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The debate over Ben Carson's alleged West Point "scholarship," explained

Carson at a book event in Miami.
Carson at a book event in Miami.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Early Friday afternoon, it looked like Ben Carson's presidential campaign had just imploded. After a CNN report cast doubt on Carson's claims to have attempted to murder a friend as a classmate, Politico came out with a clear-cut case of Carson fictionalizing his biography: He claimed in his autobiography to have been offered a spot at West Point, when the school had no record of him ever having applied. And when Politico asked Carson's campaign, they acknowledged that he had never actually been admitted.

But by late Friday afternoon, the story had totally flipped. Carson's campaign, aided by much of the conservative media world, attacked the Politico report as an "outright lie" and claimed that the precise wording of Carson's recollection was absolutely accurate.

So who's right? Well, the impression that Carson's story — both in the book and in subsequent public statements — gave was that he was offered a spot at the school. That's false; at most, some military personnel suggested they could help him get in should he want to go, but he was never formally admitted. But the initial Politico report did say that Carson had claimed he'd applied and been admitted, and he never used those words; the story had to be changed, which limited the scoop's damage to Carson. And arguably, focusing too much on the West Point fib itself is a mistake, and it's only one item in a broader debate over whether Carson has a problem with the truth.

What Ben Carson has actually said about West Point

Carson has told the West Point story in a number of places, with subtle differences in each version. Here's how he characterizes it in Gifted Hands, his 1990 memoir:

Uh oh
Carson talks about the West Point offer in Gifted Hands.
Ben Carson / Zondervan

"Offered a full scholarship" implies that Carson had received an actual offer of admission from the school, which charges cadets no tuition or fees and indeed pays them a monthly salary. But as Carson's defenders have noted, elsewhere in Gifted Hands he says that Yale (where he ultimately attended) is the only school to which he applied.

On August 13 of this year, Carson fielded a number of questions from his supporters on Facebook. One of them concerned his time in high school Junior ROTC and his claim about being offered a spot at West Point. Carson confirmed that he'd been "offered a slot" at West Point, and repeated the claim that Yale was the only school he applied to. His defenders again point to this as reconciling the stories:

The next question is from Bill. He wanted to know if it was true that I was offered a slot at West Point after high school.

Bill, that is true. I was the highest student ROTC member in Detroit and was thrilled to get an offer from West Point. But I knew medicine is what I wanted to do. So I applied to only one school. (it was all the money I had). I applied to Yale and thank God they accepted me. I often wonder what might have happened had they said no.

The Politico piece also quotes Carson recounting the story in an interview with Charlie Rose:

I had a goal of achieving the office of city executive officer [in JROTC]. Well, no one had ever done that in that amount of time … Long story short, it worked, I did it. I was offered full scholarship to West Point, got to meet General Westmoreland, go to Congressional Medal dinners, but decided really my pathway would be medicine

What actually happened

President Obama delivered the commencement adress
The 2014 graduation ceremony at West Point.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A reasonable person, reading these statements, would assume that Carson had been admitted to West Point and offered the full scholarship that comes with admission (even if he'd somehow never applied). But Carson has clarified that this was not, in fact, what happened. What actually happened, Carson says now, is that at the Memorial Day event recalled in his book, he was told by military officials that he had a good shot of getting into West Point if he wanted to attend. Here's how he put it to the New York Times:

I don’t remember all the specific details. Because I had done so extraordinarily well you know I was told that someone like me – they could get a scholarship to West Point. But I made it clear I was going to pursue a career in medicine. It was, you know, an informal "with a record like yours we could easily get you a scholarship to West Point."

It seems more than a bit odd to characterize that conversation as an "offer," and in Gifted Hands, Carson acts as though it was definitive. He talks about being "overjoyed" by the scholarship offer, and writes, "Of course the offer of a full scholarship flattered me."

It might be reasonable for Carson to interpret the officers' interest as an actual offer if they were in a position to nominate him for the academy, a necessary prerequisite in the West Point application process. But it's not clear if the officers saying this to him were in a position to nominate him.

