Neurosurgeon's Speeches Have Conservatives Dreaming of 2016

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BALTIMORE -- Dr. Benjamin Carson was a political unknown just weeks ago.

Then with a single speech delivered as President Obama looked stonily on, he was lofted into the conservative firmament as its newest star: a renowned neurosurgeon who is black and has the credibility to attack the president on health care.

In his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last month, Dr. Carson criticized the health care overhaul and higher taxes on the rich, while warning that "the P.C. police are out in force at all times."

Overnight, he was embraced by conservatives including those at The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which proclaimed, "Ben Carson for President" -- a suggestion Dr. Carson helped feed at a high-profile gathering last weekend, the Conservative Political Action Conference. He was interrupted by sustained cheers when he coyly said, "Let's just say if you magically put me in the White House..."

In an interview in his office at Johns Hopkins University, he said he had been told for years that he could have a political career. It would be built on his compelling personal story that began in poverty in Detroit, leading to fame through pioneering work separating conjoined twins and his own self-help and inspirational books, including "America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great."

While Dr. Carson, 61, said that there were better candidates out there, he did not rule out a presidential run in 2016. "Certainly if a year and a half went by and there was no one on the scene and people are still clamoring, I would have to take that into consideration," he said in the interview. "I would never turn my back on my fellow citizens."

He is in some ways a dream candidate for Republicans. But he also fits nicely into the realm of fantasy where the very early jockeying over 2016 now plays out. No modern contender without a political résumé has ever gotten close to a major party nomination.

But political strategists said that outsiders can have an impact, especially when they expose the shortcomings of conventional candidates.

"I think it speaks to the vacuum not just in the Republican Party but in politics," Alex Castellanos, a Republican consultant, said of Dr. Carson's appeal. "Anybody who is serious and thoughtful and an antipolitician is the opposite of the mess we've got now. If you can separate two Siamese twins, maybe you can separate Democrats and Republicans in Washington."

Dr. Carson has been all but overwhelmed since his speech at the Feb. 7 prayer breakfast, which exploded on YouTube and was fanned by his follow-up appearances on Fox News.

"If you are calling with remarks regarding that speech, please do not leave a message on this voice mail," his office recording instructs callers, referring them to a fax line and e-mail address. The recording, nearly seven minutes long, also includes instructions for speaking requests, media interviews, school visits and autographs, as well as how to buy Dr. Carson's books "and other merchandise."

Sales of "America the Beautiful," his latest book, soared to 46,000 in the six weeks since his prayer breakfast speech, from fewer than 1,000 sold this year before to the speech, according to Nielsen BookScan.

"People all over the nation are starved for honesty and common sense," Dr. Carson said in his office. He had seven pens jammed in the pocket of his physician coat, which he wore over blue scrubs and scuffed white sneakers. He spoke very softly, but not because he is shy or self-deprecating. He told the CPAC audience that some of his most poignant feedback came "from older Americans who said they had given up and they were waiting to die and now they felt a sense of revival once again."

In speeches and writings, Dr. Carson describes growing up with a divorced mother whose education stopped at the third grade and who worked two, and sometimes, three jobs. He was teased as "dummy" because his grades were so bad. But his mother insisted that he and an older brother turn off the television and read, writing weekly book reports that she could only feign understanding.

He went to Yale and the University of Michigan Medical School, and at 33, became director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. He gained fame for a series of operations separating conjoined twins, long and risky procedures that did not always succeed. His 1996 autobiography, "Gifted Hands," became a movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr.

"He is one of the acknowledged leaders of pediatric neurosurgery," said Dr. Donlin Long, a retired chairman of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, who first brought Dr. Carson to the department.  

Dr. Carson said he was a "flaming liberal" in college but became conservative through his own climb to success. "One thing I always believed strongly in was personal responsibility and hard work," he said. "I found the Democrat Party leaving me behind on that particular issue."

With his wife, Candy, Dr. Carson founded the Carson Scholars Fund, which awards $1,000 to students to help pay for college. He has also endowed Ben Carson Reading Rooms at schools that serve disadvantaged students.

Although Dr. Carson is a registered independent and has declined to identify himself as a Republican, his views are solidly conservative. He belongs to a Seventh-day Adventist church and says churches are better mechanisms for taking care of the poor than government.

He draws on the Bible's description of tithing to argue in favor of a flat tax, a perennial favorite of conservatives. "You make $10 billion, you put in a billion; you make $10, you put in 1," Dr. Carson explained at the prayer breakfast. "Now some people say that's not fair because it doesn't hurt the guy who made 10 billion as much as the guy who makes 10. Where does it say you've got to hurt the guy?"

Dr. Carson said that he was in the new top federal bracket for family income above $450,000.

Dr. Carson also advocates an alternative to the Affordable Care Act. Most people could pay most of their medical bills through health savings accounts, he said in his office. He would eliminate Medicaid and Medicare, and for the poor, government would make the contributions to their health accounts.

He estimated that the cost of his treatment of a child with cancer could run as high as $300,000 including hospital and chemotherapy costs. No individual could afford so much from a health savings account, he said, but the difference could be made up by catastrophic care insurance. At CPAC, Dr. Carson told conservatives that he would retire this year, because "there are so many more things that can be done." The hint of a political future drew appreciative cheers.

But he said in his office that he had decided a while ago to step back from medicine after noticing that neurosurgeons he knew died young, which he attributed to stress. His immediate plans include public speaking and promoting his education foundation.

As for politics, he said, "I would like to have a voice."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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