Some weeks back, I predicted Ben Carson was just about over — still a good bet if the standard is “has a chance in hell of winning the Republican nomination.” But by other standards, he’s bigger than ever. Not only is the neurasthenic neurosurgeon neck and neck among Republican voters with the equally implausible Donald Trump, his public statements — whether regarding ancient grain storage or details of his own life story — dominated last week’s political coverage.
Those stories were mostly negative, but Carson seems to believe, like other show folk, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and his rightblogger friends rallied to reinforce that perception.
Given that he has no political experience, Carson’s life story, outlined in his 1992 autobiography Gifted Hands, makes up a large part of his appeal. Sympathetic profiles have for years noted Carson was an angry, violent young man who once, after trying to stab a kid and having the knife deflected by the kid’s belt buckle, went to the bathroom and prayed, and emerged the soporific figure you see today.
“Carson, now a GOP presidential hopeful, dates his spiritual awakening back to that bathroom-epiphany,” reported the Daily Caller on October 12, “and has used his story of conversion to propel his campaign to a top spot in the polls.”
On October 27 this rage-to-riches story was challenged by Gideon Resnick at the Daily Beast, who found Carson had changed details of the stabbing story a few times in the retelling.
Some rightbloggers rose to the bait. When CNN’s Maeve Reston picked up the story, Breitbart.com’s John Nolte dismissed as absurd the notion that anyone would remember details of their attempted murder.
“The knife Carson plunged into the gut of another young man hit a belt buckle,” said Nolte. “Reston’s contention that the non-stabbing ’is stuff you’d remember’ from 50 years ago is absurd. Over the course of my life, I remember the two traffic accidents I have been in. I do not remember the close calls.”
Can you remember trying to kill someone? No? John Nolte rests his case!
The rest of you may be thinking: Who cares? Reagan thought he was in Germany in World War II, and it didn’t hurt him. Understand, though: Carson has over the years made all kinds of controversial statements about Nazi Germany, slavery, and their relationship to Democratic policy. Reporters haven’t made much of these because they conform with mainstream conservative thought — see Liberal Fascism, et alia — so any cavils would be counted as politically motivated attacks by Liberal Media.
But fudged biographical details in a book — that’s something the Fourth Estate can work with, as James Frey and many others can tell you. So reporters began to dig.
Buzzfeed announced that Carson had told a commencement audience in 1998 that the biblical Joseph built the Egyptian pyramids to store grain. (“Now, all the archaeologists think that they were made for the pharaohs’ graves. But…”) Since his statement had nothing to do with the fascist Obama administration, it was fair game and the story spread.
Carson nonetheless had a few defenders among rightbloggers. Forbes’s Tim Worstall manfully explained that “for all the jeering that is going on further to our left about how wrong Carson is, those pyramids are actually an example of something said left holds very dear, fiscal stimulus in the time of an economic slump.” (In brief, the pyramids were a Keynesian make-work scheme, and laborers in the Pharaoh’s Business Improvement District were paid in grain, so “pyramids were therefore a grain store, a granary. But only in that economic sense.”)
An E for effort also went to National Review’s Jim Geraghty, who gamely asked, “How likely is it that Carson’s theory on the pyramids’ use or builder is likely to influence any of his decisions as president? What, is it going to ruin our relationship with Egypt?” This suggests a new slogan for the Carson campaign: “Crazy but Harmless.” “We mock Ben Carson for this,” sighed Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, “but we do not make fun of those who believe openly in the Trinity, Virgin Birth, ex cathedra, and many other beliefs which are to my mind slightly less plausible claims.” Yes, one might say, but unlike Catholic politicians, there’s no reason to think Carson is only pretending to believe in the pyramid story.
Then rightbloggers caught a break when Politico reported that Carson, who’d said he’d been offered a scholarship to West Point, had never applied to go there. This turned out to be a semantic tsimiss — Carson’s campaign responded that the candidate never said he’d applied, he was just given to understand during a tour of West Point that he’d be accepted with a full ride if he did, requiring Politico to add a long editorial note to its story.
This plausible undeniability, so to speak, heartened rightbloggers, and they rushed to Carson’s defense and Liberal Media’s denunciation.
At the Federalist Mollie Hemingway interpreted Politico’s editorial note (which begins, “Editor’s note: POLITICO stands by its reporting on this story, which has been updated to reflect Ben Carson’s on the record response…”) thus: “Politico Admits Fabricating A Hit Piece On Ben Carson.” Matthew K. Bure of Politistick denounced “leftist rag Politico” for “one of the worse smears [sic] in the history of politics…. It’s pretty clear that Politico is getting their marching orders from Hillary Clinton and the Democrat Party, acting in a role very similar to that of Pravda in the old USSR.” (This is a good point at which to mention Politico’s actual pedigree.)
“Politico would never editorialize about any Democrat who issued such a response to a factual inquiry in this manner,” said Ben Shapiro at the Daily Wire. “Frankly, this might be the best thing that could have happened to Dr. Carson,” said Emily Zanotti of the American Spectator. “After a week of weird sound bites, the story surrounding him is an attack by the media, something conservative candidates should be able to capitalize on and thrive from.”
On Friday, in what the New York Times described as a “combative” press conference (though he didn’t try to stab anyone), Carson himself tiraded against — you guessed it! — Liberal Media and the “witch hunt” against him. “My job is to call you out when you’re unfair,” he said at one point in a telling reversal of the traditional press-and-politician relationship.
Just about that time, another noted Liberal Media outlet, the Wall Street Journal, questioned other Carson stories, including an elaborate tale involving a Yale class called Perceptions 301; a teacher who announced to the class that their test had been burned and would have to be retaken; a walkout by all the students except Carson; the teacher’s announcement that this had been the real test; and Carson’s rewards, including coverage by the Yale Daily News and a $10 bill. The Journal was able to confirm only the existence of Yale University. (Later Carson claimed to have proof of his story’s veracity: a press clipping about a parody issue in which a similar story appeared. “It wasn’t a scam, it was a parody,” Carson triumphantly told George Stephanopoulos on This Week.)
As this stuff kept coming out, rightbloggers looked at the number and peculiarity of the stories and had to admit what was now undeniable: Liberal Media has it in for Ben Carson, and this was good news for Ben Carson.
“No one in their right mind would pay for CNN’s brain-dead nonsense about Ben Carson except for CNN,” said Roger Simon of PJ Media. “It’s so sleazy, in fact, that it is certain to rebound against network [sic] and in favor of Carson.”
“What are we dealing with here? It’s not like he doesn’t remember what happened the night of Benghazi,” said Rush Limbaugh.
“Unfortunately for the left, the double-barreled attacks seemed to leave Carson in a stronger position than he had been in before, as they essentially verified what he has been saying all along,” said the Conservative Tribune — “that the liberal mainstream media will do or say anything to keep a black conservative out of the White House.” (That’s why we haven’t had one yet, besides Barack Obama.)
Meanwhile Donald Trump, fresh from a highly rated Saturday Night Live appearance, returned to TV Sunday morning to imply that Carson is nuts. Don’t feel bad for Carson, though: He announced that, thanks to the “biased media,” his campaign took in $3.5 million last week. At this point, who knows whether he’s bullshitting. But, just as top televangelists could once upon a time raise a bundle by claiming God was threatening to take them away, it’s very possible that Carson can raise a bundle by claiming Liberal Media is doing the same to him — especially when he’s got so many unpaid assistants to help him rattle that cup.