Carson's Appeal: He's Zen Ben in a Field Led by Trump

What the low-key doctor’s supporters say they’re drawn to most is his ability to project calm, and the other guy at the front of the pack at the moment does come across like that.

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Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at a health care summit September 18, 2015 in Greenville, South Carolina. Carson will join ten other republicans this evening in Greenville for the Take Back America primary forum.

Photographer: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

“Thank you for being the opposite of Trump,” a man who’d come to hear presidential candidate Ben Carson speak in Greenville, South Carolina, on Friday told him afterwards. “I love his humor,” said the man, Rick Posey, as he walked away.

The keen sense of the absurd that Posey sees in Carson would no doubt come in handy in a 16-way presidential primary race led by a reality television star. But what the low-key doctor’s supporters say they’re drawn to most is his ability to project calm, and the other guy at the front of the pack at the moment does come across like one Zen Ben.

Carson, a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon and favorite on the Christian speaking circuit, turned 64 on Friday, and spent his special day with those who see his apparent lack of “fire in the belly” as a refreshing absence of smoke blown in their direction. 

Ben Carson attends a health care summit on Sept. 18 in Greenville, South Carolina. 
Ben Carson attends a health care summit on Sept. 18 in Greenville, South Carolina. 
Photographer: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

“He’s apart from everybody else”—above the fray and “not quick to judge,” said Kimberly Elliott, who’s in the nursing home business, after getting her picture taken with him.

“So even and level and rational,” marvels her friend and colleague Kathryn Davis.  

“I like that he doesn’t have to shout and show off; he has a presidential demeanor,’’ offered Gail Everett, who has a PhD in special education and runs a literacy non-profit in Greenville. “I’d be too shy to shake his hand,’’ she added, while watching others grip and grin. And she appreciates that he’s not the pushiest guy in the field, either.

So, introverts for the brain surgeon? 

A surprising number of quiet types do go into politics, maybe to force themselves to talk to people. But unlike the cool-ish current POTUS, Carson doesn’t rev it up even on the campaign trail, instead saunters around the stage, speaking softly about health care savings accounts and his plan to shrink government by putting a four-year moratorium on federal hiring.

Reviewers said he practically disappeared on the debate stage Wednesday, not even fighting to get into the conversation. But Carson has no regrets.

“Well, you know, I am who I am,’’ he told reporters in Greenville on Friday. “I’m not a fire-breathing dragon, and over the course of time, people will come to actually listen to what I’m talking about—and it doesn’t have to be said in a loud and brash way.”

What he’s thinking when he’s standing up there debating the loud and the brash? He smiled.

“I’m thinking it’s sad,’’ he said, “that we’ve deteriorated to a situation where we all have to feel like circus performers. And you know, we have really serious problems to deal with.”

Still, the seriously conservative Carson doesn’t feel like giving up: “I actually have faith that over the course of time, the American people will recognize that, and not just, you know, desire to be entertained or look for the loudest and shiniest object, but actually start listening to the depth of what’s said, and recognize that unless we begin to be serious, we’re not going to solve our problems.”

Meanwhile, he’s willing to give this season’s shiny object the benefit of the doubt. Asked about Trump’s failure to correct a supporter who said Muslims should be thrown out of the country, he answered this way: “Sometimes you just go into answering mode without thinking.”

Should Trump have told the supporter who thinks President Obama is a Muslim that he isn’t? “I suspect that if he gets that question again, that’s exactly what he’ll do.” Would he have set the guy straight? “I think I would have.” And what about Trump’s previous statements that Obama wasn’t born in this country? “I haven’t heard him say that lately; I hope he doesn’t still think that.”

A confusing moment in the debate concerned vaccines, with Trump and both doctors, Carson and Rand Paul, muddying the reality that what’s dangerous is not getting vaccinated. So I asked Carson what vaccines he’d been referring to in the debate, and in Friday’s talk as well, when he said that though some inoculations are vitally important, and none have been linked to autism, not all vaccines are absolutely necessary. Which shots, exactly, does he think might be left to a parent’s discretion?

“Flu vaccines obviously aren’t always necessary,’’ he said, “and I think hepatitis vaccines, except for people who are health care workers, are sometimes overly prescribed. If I sit down and look at the list of the 30 possibilities, I could probably check off quite a few of them. And I’m not even saying we shouldn’t utilize them. What I’m saying is let’s sit down and have an open, logical discussion about them rather than just saying, ‘my way or the highway.’ I think we’d tend to get a lot more cooperation when people have an understanding of why things are being done as opposed to just imposing.”

During his Friday talk, in a hotel ballroom, he’d referred to the idea that he doesn’t care about health care for the poor as absolute propaganda. Where does that idea come from? “There are those who want to portray the narrative that, you know, I don’t like black people, that I don’t like myself because I’m black…when in fact, if people listen to what I’ve said and what I’ve written, the things I’m advocating are the very things that will get black people out of dependency and to a place they’ll have much more power and influence.’’

For instance, he would use “the very same money” that’s now spent on Medicaid to fund private health care savings accounts, while also “empowering poor people in other ways,’’ like lowering the national debt so interest rates would rise, and allow those who can’t afford to gamble in the stock market to earn a better return on their savings accounts.

Of the candidate forum happening only a few hours later, what could voters expect to hear from him? “Well, I haven’t really decided exactly what I’m going to say,’’ he answered. “But it will focus on some of the many problems that we face, and”—here comes his favorite word again—“some logical solutions for those.”

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