In the 1992 documentary, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, young Dr. Carson, an African-American dreamboat in surgical scrubs, told a group of teenagers that as a kid he was called “dummy” and was so full of rage that he threatened to hit his mother with a hammer. In a gentle voice honeyed with a Midwestern drawl he added that he once tried to stab a boy, but luckily the knife blade broke and he ran home and began to pray. Carson credited God, his hard working mother, and the power of education for helping him triumph over poverty and racism to become the youngest head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
From this compelling backstory, Carson went on to win global fame and a Presidential Medal of Freedom among many other honors, in part, for devising landmark surgical procedures to separate conjoined twins. And now, after retiring from medicine, it looks like he could be one of the Republican’s top picks for president in 2016 – he recently finished a close second to Senator Ted Cruz in a Republican straw poll for potential presidential contenders.
Carson is still riding the political groundswell he set off at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast when, standing just a few feet away from President Obama, he electrified conservatives by delivering a speech that criticized Obamacare, the tax system, the state of education, the budget deficit, and the “PC Police” who stifle freedom of speech. And, since then, he has continued to stir up controversy around issues like gay marriage (he’s against it) and likening political correctness to fascism in Nazi Germany.
But, undoubtedly, Carson packs star power. Academy Award-winner Cuba Gooding Jr.’s portrayal of him in the 2009 TV biopic (also titled Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story) pales beside Carson’s real-life, soft-spoken charisma and devotion to helping others. He and his wife co-founded the Carson Scholars Fund awarding prizes to thousands of students for academic and humanitarian achievement, and installed reading rooms nationwide in Title I schools without libraries. And when he’s not helping the kids, he gives motivational speeches and writes books including the newly published One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future.
Clearly, Ben Carson walks the walk, but can he lead Republicans back to the White House? Here’s what he had to say.
The big question: now that you’ve retired from medicine, will you run for president?
Right now my big goal is to try to wake America up because we’re turning into something else and most people don’t even recognize it and the fabric of our nation and the freedoms that were so precious here are just dissolving.
Certainly running and getting involved would be much better than not getting involved but that’s only the case if there’s not another really good candidate who really understands the United States constitution, understands the whole concept of personal freedom and responsibility, understands how to get the economy moving again, how to get people who are in the lower ranks of our society to move up rather than just being complacent . . . If somebody like that comes along and is really generating a lot of excitement then there wouldn’t be any need for me to run.
What do you think about running against Hillary Clinton?
I would welcome that challenge. That would not be anything that would be frightening at all. Her policies tend to be more in line with the current administration in terms of big government and a paternalistic view of the populace. And I think it would make for a very good contrast.
In your new book, One Nation, you mention JFK. Is he your role model for president?
The thing that I liked about JFK is that he was courageous. And that seems to be a quality that is lacking today. Coming in as a 44-year-old president with so many problems…the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights stuff that was going on, unemployment was sky high, the economy was going to pot. And he was courageous enough to face down the Russians with a naval blockade of Cuba, …and put his brother Bobby who was quite sensitive in charge of Civil Rights; and use the bully pulpit to galvanize industry and business behind a plan to put a man on the moon and bring him back . . .Having the courage to face down his own party leadership who were saying we need to raise taxes more, and he said, no, we need to lower taxes. …If he were alive today, he would not only be a Republican he would be a right wing Republican.
You once described yourself as a “flaming liberal”. What changed your views?
I voted for Jimmy Carter. I bought all the liberal propaganda about how we need to help the downtrodden—they really can’t do that much for themselves and it’s our responsibility to take care of them—all that kind of stuff. But later, in my residency when I started just seeing a lot of people, seeing the results of the dependency culture, I began to realize that this was not a good thing we were doing for people…[The welfare system] is wreaking havoc on the very people it’s supposed to help. Around that time Ronald Reagan came on the scene and what he was talking about just made so much sense. And that’s really what helped me to move from one camp to the other.
I have still since that time voted for people in both parties in local politics. . .I’m much more in tune with what the person says, what they do and what they represent.
Why do you condemn political correctness? Isn’t it about maintaining conscious respect for one another?
All evil things start out with a little bit of good…Of course it’s nice to be courteous and not to try to say things that are inflammatory. But now it’s reached a very different stage. Just look what’s going on at university campuses right now. Anyone is allowed to speak as long as they agree with the administration. This is what we’re teaching our kids? In the bastions of intellectualism, our universities? People should be frightened to death with what’s going on with political correctness now.
You speak about compassionate action vs. affirmative action. Can you explain?
We’ve always been a compassionate society we’ve always rooted for the underdog. I think we should continue to do that, and to help people who are struggling, particularly if they put forth an enormous effort on their own and have significant achievement. But with compassionate action that doesn’t have a color to it, it has a circumstance to it based on where they came from and what their needs are. For instance, if my son is applying to Yale and has a 4.0 average and great SAT scores …and there’s also a kid applying from Appalachia who has a 3.7 grade point average and has been working since he was five when his father got killed in the coal mines, and has excellent SATs although not perfect; I think we ought to give that kid some extra consideration. It doesn’t matter what color he is, it matters that he has overcome enormous odds already. …The problem is when we start saying, well, you know this kid is black, and, yes, he’s had every advantage that the world can possibly give him, but he’s black so that should be an extra consideration. I just think that undermines our whole system of fairness.
[When affirmative action first evolved] it was very important. A lot of people thought that black people were inferior. They said there’s just no way that they’re intellectually up to white people. They weren’t exposed to them, and it probably would have continued that way. The ones who still do feel that way won’t be changed by the continuation of that policy.
Does the humiliation and racism you suffered still haunt you?
Not at all because I realized as I’ve stated in books that people do things based on their life experience. I didn’t get upset as an intern when I’d go on a ward and the nurse would think I was an orderly because every black man she had ever seen on that ward with scrubs on had been an orderly. …It’s when people persist in them after correction, that’s where you have a problem.
Have you ever gone back to the people who called you “dummy” to prove them wrong?
Most likely they know what’s become of me …like the counselor in medical school who told me I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor and told me to drop out. …When I went back there years later as the commencement speaker I was looking for him to tell him he wasn’t cut out to be a counselor. (laughs) I didn’t find him but I’m sure he knew about me – that was satisfactory enough.
You have said you were lucky to have a mother who pushed you to read and work hard in school, but what happens to kids without that support?
There are good people everywhere—teachers, neighbors. I belong to something called the Horatio Alger Society, which inducts about 12 people each year who came from the worst circumstances imaginable and rose to the top of whatever it is that they do. And every one of them will tell you if it wasn’t a mother or father behind them, it was an aunt or uncle or neighbor or teacher or older sibling—but we all have somebody. And we can all be that one to someone. . .Obviously I wasn’t a dummy, I just wasn’t motivated. I didn’t have the right things going into me, so therefore the right things didn’t coming out of me. That’s one of the reasons I concentrate so much effort on our young people, on the next generation because that really is our future.