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Controversial address vaults Hopkins' Carson into political arena

Benjamin Solomon Carson, Sr.Colleges and UniversitiesBarack ObamaJohns Hopkins HospitalChicago Tribune Columnists

Dr. Ben Carson says he didn't anticipate the reaction to what he considered his common-sense remarks as keynote speaker this month at the National Prayer Breakfast.

But after video went viral of the trailblazing black neurosurgeon taking jabs at Barack Obama's health care overhaul a few feet from the president himself, some want the famed doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to parlay the attention into a new career: politics.

"Here you have this guy who has been a celebrity minority for 30 years coming out and making the conservative case better than a lot of conservatives can," said Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for National Review Online. "Emotionally, that had a really big impact for a lot of people."

While some objected to Carson raising health care and tax policy at the traditionally nonpolitical Washington breakfast, conservative heavyweights Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter all cheered his address.

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial with the headline "Ben Carson for President."

Fame isn't new to Carson. The 61-year-old Detroit native, who rose from a childhood of inner-city deprivation to become the youngest person to lead a major division at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the first surgeon anywhere to separate conjoined twins, has written bestselling books about his life, his faith and success.

His memoir, "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story," was made into a television movie starring the Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. President George W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 2008.

But with his address at the annual breakfast, he has drawn a new level of attention to himself — and one he intends to use to reach a larger audience.

Carson, who plans to retire from surgery in June, says he has no interest in running for office. But he says he will use the new exposure to urge common sense, bipartisanship and a reversal of the "moral decay" that he says is eating away at the country.

"I have this feeling that as time goes on, we're not getting any more civilized, and we should be," he said in an interview. "We're still running around like the days of Genghis Khan. There are so many important, better things to do and we need to encourage people to reach into the brighter side of humanity and not encourage people to continue to glorify the darker side."

He won plaudits from the political right for his prayer breakfast call for the creation of health savings accounts at birth in place of what he considers the bureaucracy of Obama's health reform, and for the imposition of a flat tax that he likened to a biblical tithe to supplant a complex tax code that he said asks too much of the rich.

He also lambasted Washington for the $16.5 trillion national debt — evidence, he said, of hubris to rival that of ancient Rome.

Though he didn't mention it in his remarks, Carson adds same-sex marriage to his litany of the nation's problems.

Much of his address focused on a biblical argument for bipartisan cooperation.

Carson has been better known for his accomplishments than for his ideology. Speaking at the prayer breakfast in 1997, he described being raised by a poor, single mother who had been one of 24 children. He said he felt as if he was "the dumbest person in the world" before he gained confidence in his intellectual abilities.

He studied his way to Yale, and then to medical school at the University of Michigan, where he considered going into psychiatry before he realized his hand-eye coordination and spatial skills would make him an apt surgeon.

At the age of 33, he was named director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, where he led the team that performed the milestone conjoined twin surgery in 1987.

Along with this experience, he said, his Christian faith drives the practices that he preaches. Carson is a devout Seventh-day Adventist.

"I've had experiences in my life that leave no doubt in my mind about the fact that God exists," Carson said. "I'm quite willing to debate people who don't think so because I want them to explain to me how did our solar system get so organized and how is the universe so complex and yet well-organized that we can predict 70 years hence when a comet is coming?"

Carson is known for sharing his views plainly, said Carol James, a physician assistant at Hopkins who has worked alongside him for more than three decades and is godmother to his three sons.

"As time has gone on," she said, "his interest in the community and the country and how we are stacking up both educationally or in other ways with the world has become a more prominent concern for him."

The subject inspired "America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made this Nation Great," Carson's more recent book. James said he isn't shy about sharing those concerns.

The combination of Carson's forthrightness, his stature in the medical community, and the spectacle of an African-American physician confronting Obama over his most controversial policy have caught the attention of the political world.

Though Carson calls himself an independent, Republicans have rallied behind his message where it dovetails with their own. Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham have joined in the praise.

"I think it was refreshing to hear somebody speak plainly and talk about solutions and not talk about political rhetoric," said David Ferguson, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. "I think there's always going to be a reaction, regardless of who is speaking, when somebody has solutions and a bold approach instead of the cyclical problems we're facing as a country."

Carson said he has been "deluged" since the speech with media requests and reaction, "95 percent of it positive." He said he believes it shows "an incredible thirst in this nation for common sense."

How long he stays in the spotlight could be up to him, said Paul Herrnson, a government and politics professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. Ross Perot, for example, kept himself relevant in the 1992 presidential election by persisting through his own ambition and financial independence. Given how far off the 2016 election is, that could be a tall task to attempt now, Herrnson said.

Some have criticized the breakfast address as an inappropriate political stunt. The conservative columnist Cal Thomas accused Carson of "lowering himself" by breaking with the tradition of avoiding politics at the 61-year-old event. Past speakers have included Mother Teresa, Bono, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But the comments weren't intended to stoke political controversy, Carson said. Nor, he said, did they appear to offend Obama.

"I think there is virtually no better setting than something like the National Prayer Breakfast to talk about the spiritual state of the nation," he said. "I believe the spiritual state of the nation is not good."

Carson said he hopes to spark independent thinking over partisan bickering. He has planned 10 international trips after his retirement from surgery to speak to youth about the importance of education. He also plans to continue speaking around the United States — something for which he is now likely to be in greater demand.

Many of those speeches are likely to touch on what Carson sees as a weakening of the nation's moral fiber that threatens the country's survival.

"We try to make everything equal now, every kind of family situation," he said. "We go into the schools and we say there's no outstanding people because we don't want this one or that one to feel bad.

"We're basically extracting reality out of everything so everybody can feel good. But ultimately making everyone feel good makes everyone feel bad."

sdance@baltsun.com

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A previous version of this article misstated how many siblings Carson grew up with, and also misstated the title of Carson's book that was made into a television movie. The Sun regrets the errors.

Dr. Ben Carson

Age: 61

Family: Married, three grown sons

Education: B.S. in psychology, Yale University; M.D., University of Michigan

Accomplishments: Named Johns Hopkins director of pediatric neurosurgery at age 33, the youngest to lead a department at the hospital. Was principal surgeon on the first successful surgery to separate conjoined twins in 1987. Led first successful surgery to separate twins conjoined at the top of the head in 1997. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2008.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Benjamin Solomon Carson, Sr.Colleges and UniversitiesBarack ObamaJohns Hopkins HospitalChicago Tribune Columnists
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