By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
NEW YORK — Ben Carson had a modest plan in mind last year when he retired from Johns Hopkins Hospital after a celebrated, decades-long career in neurosurgery: He wanted to improve his golf game and learn to play the organ.
But the 63-year-old has been too busy crisscrossing the country, raising money and elevating his profile to pursue his golf swing or his love for Bach. Nearly two years after he burst unexpectedly onto the national political scene, Carson is sending every signal that he’s interested in adding a presidential campaign to his bucket list.
Given Carson’s penchant for controversy and his lack of experience as a candidate, it might be easy to dismiss talk of his political ambition. But it’s difficult to ignore the loyal following that has grown up around him, or that the ‘Draft Carson’ movement has raised $12 million — a little more than the similar effort underway for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
“The possibility of running for high public office is not something that thrills me, to be honest with you,” Carson told The Baltimore Sun in an interview before a recent talk with business leaders in New York. “I also recognize that sometimes you just have to deal with the situation that you’ve been thrust into.”
The retired director of pediatric neurosurgery is a consummate Washington outsider, an African-American conservative and a best-selling author with a personal story so compelling it was made into a television movie. Talk of a presidential campaign began to swirl immediately after he delivered a fiery address at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington last February.
Video of Carson laying out his conservative views on federal budget deficits, taxes and health care at the ordinarily nonpolitical event — with a stone-faced President Barack Obama sitting an arm’s length away — quickly went viral.
But while his rhetoric has fired up conservative Republicans, his language has sometimes been divisive. When discussing his concern that American voters are afraid to speak their minds or engage in politics, he likens the United States to Nazi Germany. He has described Obama’s health care law as the worst thing that has happened to the country since slavery.
Carson blames what he says is a PC-obsessed media for missing the broader point of his words. And as he does so, his poll numbers climb.
A CNN/ORC International poll released last week had Carson in second place among Republicans nationwide behind Mitt Romney, the GOP nominee in 2012, and ahead of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. That poll showed him with support from 10 percent of respondents.
By contrast, Maryland’s Gov. Martin O’Malley, also frequently mentioned as a presidential candidate, captured less than 1 percent of Democratic voters in the same poll. Former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who told The Sun last week that he is also weighing a possible campaign in 2016, hasn’t been in the mix long enough to even appear as an option in polling, though he will also start off with a low level of name recognition on the national stage.
Carson rose from inner-city poverty in Detroit to graduate from Yale and the University of Michigan’s medical school. At 33, he was named director of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins — the youngest person to lead a major division at the institution. He won international acclaim in 1987 when he became the first surgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head.
His first book, Gifted Hands, was made into a television movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. In the book, Carson describes how he overcame early struggles with school and anger through a love of learning and faith. When he was in the ninth grade, he tried to stab a friend during a fight over which station was playing on the radio. The incident shook him, he writes, and he willed his short temper into submission.
Former colleagues describe Carson as a brilliant and determined surgeon who would come to the hospital in the middle of the night to perform procedures he could easily have left to others.
“He took on a lot of great challenges, a lot of children that other people — other very talented pediatric neurosurgeons — said could not be helped because he realized that if nobody took on the risk that they were doomed,” said Dr. Henry Brem, a Hopkins neurosurgeon who worked with Carson throughout his career.
“He made each family, each patient feel that they were the center of the world,” he said. “The closer I got to Ben over the years the more in awe I was with him as a person.”
President George W. Bush awarded Carson the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2008.
In his speeches, Carson rails against extreme partisanship, suggesting that voters should ignore party labels on Election Day and focus instead on each candidates’ ideas. But he nevertheless embraces a host of conservative policy prescriptions, which he describes as “common sense” ideas.
At the Harvard Club in midtown Manhattan, he told a small a group that Congress should vote again on the Affordable Care Act, described the global rise in temperatures as “irrelevant,” and suggested that the United States shouldn’t shy from using combat troops to tackle the spread of Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq.
“Ideology has said we can’t put boots on the ground,” Carson said. “If you’re going to fight a war, you need to fight the war and get it over with.”
