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December 13th, 2017

Insight

Ben Carson learns about his 'place'

Wesley Pruden

By Wesley Pruden

Published Nov. 10, 2015

A black candidate for president learns the hard way that the media culture expects him to know a black man's place, and stay there. That place has to be in the Democratic Party.

The moving finger writes, and having stuck that finger sharply in the eye of the black candidate, moves on, and neither the ample piety nor the stunted wit on the other end of that finger can retrieve a single line.

This is the lesson Ben Carson is learning in the weird race for the Republican nomination for president. This is his Herman Cain moment, reminiscent in a superficial but telling way of the black phenomenon of 2012.

Herman Cain, the godfather of pizza, left behind him a distinguished business career — rescuer of stumbling companies, president of the National Restaurant Association, vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City — when he caught the itch to run for president in 2012. He led in the polls for several weeks, even besting President Obama in one match-up, until the media found a woman who said she had been having a 13-year affair with him. He had sexually harassed her, she said, though it was never clear why it took her 13 years to find out what had been going on between the sheets.

Such a story of lust gone astray, even if true, would hardly rate a beep on the Clinton-O-Meter. Nevertheless, that was all the finger wrote for the godfather. He was making whoopee at the wrong party.

A man, or woman, who wants to be president is wise to run for office before he learns to read, to avoid putting something on paper where others can read it. (Bill and Hillary, who get by with everything, are the exceptions.) "Write no man and wrong no woman" is usually sound advice for everyone, and particularly for politicians.

Mr. Carson made the mistake of not saving his best stories for his memoirs, where everybody fudges a little (and some people fudge a lot). He put some of his stories in his campaign biography, "Gifted Hands," about how he struggled from the Detroit slums to become one of the most eminent surgeons anywhere, once even successfully separating Siamese twins joined at the brain.

But putting it all down on paper invites scrutiny by reporters eager to split hairs joined at the follicle. When the doctor wrote about getting an offer of an appointment to West Point, he did it with the imprecise language that invites trouble.

He wrote that when he graduated from high school in Detroit, where he was the top ROTC cadet in the city, he got a feeler from the military academy. "I was offered a full scholarship . . . I didn't refuse the scholarship outright, but I let them know that a military career wasn't where I saw myself going. As overjoyed as I felt to be offered such a scholarship, I wasn't really tempted."

Politico, the Capitol Hill daily that obsesses over all things political, told this story and the sharpshooters on Gaffe Patrol thought they had a juicy targer in their sights. No one at West Point could find anything in writing about a scholarship; such records are routinely destroyed after three years if an appointment is declined.

Mr. Carson told other stories, too, about growing up as an embittered youth — fighting, hanging out with a bad crowd, once in an argument taking a hammer to smack his mother with — until he had a life-defining religious experience. "Saved," in the parlance of evangelical Christians.

The Gaffe Patrol took a microscope to these claims, and after conversations with old friends from his school days decided his redemptive stories weren't true, or were at least fishy. He was put in the unusual position of insisting that he had, too, threatened his mother with a hammer; that he had, too, been not very nice in his Detroit days.

The press nearly always has a hard time with good news, and resigns itself to disappointment when it lifts a rock and finds no felonies beneath. The boys in the back of the bus are particularly allergic to stories about bad boys who get religion, particularly if it's the old-time, born-again, life-changing religion.

Picking a fight with the press is rarely rewarding; "you never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel," as a wise guy once put it. But times change. When every wise guy with a laptop is a pundit, firing back when fired on can tempt even the wary. Ben Carson says he has raised more money than ever in the wake of the accusations of faith, industry and sobriety.

These are strange, wondrous and parlous times, and it's still early.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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