, are the byproducts of a political novice. It is the inevitable nature of a candidate whose public life has never been questioned.

Before his presidential bid, there was no reason or interest to check how true it was when Carson said he got “a full scholarship” from West Point for instance. Long story short, he didn’t.

Doug Watts, Carson’s communications manager, told The Daily Beast on Friday that he was never accepted or admitted.

This of course came after Politico published a story initially saying Carson had lied about getting in to the prestigious institute. (The story was later dialed back significantly).

“It is a lie,” Watts emailed The Daily Beast referring to the story. “Complete, irresponsible falsehood. Their ‘facts’ are being shattered by West Point and Detroit ROTC.”

“This is not the first time we have caught them lying, just plain lying to fit their narrative.”

Still, while Carson never said he was admitted to West Point, he was never shy about sharing that he could have gone there if he wanted to. It comes up in an Aug. 13 Facebook post addressing his millions of fans.

“I was the highest student ROTC member in Detroit and was thrilled to get an offer from West Point. But I knew medicine is what I wanted to do,” Carson wrote.

He also brought it up again on The Charlie Rose Show last month, using it in the context, as he often does, of his unlikely story of beating the odds; rising from poverty to reach extraordinary heights that others thought were not possible for him.

“I was offered a full scholarship to West Point, got to meet General Westmoreland and go to the Congressional Medal of Honor dinners,” Carson said. “But decided really my pathway would be medicine.”

Even before the feisty weekend, Carson’s inexperience with handling an onslaught of questions showed. He referred to investigations into his past as a “bunch of lies,” in a testy interview on CNN, seemingly shocked that reporters were even able to find former classmates without his own help.

Their investigation began because he altered the seminal story of him stabbing someone in his youth in a number of ways, which is significant (much more so than a random Yale class) because it is an event he attributes to his religious awakening.

And Carson changed it once again on Thursday night, claiming the victim was a “close relative” instead of in previous iterations in which it was a classmate named Bob.

Carson has also claimed that Mannatech glyconutrient products almost saved his life from cancer. He alleged that he almost didn’t have surgery because they were so effective. Yet in the last GOP debate, Carson denied involvement with the company.

Similarly, another story came into question involving Carson encountering a gunman in a Popeyes. And once more, there was no verification from any source, including his campaign, all of his books and Baltimore Police records, that suggested this happened.

So even if the most recent fact-checking attempts have focused on issues that are basically footnotes to the current campaign, there is a significant and persistent pattern of hyperbolic stories.

Despite all the perceived benefits of being an outsider in this campaign cycle, there is one major pitfall. For anyone with political experience, personal narrative can be auxilliary. But for Carson, it’s everything.

And right now, it’s getting torn to shreds.