BALTIMORE Dr. Benjamin Carson was a political unknown just weeks ago.
Then with a single speech delivered as President Barack 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, Carson criticized the health care overhaul and higher taxes on the rich, while warning that “the PC police are out in force at all times.”
Overnight, he was embraced by conservatives. His fans included The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which proclaimed, “Ben Carson for President” – a suggestion 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 Carson, 61, demurred that there were better presidential 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 resume has ever gotten close to a major party nomination.
But political strategists said that outsiders can have an effect, 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 Carson’s appeal. “Anybody who is serious and thoughtful and an anti-politician 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.”
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 email 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 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 prior to the speech, according to Nielsen BookScan.
In speeches and writings, 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.
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(ic) Party leaving me behind on that particular issue.”
With his wife, Candy, Carson founded the Carson Scholars Fund, which awards $1,000 to students to help pay for college. He also has endowed Ben Carson Reading Rooms at schools that serve disadvantaged students.
Although 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.
At CPAC, Carson told conservatives that he would retire later this year because “there are so many more things that can be done.” The hint of a political future drew appreciative cheers.
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