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Tom Baxter

Ben Carson’s strange new jazz

Republican presidential candidate, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson addresses supporters at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Mich., , Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

By Tom Baxter

In “Father of the Blues,” his autobiography, the great W.C. Handy wrote of some formative advice he received as a young musician.

“While I was experiencing the greatest difficulties in establishing my Memphis band, I complained to my Aunt Matt Jordan bitterly,” he wrote. “I told her that the other bands made mistakes in playing and how perfect ours was. She said, ‘Honey, white folks like to hear colored folks make some mistakes.’ In this one remark can be hidden the source or secret of jazz.”

We are in a different time, and he is in a different pursuit. But in his meteoric rise to the top of the Republican presidential field, Dr. Ben Carson has been playing a strange sort of jazz. Just as early jazz loosened the four-square beats of the old marching bands, he has rattled some of the stuffy conventions of campaign coverage, to the delight of conservative voters.

Carson is, quite literally, a brain surgeon, with all that implies about the ability to comprehend a difficult subject and master it in meticulous detail. Yet, sometimes by his own admission, there have been imprecisions in his campaign. He’s blithely admitted to changing his positions on issues as he’s learned more about them. He’s clarified details of his personal biography with little of the defensiveness normally associated with these admissions.

But when Politico claimed last week that he had admitted to fabricating a story about being offered a “full scholarship” to West Point after meeting Gen. William Westmoreland, Carson pushed back forcefully.

Technically, applicants win appointments, not scholarships, to the nation’s military academies, a process which involves a good deal more personal politicking than getting in to other top schools. In the eyes of an inner-city high school ROTC student suddenly thrust in the company of top brass, the early stages of that process could easily have appeared to be as Carson later described it.

Carson acknowledged that he had not been formally accepted into West Point when asked, but sharply disagreed with the notion that this constituted any sort of falsehood on his part. Politico updated its story with a statement that it stood by its reporting, which raised other questions about the veracity of his story, but removed the word “fabricated” from its headline.  A story which might have withered another candidate worked largely to Carson’s benefit, causing supporters to rally to his side.

Carson also fielded questions last week about his belief that the pyramids were actually grain silos built by Joseph during the Biblical seven years of famine. To most students of the subject, it’s a far-fetched idea, but then again, Nancy Reagan regularly consulted an astrologer when she was first lady. The difference is that the Reagan administration kept this quiet while Carson has unapologetically stood by the comments he made several years ago.

While he’ll catch the expected ridicule, Carson has again shaken the uptight rhythm of campaign narratives with his unruffled manner of responding. Implicitly, he’s making the point that he should have been asked more questions about what he thinks about the hotbed that is modern-day Egypt than what he thinks about Egypt in the days of the pharaohs.

It’s doubtful Republican voters, even those who despise the mainstream media and hold similar religious views, would have reacted in quite the same way if Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum had come under fire in a similar way. That, at least, would have been the opinion of Handy’s Aunt Matt Jordan.

This may not last, and by the normal logic of politics it won’t last. The race has become more fluid, and there are a lot more unresolved questions about Carson’s past and his personal beliefs. Moreover, the jazz which has so infatuated his early supporters may not sound so sweet as they become acquainted with some of his equally plain-spoken views on issues such as internet privacy, representation for Puerto Rico and D.C., and voter suppression.

But if this doesn’t happen relatively soon, a political establishment which has only recently accommodated the idea that Donald Trump could actually win his party’s nomination will have to get adjusted to the even more radical idea that Carson could as well.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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