As the Washington Post's Dan Lamothe explains, West Point nominations can generally come from one of two sources: political figures such as members of Congress or the vice president; or from the secretary of the Army. Political nominations account for the majority of cadets. The secretary of the Army can give a "service-connected nomination" to selected groups of applicants, including children of military personnel or veterans; existing service members; and high school ROTC participants. The latter would certainly have been an option for Carson, but he'd have had to seek a nomination through his professor of military science. Senior officers, even a four-star Army chief of staff like General William Westmoreland, don't directly have the power to nominate.

It's also not clear if Carson's memory of meeting Westmoreland is accurate. Carson recalls meeting and having dinner with Westmoreland and two Congressional Medal of Honor winners on Memorial Day, 1969. But Politico's Kyle Cheney consulted Westmoreland's schedule, of which the US Army still maintains records, and found that on Memorial Day the General was in Washington and played tennis at 6:45 pm. It appears likely that Carson mixed up the event with another in February, a banquet to honor Medal of Honor recipient Dwight Johnson in Detroit. Carson very well could have attended that event, but he didn't meet Westmoreland when his book says he did.

Does any of this matter?

On one level, this isn't that big of a deal. When specifically Carson met Westmoreland doesn't matter all too much. And while Carson clearly exaggerated in describing encouragement from senior officers as an actual offer of admission, perhaps that falsehood isn't too important. Indeed, the generous reading would be that his teenage self interpreted their kind words as a real offer, and he remembered them as such when writing his book.

But this plays into existing doubts about how truthful Carson is being in discussing his past. The biggest part of this is the CNN story, suggesting that his stories of life as violent teenager who attempted to stab a friend to death and went after his own mother with a hammer are false, or at least that no one who knew Carson at the time could corroborate them:

It also comes after Carson insisted, against considerable archeological evidence, that Joseph from the Old Testament built the Egyptian pyramids to store grain, and another a controversy last month in which he insisted that the Holocaust occurred because Jews in Europe were insufficiently armed. It also comes after a Republican debate in which, after being shown that his 10 to 15 percent flat tax plan would leave the government trillions in debt, he continued to insist that the numbers "work out quite well":

QUICK: If you were to take a 10 percent tax, with the numbers right now in total personal income, you're gonna come in with bring in $1.5 trillion. That is less than half of what we bring in right now. And by the way, it's gonna leave us in a $2 trillion hole. So what analysis got you to the point where you think this will work?

CARSON: Well, first of all, I didn't say that the rate would be 10 percent. I used the tithing analogy.

QUICK: I understand that, but if you look at the numbers you probably have to get to 28.

CARSON: The rate is gonna be much closer to 15 percent.

QUICK: 15 percent still leaves you with a $1.1 trillion hole.

CARSON: You also have to get rid of all the deductions and all the loopholes. You also have to some strategically cutting in several places.

QUICK: You'd have to cut government about 40 percent to make it work with a $1.1 trillion hole.

CARSON: That's not true.

QUICK: That is true, I looked at the numbers.

CARSON: When we put all the facts down, you'll be able to see that it's not true, it works out very well.

Add onto that the fact that Carson believes the idea of evolution was encouraged by the devil and rejects the Big Bang theory, and it's not unfair to conclude that Carson at the very least embraces some fanciful views about the world that don't conform to science or evidence of any kind, or at worst is comfortable repeating falsehoods if they help him gain votes among the Republican base (see the religious pandering of the evolution and pyramids comments, the gun pandering of the Holocaust comments, and the economic conservative pandering of the tax comments).

Next to all of that, fibbing about West Point is small potatoes. If that exaggeration is disqualifying, then insisting that you can somehow implement a 15 percent flat tax without draconian cuts to spending should be really, really disqualifying. But it adds to a general sense that despite Carson's image as an affable, straight-shooting political outsider, you can't really trust the guy.