Laslo Boyd: Ben Carson’s Decline and Fall

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Dr. Ben Carson was for many years one of the best-known and most celebrated citizens of the State of Maryland.  He was a professor of neurosurgery, oncology, plastic surgery, and pediatrics as well as the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  Frequently in the news for his surgical skills, in 1987, Carson became the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins.

One of his books, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story, was later turned into a television movie starting Cuba Gooding, Jr. Carson has also been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and more than 60 honorary doctorate degrees. 

In 2001, Dr. Carson was named by CNN and TIME Magazine as one of the nation’s 20 foremost physicians and scientists. That same year, he was selected by the Library of Congress as one of 89 "Living Legends" on the occasion of its 200th anniversary.

In 2013, Carson retired as a surgeon and began a journey into the world of politics. As the keynote speaker at a National Prayer Breakfast in February 2013, Dr. Carson, with President Obama sitting a few away, criticized political correctness, income redistribution, and the Affordable Care Act.  He immediately was hailed by the political right, urged by the Wall Street Journal to run for president, and began speaking publicly on a regular basis about current political issues.

Carson, now a Fox News contributor, has appeared in prominent time slots at two consecutive CPAC meetings, and has developed an uncanny ability to get himself noticed in the press. That’s where his problems have surfaced.  For an individual who mastered his previous profession by hard work, attention to detail, and careful preparation, Carson apparently doesn’t realize that he needs to take a similar approach if he wants to be taken seriously on the national political stage.

Never mind that the good doctor obviously has a large ego, a condition not unprecedented among famous surgeons.  Never mind that Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and other members of the right wing media are telling him that he is just what the country needs. Never mind that Carson is quick to say that his future is in the hands of God.

Never mind even that a Super Pac, the National Draft Ben Carson Committee, has raised at last count about $3 million and is urging supporters to sign an online petition in favor of a Carson candidacy. Carson, when asked about their efforts, not only did not disavow the organization, but also gave the impression that he might be open to a presidential bid.

That dangling possibility has increased interest in his speaking appearances and among the political media who have a lot of time and space to fill in the many months between now and 2016.

Yet, Carson keeps making remarks that demonstrate that he is an ill-prepared political novice.  He may believe that his fame as a surgeon qualifies him to be president, but he shows on a regular basis that he is in way over his head.

At one gathering, he proclaimed that Obamacare was the worst thing that’s happened in this nation since slavery.  That’s a comment that demonstrates that Carson is much more interested in shocking rhetoric than in thoughtful public discourse.

More recently, at another gathering of conservative leaders, Carson declared that we are now living in a "Gestapo age," and that America has become "very much like Nazi Germany," because political correctness abounds. Now, I will acknowledge that it seems to be the season for politicians making stupid comparisons to Nazi Germany. Even Hillary Clinton, in comments about Vladimir Putin’s moves in Crimea, fell into that trap.

The difference is that Clinton has a public record, a body of work if you will, for which that ill-advised comment is but an unfortunate blip. Carson, on the other hand, is still in the early stages of establishing a public identity.  Unfortunately for him, and for us, the Nazi Germany remark that he made fits into a pattern of commentary that places him among the extreme political fringe in this country.

Carson is undoubtedly telling himself that he must be doing something right because he ranked third in the CPAC straw poll of Republican candidates and won praise from that crowd for his “fiery” rhetoric.  If he were a bit more knowledgeable about the political scene, he would realize that the GOP has a really good chance to replay its 2012 fiasco in which all the contenders were seen as extreme and out of touch. 

At this point, the whole spectacle is sad and almost makes you feel sorry for Carson.  As a man with an incredible life story of having overcome poverty and adversity to rise to the pinnacle of the medical profession, he is in the process of tarnishing his glowing reputation and embarrassing himself on a national stage.  He has no chance to win the Republican nomination, but there are many in that party who are eager to exploit his presence to demonstrate that the GOP is inclusive and not hostile to African Americans.  That role didn’t work out so well for Herman Cain.

Carson is being used but he seems not to realize it.  It’s hard to imagine that after all his recognition and awards, he now wants to be seen in the company of Rick Perry, Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum.  What a fall.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.