Ben Carson, who is currently leading polls for the Republican presidential nomination nationally and in Iowa, appears to have lied for more than two decades about getting a scholarship from the US Military Academy at West Point.
In his 1990 memoir, Gifted Hands (which was subsequently adapted into a TV movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Carson), Carson recalls meeting Gen. William Westmoreland at a Memorial Day parade his senior of high school; Carson was active in Junior ROTC as a teenager. "Later I was offered a full scholarship to West Point," he writes:
Kyle Cheney of Politico called West Point and found that it had no record of Carson applying, let alone being admitted:
"In 1969, those who would have completed the entire process would have received their acceptance letters from the Army Adjutant General," said Theresa Brinkerhoff, a spokeswoman for the academy. She said West Point has no records that indicate Carson even began the application process. "If he chose to pursue (the application process) then we would have records indicating such," she said.
When Cheney confronted the Carson campaign with these facts, they conceded that no scholarship offer had ever been made. "He was introduced to folks from West Point by his ROTC Supervisors," campaign manager Barry Bennett told Cheney. "They told him they could help him get an appointment based on his grades and performance in ROTC. He considered it but in the end did not seek admission." The Politico story initially took this as an admission that Carson had lied. But Carson's campaign subsequently clarified that they didn't think Carson's account was misleading at all, and called the Politico report an "outright lie," despite conceding that he never did get a formal offer from West Point of any kind.
Other parts of Carson's past appear potentially fabricated too
The blockbuster Politico report comes a day after a devastating CNN segment suggested that Carson had made up other stories about his youth:
The network's Scott Glover and Maeve Reston report:
In his 1990 autobiography, "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story," Carson describes those acts as flowing from an uncontrollable "pathological temper." The violent episodes he has detailed in his book, in public statements and in interviews, include punching a classmate in the face with his hand wrapped around a lock, leaving a bloody three-inch gash in the boy's forehead; attempting to attack his own mother with a hammer following an argument over clothes; hurling a large rock at a boy, which broke the youth's glasses and smashed his nose; and, finally, thrusting a knife at the belly of his friend with such force that the blade snapped when it luckily struck a belt buckle covered by the boy's clothes.
But when Glover and Reston spoke to nine friends, classmates, and neighbors who grew up with Carson, none of them recalled Carson being that violent. "I don't know nothing about that," classmate Gerald Ware told CNN. "It would have been all over the whole school."
Carson's campaign has stood by Carson's accounts of these violent episodes. "Why would anyone cooperate with your obvious witch hunt?" campaign adviser Armstrong Williams wrote to CNN in an email. "No comment and moving on...... Happy Halloween!!!!!"
In an interview with Fox's Megyn Kelly, Carson doubled down on the story of stabbing a friend but being stopped by a belt buckle, saying that the story concerned a "close relative" but declining to say who:
And in a subsequent interview with CNN, Carson angrily dismissed the network's report as "a bunch of lies":
It's a strange sight: a presidential candidate angrily insisting that he did too try to stab a relative in the gut. But the stories are key to the redemption narrative that Carson has been weaving his whole career, a narrative that has gotten tremendous buy-in from evangelical voters. My colleague Jenée Desmond-Harris explained this in a tremendous piece for Vox back in February:
A pamphlet published by the Draft Ben Carson PAC leaves no question that this tale is his main selling point. Under the heading, "Ben Carson Is What America Is all About," it reads:
"Ben Carson grew up in dire poverty. He was called dummy by his classmates, and he had a terrible temper. But Dr. Carson's mother did not give up on him. His mother worked as a domestic, cleaning other people's homes, noting that many of these homes had large collections of books. After praying about it, this single mother turned off the TV and required her two sons to read two books a week and write reviews for her."
Note the "terrible temper" detail. As Desmond-Harris wrote, Carson used to use this tale as a motivational lesson for black youths, as proof that they too could overcome adversity and become successful professionals, even pathbreaking surgeons:
Carson's autobiography, Gifted Hands, was required reading and made Carson into a (black) household name and a fixture of African-American History Month presentations.
…Mark Hatcher, a 33-year-old Howard University PhD candidate in physiology and biophysics, isn't a Carson supporter today, but he vividly remembers how Gifted Hands affected him when he read it as a 15-year-old growing up in Prince George's County, Maryland. The doctor's story provided an early blueprint for his career. "I walked past it in a bookstore," he recalled. "I saw a brown person in a surgical outfit and thought, ‘I need to have this book. That could be me!'"
Now it's become a redemption narrative designed to appeal to GOP base voters. It shows a man who achieved success despite being born into deep poverty through sheer effort and force of will — and who through the grace of God overcame the temptation of violence. The former appeals to voters skeptical of government spending programs for the poor, and the latter appeals to religious voters. CNN's Glover and Reston explain:
He writes in "Gifted Hands" that his religious epiphany took place in the bathroom of his family's tiny home in southwest Detroit, after he says he had tried to kill a young friend over a dispute about what music to listen to on the radio. It was the last in a string of violent acts that Carson says were spurred by a roiling anger that threatened to derail his dream of becoming a doctor.
Crying, and praying to God for deliverance, Carson found his answer when he picked up a Bible and opened it to the book of Proverbs and a passage on the importance of controlling one's temper.
Carson writes in his book that he spoke directly to God in that moment: "Lord, despite what all the experts tell me, You can change me. You can free me forever from this destructive personality trait."
When he left that bathroom, he told voters at the September Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco, "I was a different person."
Now, with Carson's admission that the West Point story isn't true, the details that CNN failed to verify start to look more suspicious as well. Even though Carson is sticking by his portrait of the neurosurgeon as a violent teen, his credibility is considerably diminished now that another key anecdote in Gifted Hands appears to be false.
Update: This story initially followed Politico in reporting that Carson had conceded that he'd lied; now that Carson is fighting back on that allegation, the story has been changed. But Carson's campaign did admit that he received no formal offer, as Gifted Hands suggested he had.