BY SUSAN REYNOLDS – BASED ON AN INTERVIEW BY PAT BURNS
Becoming a grandparent changes everyone, for Dr. Ben Carson, his wife of 39 years changed her stance on whether or not he should run for president. “Candy was pretty against any foray into the political world for me—until we had grandchildren, and now she’s thinking about how they’re not going to have any future, if we don’t start thinking about what’s going on in this country.” They’ve welcomed two granddaughters—Tesora and Junia—he is testing the presidential waters.
In addition to serving as Professor and Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at John Hopkins for nearly three decades, Dr. Carson has been writing inspirational books and lecturing since 1996. Fame in medical circles came for devising and successfully completing a landmark surgical procedure to separate conjoined twins at the head, the first pediatric neurosurgeon to do so. For his medical brilliance, he’s received more than 60 honorary doctorates and, in February 2008, President Bush awarded Carson the Ford’s Theater Lincoln Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honors.
Political fame arrived when his 2013 speech at the National Prayer Breakfast went viral on the Internet. A newspaper column and a stint as a Fox News commentator increased his visibility, establishing this self-made, very successful, and very wealthy man as a conservative frontrunner. After the recent midterms, he switched his political alliance from Independent to Republican—but remains strategically mum on declaring an actual candidacy.
Getting swept away
Dr. Carson, in fact, has a groundswell urging him forward. Millions are pouring in and his recent book tour promoting One Nation—29 cities in eight days—attracted enthusiastic crowds, shouting, “Run, Ben, Run.” He pauses briefly to chuckle. “It’s pretty astonishing. Everywhere we went humongous crowds had gathered. As soon as you get off the bus, they’re just erupting. I’m sure if Hillary Clinton had crowds like that it’d be all over the news. But you know these people are just so excited about the thought that someone, among the people, who has some common sense and is willing to articulate it and isn’t afraid of the PC police, and all of the powers that be that usually shut people down.”
So why not declare?
“I have a surgical personality, which means I look very, very carefully before I leap, and I measure the temperature of the water before I put my foot in there . . . Certainly I’m getting a lot of positive feedback, a lot of positive polls that show a very positive response, but I still have a few months to continue to gauge and make absolutely sure it’s the right thing to do.”
It’s not been all rosy for Dr. Carson. Some of his statements ruffled feathers—he’s debunked evolution, for example, (which caused Emory University students to protest Dr. Carson’s planned commencement speech); appeared to equate being in gay relationships to pedophilia and bestiality (which caused John Hopkins students to protest his commencement speech there); and who compares what’s happening in America today to what happened in Nazi Germany when the government used its tools to intimidate a population—but he has repeatedly countered that those comments, and others, were taken out of context, or were misunderstood. On this occasion, he is focused like a laser on positive messages, determined to promote himself as “the common sense” candidate who is focused on restoring unity, finding solutions for America’s most challenging problems—and fiscal conservancy.
The perfect background story
The story of Dr. Carson’s rise to prominence from poverty is compelling. His mother grew up in a large rural family in Tennessee (24 children), never got beyond third grade, married his father when she was only thirteen, and divorced early on. She raised her two sons in Detroit, working hard to feed and clothe them, pushing them towards excellence. “My mother was incredible,” Carson says, clearly proud, “she could stretch a dollar further than anyone imaginable, and I’m pretty sure if she was Secretary of the Treasury, we would not be in a deficit situation.”
His mother taught him that frugality was a virtue
Dr. Carson takes pride in teaching his three sons, Murray, Benjamin, Jr. (BJ), and Rhoeyce, the same frugality “Candy and I grew up in meager circumstances and we didn’t want to spoil our children. We didn’t want to go across the line and sort of make up for what we didn’t have, so we really made them earn everything that they were given. And I think it had a very, very positive effect on them. They’re all extremely frugal. My middle son just bought his tenth company, and people are always asking him how he became so good with money, and he says, ‘because my parents never used to give me any, and I had to figure out all kinds of ways to get it.’
She also taught him personal responsibility
“My mother absolutely refused to be a victim, refused to let us be victims. She never made any excuses, and . . . if we made an excuse, the first thing out of her mouth was a poem entitled “Yourself to Blame.” He pauses to recite from memory: “‘You’re the captain of your ship. You make the choices.’ It’s a lesson he plans to teach his grandchildren. “If you can teach a child not to look for excuses but rather to look for solutions, you’re likely to raise someone who is extremely effective and extremely successful.”
Girls at last!
Dr. Carson and his wife’s two granddaughters are the first girls in three generations of Carson’s. “It’s just amazing how delightful they are. You notice so many things about them that you perhaps didn’t notice with your own children, because they were there all the time.” Although Dr. Carson and Candy retired in Palm Beach, they maintain a home in Maryland and are able to see their granddaughters often. The older one knows him best from seeing him on television. “Whenever someone said ‘grandpa’ she would point towards the TV.”