Carson spoke for about an hour over cocktails at the club, a quiet, wood-paneled spot appointed with Persian rugs. In a soft-spoken bedside manner, he told about two dozen people that his ideas were neither Republican nor Democratic.
For years, Carson was an unaffiliated voter. He recently registered as a Republican.
Many in the audience said they were only vaguely aware of Carson before they heard him speak — he is less well known in New York City than in more conservative parts of the country — but several picked up copies of his most recent book, One Nation, that were positioned nearby.
Sitting under the books was paperwork describing how attendees could make contributions to Carson’s various political committees.
“What he says makes a lot of sense,” said Dr. Jerry Katzman, a retired ophthalmologist who was hearing Carson for the first time, vowing to learn more about him. “He speaks from a very practical point of view.”
Carson’s signature domestic proposal is an expansion of health savings accounts, an idea he said would spur competition among doctors and clinics by giving families a greater stake in choosing where to spend their health care dollars. Instead of getting coverage through a government-run program such as Medicaid, low-income families would receive a set medical stipend that they would be responsible for managing.
The concept of giving patients more control over the cost of their care has been supported by members of both parties.
Disdain for political correctness is central to Carson’s approach to politics. And while his bomb-throwing has brought him considerable attention — and a spot, until recently, as a pundit on Fox News — it has also meant he sometimes winds up spending more time talking about his word choice than his underlying messages on the economy and health care.
In addition to the Nazi and slavery comments, Carson came under fire last spring when he mentioned bestiality and the North American Man/Boy Love Association during a Fox News discussion of same-sex marriage.
“Marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said during the appearance. “No group, be they gays, be they NAMBLA, be they people who believe in bestiality, it doesn’t matter what they are. They don’t get to change the definition. So it’s not something that’s against gays. It’s against anybody who wants to come along and change the fundamental definitions of pillars of society.”
The backlash led Carson to withdraw as commencement speaker last year at the Hopkins School of Medicine.
Carson acknowledges that the storms his comments can generate have helped solidify support among mostly conservative voters.
“The interesting thing is the more they attack me, the more popular I become,” he said. “So it kind of puts them into a little bit of a quandary.”
What stands out about Carson these days is his schedule. Weeks after the midterm elections, when many of the politicians who are eyeing 2016 took a break from the campaign trail, Carson is speaking in four or five states a week.
He is also the focus of an hourlong video that aired on television stations in 22 states last month. “A Breath of Fresh Air: A New Prescription for America” was produced by Carson’s business manager, conservative columnist and TV host Armstrong Williams.
Fox News cut ties with Carson over the video, which some perceived as a move toward campaigning.
The conservative group Family Leader invited Carson to speak last month in Iowa, the first state to hold a caucus in the 2016 primary calendar.
“We book a lot of speakers because we’re in Iowa, and he has definitely been the toughest one for us to land because he’s in such high demand,” Family Leader President Bob Vander Plaats said. “There’s a lot of respect and a lot of interest in Carson.”
The longtime Maryland resident owns a house in northern Baltimore County, but he retired last year to a home on the 17th hole of a golf course in West Palm Beach, Fla.
The idea of a Carson campaign is generating significant political cash, frequently from small-dollar donors. The National Draft Ben Carson committee — which is prohibited by law from coordinating with Carson — has brought in $12 million since last year.
But the draft-Carson group is spending money as fast as it’s receiving it. In its most recent Federal Election Commission disclosure, filed last week, it reports owing more money than it has in the bank.
Carson is the chairman of Save Our Health Care, a group that supports Republican congressional candidates. The group is funded by the American Legacy PAC, which has raised $7.3 million since last year. The organizers of the group have also formed the American Legacy Center, a nonprofit that can accept unlimited donations and does not have to disclose its donors.
Carson created another group in August, USA First PAC, that raised $377,000 this year.
But despite the travel and fundraising, Carson is not committing to a 2016 campaign yet.
He said he expects to make up his mind about his next steps by May.
“I really had no intention of getting into the political arena. But as a platform made itself available and I began to talk about these things, they resonated so strongly with millions of people across the country,” he said.
“I don’t know what my role will be in the future,” Carson added, “but I know that I will continue to fight extremely hard for these principles.”
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr