Ben Carson caught a break when Politico ginned up a story concerning his supposed scholarship to West Point, giving Carson room to wriggle out of a potentially sticky situation. To recap: Politico first reported Carson admitted to fabricating an offer of a full scholarship. Carson’s team responded that he never admitted fabricating anything and that being urged to apply to West Point (which is free) was essentially the same as being offered a scholarship. As Guy Benson of Townhall reminded Republicans, “Carson’s declarative sentence, written as an adult, that he ‘was offered a full scholarship to West Point' simply isn’t factually accurate. That’s not good. Period.”
Friday afternoon, Carson held a press conference in which he berated the media for a double standard and insisted he had never claimed to have been offered a full scholarship. (He wrote exactly that in his book Gifted Hands.) Friday evening the Wall Street Journal published another account noting other questionable details from his life story (allegedly shielding white students from a riot; supposedly participating in a Yale psychology class in which students were subject to a “hoax” to test their honesty). Other reports suggested that Gen. William Westmoreland, whom Carson alleged had offered him the scholarship, was not in Detroit, Michigan, at the time Carson claimed.
These reports come on top of a CNN story calling into question Carson’s account of an attempt as a youth to stab someone.
Carson insists he is being smeared. Conservative talk radio hosts have jumped to his defense in another round of mainstream-media bashing. What to make of this?
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
First, if Carson has not had his own writings, speeches and interviews researched for inaccuracies, exaggerations and outright misrepresentations, he’s committed political malpractice. Being unaware of where your opponents or the media will attack is a cardinal sin in presidential politics. Being indignant when the press combs through your past suggests you don’t understand the political process.
Second, Carson should know another rule of presidential politics: Don’t whine. Yes, the media can be sloppy and partisan, but if he cannot handle them with aplomb, he should not run for president. The Clinton machine will eat him alive. It does not solve Carson’s problem to say Politico was sloppy, too, or the media went easier on President Obama. He is the one running for president now.
Third, Carson is drawing support from more than one quadrant of the party, including moderate Republicans. If through these media flaps or by virtue of his peculiar views (the pyramids), bizarre constitutional assertions (Muslims shouldn’t be president), offensive remarks (equating the United States with Nazi Germany and Obamacare with slavery) and unintelligible answers on policy (taxes, Medicare) he alienates all but his core base — evangelical Christians who are deeply suspicious of the MSM — he cannot hold his lead. In short, it is not talk radio he needs to worry about, or Iowa evangelicals, but voters in places such as New Hampshire and the Super Tuesday states. If he is seen as dodgy or incompetent as a candidate, these voters will decamp.
Fourth, Carson is particularly vulnerable because he has cultivated deep respect for himself as a person with a compelling life story. If Donald Trump were “caught” exaggerating, no one would bat an eye. He’s essentially playing a cartoonish figure. Show he was a rotten dealmaker, however, and that’s an issue.
In the same vein, Carson had better be entirely honest and forthright. If not, the rationale for his campaign — elect an admirable person — evaporates. He has placed his character front and center in his campaign. He cannot be surprised that inaccuracies may cause voters to question his candidacy.
In an interview Friday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was asked to respond to the controversy. “[W]e’re all responsible for our own personal stories — the stories of our lives that we present to the voters,” he said. “And we are responsible for the accuracy of those and the honesty of those, and so Dr. Carson is going to have to answer for it and he’s going to have to answer to the voters and then they’re going the decide whether that answer is sufficient or not.”
You cannot say it better than that.
© 2015, The Washington Post