The Wild Bunch
Ben Carson’s Bizarrely Serious, Seriously Bizarre Campaign Crew
The GOP is fielding its strongest slate of presidential candidates in forever. Who tries to draft the guy with extreme views and no political experience? Here’s who.
The possibility that Ben Carson might run for president in 2016 first began to seem likely three years out, in February 2013. The world-renowned neurosurgeon descended on the National Prayer Breakfast to deride the trajectory of the United States while promising that he would not be silenced by the “PC police.” It was a provocative, unorthodox performance, and not just because a certain sitting president remained onstage just a few feet from the podium, rubbing his eyes and smiling uncomfortably as the bespectacled, goateed Carson sliced away, among other things attacking lawyers because they are taught in law school “to win, by hook or by crook.” (Obama is a lawyer.) Just like that, a Republican star was born.
Dissing the president of the United States to his face isn’t the typical way to begin your own White House trajectory. But today, all signs suggest that a Carson candidacy is imminent, although he told me in May that he would not announce until "probably in early 2015.” The details of his emerging campaign infrastructure are as atypical as the man himself.
Among the characters involved: a Washington talking head who got caught acting as a secret government pitchman; a lawyer best known for his fight with Martin Luther King III; a descendant of the “the King of the Marches”; and a kid just trying to make it to the Little League World Series.
For the unfamiliar: Carson, who grew up impoverished in Detroit and likes to tell of his transformation from violence-prone shitty student to Yale graduate, rose to fame after he successfully separated twins who were conjoined at the head in 1987. A bunch of books and a TV movie, starring Cuba Gooding Jr., followed.
Last week, it was announced that Carson, who now looks like the distinguished father of the Old Spice guy, would be severing ties with Fox News—a necessary step for any official candidate, because were Carson to remain on the cable TV network, he would essentially unethically be getting free advertising, and being paid for it. Carson had been working for the network since after the Prayer Breakfast, which also resulted in a Wall Street Journal editorial declaring “Ben Carson For President” and the formation of a political action committee, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee, which began raising money with the fervor of a careless millennial with a large Uber bill to pay.
This past weekend, a 40-minute commercial for Carson (or a “documentary” if you are so gullible) was aired across the country on 37 local TV networks. Half-biography, half-campaign ad, the video felt like something you might see around 4 a.m. between infomercials for high-powered blenders and sets of Japanese steak knives. It not-so-subtly compared Carson to the Founding Fathers and matter-of-factly stated, “Carson is a renaissance man in the truest sense of the word.”
Although he barely touches it in the commercial, Carson's policy ideas, when he does express them (which is rarely) are not particularly new: vehemently anti-marriage equality, pro-flat tax, and against the Affordable Care Act, which he, a black man, has called “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”
They’re impolitic words. But Carson, who cites his lack of political experience as a strength, may not be equipped to play in such a strong GOP field. With movement leaders like Rand Paul and scions to political dynasties like Jeb Bush, the question arises, renaissance man or not, who would choose to take their chances on Team Carson?
The production of the ad was overseen by Armstrong Williams, Carson’s longtime business manager and close adviser. He’s a bit of an unorthodox choice for a consigliere, as you’ll see in a moment.
Williams, bald and mustached, first rose to prominence in the mid-’90s with his radio program The Right Side. Mary Matalin once dubbed him a “mega-multimedia Wunderkind!” but he preferred to call himself “Meteor Man.” Williams maintained a close relationship with Oprah Winfrey’s longtime boyfriend Stedman Graham, and has been described as everything from his publicist to his business partner.
Things seemed to head slightly south for Williams in 2005, when USA Today revealed that the Bush administration had paid him $250,000 to promote No Child Left Behind. Meaning, Williams has basically previously displayed his willingness to spout government propaganda in exchange for cash. As one source who knows Williams told me: "There are a lot of sleazy people in Washington, but there are not that many dumb ones. He falls into that category."
"It says something distressing about Ben Carson's judgement that he would hire Armstrong Williams, who is probably a nice guy but a pretty transparent charlatan," the source added.
Besides Williams, Carson has brought into the fold Terry Giles, a Houston businessman who achieved semi-fame for his involvement in a high-profile case involving Martin Luther King’s intellectual property in 2010. Giles seems to have no political experience to speak of.
And Carson’s indirect arm of his campaign—his PAC—is no less weird.
After hearing Carson speak at, yes, the National Prayer Breakfast (it is a law of the universe that any story about Carson will mention this event at least three times) John Philip Sousa IV, the great-grandson of the composer and conductor, and Vernon Robinson, a former U.S. Air Force captain and failed congressional candidate, decided to take it upon themselves to persuade him to run.
But for the National Draft Ben Carson for President PAC to get going, they needed a Web domain. The only problem was the one they wanted, runbenrun.org, was in the possession of a 14-year-old boy from Indiana who was trying to raise money so he could go to the Little League World Series. “Somebody suggested [we give him] a $1,000 baseball signed by Mickey Mantle [in exchange for the URL],” Robinson told me. Ultimately, though, “his dad rented it to us for $500… I need to send him a package of swag.”
Since its formation in August 2013, the PAC has raised $10.6 million, and Robinson and Sousa delight in noting they even out-raised Ready for Hillary in one quarter. And the PAC has plans to put that money to use. Robinson and Sousa both assured me that they would be setting up offices all over the country, specifically in Iowa, the Carolinas, and New Hampshire—and that they would be hiring staff in Florida. If they succeed in drafting Carson, which it seems likely they will, they are adamant that the PAC will not dissolve, but evolve “to try to broaden the base of the GOP, and should Dr. Carson get the nomination” go “brick by brick, house by house, making the case to minority voters” on his behalf.
Sousa likened their effort to that of the one to draft Barry Goldwater, in 1964. Sousa told me that everyone involved in the PAC has read Suite 3505, by F. Clinton White, who led the movement, and he even had Carson sign his copy. “Ours is a little bit more grassroots than Goldwater’s effort,” he assured me.
And to hear Carson tell it, he is just amazed by the reaction people have to him, although he doesn’t think it’s really about him, but it’s also completely about him.
“I see it every place I go at all the book signings,” he laughed when I asked him about the enthusiasm for his candidacy back in May. “You’d think it was a protest!” His tone turned from playful to serious. “I recognize that it’s not so much me that people want—they just want someone with common sense. They want a voice that’s not afraid. I’ve made it quite clear that I refuse to be intimidated by the forces of political correctness.”
And then, asked what his favorite part of such interactions are, he said: “Just seeing the optimism that people have, particularly a lot of elderly people who tell me they had just given up and were waiting to die and now they have hope for their children and grandchildren.”
After curing the elderly of their semi-suicidal depression, winning the White House must seem like a snap.