February 15, 2013 4:00 A.M.
The renowned doctor reacts to the furor over his National Prayer Breakfast speech.
Dr. Ben Carson
Dr. Ben Carson, a renowned pediatric neurosurgeon who helped lead the first surgery separating twins joined at the head, has received a fair amount of attention in his 61 years. But none of it before begins to compare to the response he has gotten since he spoke at the February 7 National Prayer Breakfast with President Obama sitting five feet away.
While most of his remarks were motivational or spiritual, he made some pointed political comments about the need for freer markets in health care and a less complicated tax code that includes a flat tax. He also issued a warning that the U.S. was in danger of following the path of ancient Rome’s “moral decay and fiscal irresponsibility.”
“The response has been overwhelming,” Carson told me in an interview this week from his office at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He had just come from taping an hour-long panel discussion with opinion leaders that will air on Fox News tonight at 9 p.m. He can’t count how many people have urged him to run for office in the past week. The Wall Street Journal editorial page even ran a headline, “Ben Carson for President.”
But as much as he appreciates the media attention to his message, he says the “most touching responses to my speech have come from elderly Americans, who told me they had given up on our nation, and now they feel that maybe there’s a chance.” Carson insists that he’s a member of no political party. “If I were part of one, it would be called the ‘Logic party,’ and it would be dedicated to commonsense approaches we all should be able to see.” Among them would be “recognizing that our debt is so great we have got to stop digging the hole and spend less.”
As for health care, he says it’s imperative not to further damage the doctor-patient relationship. “The key is to cut out the middleman and empower both doctor and patient with information about what things cost,” he tells me. He suggests that every child born in the U.S. should get a medical savings account, which could receive pretax contributions from family members, charities, and government. “People spending more of their own money on routine health care,” he says, “would make the system more competitive and transparent and restore the confidence between the patients and the doctors without government rationing.”
All of this has led some people to criticize him for disrespecting President Obama and disrupting the National Prayer Breakfast by injecting political messages into it. Carson rejects any notion that he was showboating. “There are people who would like to silence everybody and have everyone go along to get along,” he told Fox News’s Neil Cavuto. “But that’s not going to be very helpful for us in the long run in terms of solving our problems, and someone has to be courageous enough to actually stand up to the bullies.”
The liberal Baltimore Sun, which endorsed Obama for president twice, agrees with Carson that he meant no disrespect. “He never used the term Obamacare, nor suggested it be repealed. Indeed, to read the transcript is to encounter a gentle talk with much personal reflection and a rejection of both political correctness and partisan politics,” the Sun’s editorial concluded. Indeed, his only real jab came at the expense of lawyers, and it was met with great applause: “What do lawyers learn in law school? To win. What we need to start thinking about is how do we solve problems.”
Carson sees that, sadly, many people aren’t engaged in an honest dialogue about solutions. The news media glorify minority sports figures and entertainers, giving many young people a skewed view of who in their community is successful and how to better themselves. In his view, affirmative action was once appropriate but has now become divisive. He proposes “compassionate action,” which would give a helping hand to people based on financial need and real-life adversity.
He insists that leaders can come from any background. Raised in poverty in Detroit by a semi-literate mother who was one of 24 children, he succeeded because of his faith in God and his mother’s insistence that he study hard and not accept his disadvantages as permanent. When he was 15, he almost stabbed a friend to death in a fit of anger. He went home, locked himself in a bathroom, and prayed to God to remove his anger before it prevented him from realizing his dreams of becoming a doctor. He has never had an issue with his temper since.
When asked what he thinks are the biggest obstacles facing the country, Carson singles out political correctness and the “deliberate dumbing down of our public schools.” He says, “Our schools too often want to shut people up so they can’t talk about real solutions. People who think differently tend to clam up because they think something is wrong with their ideas.” Another problem is people who indiscriminately accuse others of racism or sexism. “Illogical thinkers throw names and slurs around because they have no arguments with which to rebut their opponents,” he tells me. “Rational people have to keep hammering their points home.”
As I wrap up the interview, I ask Carson if he is tempted to run for political office. He recalls that in 2010 he was asked by Bob Ehrlich, the former Republican governor of Maryland, who was then attempting a comeback, to join his ticket and run for lieutenant governor. But Carson declined. “It wasn’t right for him,” Ehrlich told me this week. “Now I think his platform is national and his message speaks to everyone.” Carson didn’t reveal his plans, but he did note that he is retiring from active surgery in June and that that “does open a lot of possibilities for me.”
One bet I’ll make is that we’ll all be hearing more from Dr. Carson in the future, and there may be no end to how much he upsets the applecart of the politically correct.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for NRO.