The most important values he wants his grandchildren to learn
Personal responsibility: “If you can teach a child not to look for excuses but rather to look for solutions, you’re likely to raise someone who is extremely effective and extremely successful.”
Honesty and integrity: “If your word isn’t worth anything, then there’s not much else of you that’s worthy of anybody’s trust. I think that’s something you have to really drive home: that personal responsibility and honesty will take you a long way in this world.”
Compassion: “As we try to raise leaders for this nation, we don’t need people who are just smart; we also need people who care about others. That has been one of the very best characteristics of America from the beginning, and we have to make sure we cultivate that, in a very positive way, in the next generation.”
Frugality: “You learn how to use it [money] in a very efficient and effective manner, and that starts at a very young age, teaching people not to be wasteful, to be frugal, and how to multiply their resources.”
The Carson Scholars Fund
Dr. and Candy Carson founded The Carson Scholars Fund to encourage children to work harder in school—and to care about others in life. “We are in all 50 states now,” he noted. “We take children who are at the highest possible academic level, starting in the fourth grade, but who also demonstrate that they care about other people, and we put them on the same status level as all-state athletes, because they so often get neglected. But we emphasize that the compassion part is as important as the academic part.” They also establish reading libraries in poverty-stricken areas across the country.
What he wants everyone to know about him
“My whole life has been about healing. As a young child, everything that came on the radio or TV that had to do with medicine just attracted me like a magnet. And my whole medical career surrounded trying to give people another chance, and enhance their lives, make them as fulfilling as possible. And that’s something that doesn’t disappear just because you retire. So, when I look out there and see all of these young people, and old people for that matter, whose lives are not being fulfilled, who are seeing themselves as victims, who are becoming dependent, who are not using the enormous talent that God has given them, cultivating that in a way that means they cannot only enhance their lives but can enhance the lives of those around them, I feel that you have to do something. I don’t think you can sit around and complain about that.”
His books and films
The autobiography Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story (1996) is about his rise to prominence in medicine (Cuba Gooding, Jr., starred in the TV movie; and there’s also a documentary film). The Big Picture: Getting Perspective on What’s Really Important in Life (2000), Think Big: Unleashing Your Potential for Excellence (2006), and Take the Risk: Learning to Identify, Choose, and Live with Acceptable Risk (2009) are about his personal philosophies on success, hard work, risk and faith in God. America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great, One Vote, and One Nation: What We Can All Do To Save America’s Future (2014) are obviously about his political future. He recently released the documentary A Breath of Fresh Air: A New Prescription for America, which focuses on Carson’s political transformation since the 2013 speech.
His views on healthcare—for seniors and all Americans
Dr. Carson would like to replace the Affordable Care Act with Health Savings Accounts. “The only responsibility of the government would be providing $2,000 per year for every American citizen—around $630 billion annually, about 20 percent of what we currently spend on health care.” In our interview, he explained his reasoning. “If we took the money that is spent on Medicaid and divided it up into health savings accounts where people have control over it, it would be spent in a much more effective way. I also advocate that you give people the ability to shift dollars in their health savings accounts. Let’s say Grandma needed something that costs $500 more than she happened to have in her healthcare account; it could be given to her from her son, her grandson, her cousin, anyone inside the family. They could form their own insurance company, each family, without the middleman. There’d be tremendous efficiency and effectiveness, and the cost of catastrophic care drops dramatically, because just about everything you are doing comes out of your health-savings accounts. It would be like having an insurance policy for your home, with a very, very high deductible. The cost of it drops dramatically.”
His views on poverty
“We also need to think about ‘what do we do’ with the indigent people in our society. Do we just continue to pat them on the head and pass out food stamps and housing subsidies, healthcare, everything that they could possibly need? That sounds very compassionate, but really, it’s just the opposite. It’s creating dependency and it’s creating inter-generational dependency that, in the long run, is not helpful. If we use the same energy and resources towards finding ways to help people become self-sustaining, that would be compassionate. Sort of the way Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Prize in 2006 for his program in microlending and micro-economics, which basically lifted millions of people out of poverty in Bangladesh and that part of the world.
His views on fiscal conservation
“In terms of the critical issues for our nation, an $18 trillion dollar debt [is very concerning]. That is so much money, that if you tried to pay it back at a billion dollars a day, every day for 365 days, it would take you 50 years.” He softly chuckles. “I mean that is just staggering, and the only reason we can sustain a debt of that nature is because we are the reserve currency of the world, which means that we can print money. If we couldn’t do print money, I don’t even want to think of where we could be. I mean Greece would probably look pretty good compared to us, and we may not always be able to print money, and, therefore, we need to go ahead and get that under control.”
Susan Reynolds is Grand Magazine’s Editor and has authored or edited more then 35 nonfiction books, including Train Your Brain to Get Happy, Train Your Brain to Get Rich, Everything Personal Finance for Single Mothers, Adams Media¹s My Hero anthology series (Mother, Father, Teacher, Dog), and Woodstock Revisited. She owns a literary consulting business in Boston.
Pat Burns is Regional Editor of GRAND Magazine.