The Other Carson With Gifted Hands
“If you don't mind—I’m everybody's mom. Can I straighten your tie?” says Candy Carson. “It bugs me.” Before a reporter could answer, the wife of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson reached for the knot.
“I don’t blame you for leaving your top button unbuttoned,” she said, pushing the knot up sharply. “No knot is perfect, because people aren’t perfect and nothing on this earth is perfect. But that’s why there are people like me that come around and straighten ties.”
Carson had spent the morning inside a Mobile, Alabama, recording studio, finishing a Christmas album to benefit the campaign that will be released later in the coming weeks. Looking under her eyes in a mirror, she asked, “Did some of the bags go away?” to no one in particular. “I didn’t go to bed until 4 a.m. because I was up—well, we practiced.”
She paused from recording to shake hands with administrators from the University of Mobile, which housed the studio. She was in campaign mode until they invited her to a concert on campus later that evening. "Can we make it work?” she asked an aide, who thumbed through a schedule on a smartphone. Sensing uncertainty, she insisted. “We can make it work,” she said. “He has the Secret Service, not me. I can do anything.”
Candy Carson is the other dweller in the Carson bubble, having shared a highly unusual set of circumstances since their days at Yale more than 40 years ago. And in recent weeks, the bubble has undergone changes. The media has dissected her husband’s every word, from his best-selling debut autobiography, Gifted Hands, to his comments on the campaign trail. They’ve questioned his honesty, his competency, his foreign policy chops. And there's a new addition to the campaign: a fleet of U.S. Secret Service protection, agents trailing their every step.
To her, the music has been an escape. Inside the recording booth, she closed her eyes and smiled while recording a verse for “Do You Hear What I Hear?” She performed at her husband's presidential campaign announcement in May in their hometown of Detroit. Hours later, she was on a plane with her husband to visit his mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's, where she played hymns inside the hospital room.
“Our hymns and our praise songs are kind of a product of our culture and what's going on,” she said. “I give an example of [the hymn] ‘Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me.’ And when you hear that, you think about an airplane. He's going to take you up in the clouds and soar and all of that. We had an opportunity to go on a piloted boat off the shores of Virginia... When we got on the boat, they were explaining how it works, because the topography under the sea, whatever you want to call it—I’m probably using my words wrong, so media, just relax.”
Like her husband, Candy Carson is a sui generis political speaker. Metaphor and Bible imagery get mixed, if not tangled.
“There are people that study underwater topography and they map it out,” she continued. “The pilot boat captain is the one that has the most recent information about it. So he will guide the big boats when they come in so they're not going to get snagged on a sand bar or a crackity piece and then sink.”
Then, completing the homily, the message: “It's not only about piloting and taking someone some place,” Carson said. “It's also about navigating treacherous waters. And when you think about life, it could be considered treacherous.”
Carson never thought her husband would run for president. She expected him to retire, as he'd always promised, and to devote his time with her to the Carson Scholars Fund, which provides scholarships to academically deserving students. She said her husband calculated the average age of death for neurosurgeons he knew and it came out to be 61 years old. Carson is 64.
She raised their three sons while he spent long days performing groundbreaking surgeries. On Friday nights, she said she’d play piano for him while he reviewed files. One of his favorite songs to hear her play? A church hymn, “You Are My Hiding Place.”
“Each family’s life is going to be different. So the challenges that I’ve had aren't the same as someone else’s, but they’re just as real,” she said. She then looked directly into the camera before adding: “So for all of you out there that have to bring up your children by yourselves, hey, I’m with you there. I’m praying for you.”
“Even though he wasn't there a lot, the kids knew that he cared,” she said of her husband. “One of the kids really liked the way Dad disciplined. Their son, Rhoeyce, “crashed a car. He just hit stuff. He crashed two in one month. So Dad had a talk. By the time they finished, Rhoeyce was thinking, ‘That was worse than any punishment’ because he was thinking about the repercussions of what happens when you don’t focus, when your mind is just thinking about something else.”
She kept her kids busy by enrolling them in music lessons, opting to hire a teacher instead of teaching them. “It’s just that if something is a little off, it’s difficult for me to listen,” she said. “If it’s not on pitch, I have trouble listening to it.”
Candy Carson’s story is a close variant of her husband’s—Seventh-Day Adventists from Detroit, raised by mothers with strong ambitions for their children. Candy is, if anything, more of a pioneer than her husband—she graduated from Yale in 1975, one of the first classes to be fully co-educational.
“Going to Yale, it was a totally new experience in the sense that I came from Detroit,” she said. But the school's architecture was “incredible,” and “you’re trying to be cool because for most people there, it didn’t faze them at all. But I kept thinking, ‘Wow, this is so cool. All of these things I’d only read about.’ Sterling Library had so many wonderful kinds of books. We always went to libraries when we were growing up. We didn’t have a lot of money so Mom would always take us to libraries. We practically lived there, you know? And we’d get as many books as we could.”
At Yale, Candy Carson’s hands were more gifted than her husband’s. Her talent for the violin got her a prime chair in the Yale Symphony, which took her abroad. “We actually did the European premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in Vienna. We were in Austria and that concert house where the Vienna Boys Choir sings and they sang with us—you talking about goose bumps.” She couldn't stop smiling recalling the story. “And some of the little guys would come up to us and ask us for autographs. And I’m saying, ‘You guys are much more famous than me. I want your autograph.’”
The story of their courtship is now famous. Both Ben and Candy helped recruit students at Yale. On one such trip, he kept treating her to dinner. “I remember thinking, ‘He's being kind of loose with the school's money.’ But he was being nice so I said, ‘Alright, Candy—just bring it up later.’” She brought it up the next day. “It wasn't the school's money,” she said, smiling. “We were dating and I didn't even know it.”
(Their actual first date was to the movies to see “Lady Sings the Blues,” starring Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, the latter of whom she said she met on the campaign trail recently, at a hotel in New Hampshire.)
On their 10-hour drive back to campus, Ben Carson fell asleep at the wheel while she was asleep in the front passenger seat. “By all laws of physics, we should have crashed, but the car stopped by itself,” she said. “And we're looking at each other like, ‘Thank God.’”
The uncanny event sealed their relationship while giving them a sense of mission, which has led to this studio today, with forces outside pressing in. “You don't have to go looking. There's nothing to find on me,” she said—nothing but her uncanny story.
“The media has become,” she continued, “in general, something else. Most of them are unethical. And so people aren't getting the news as it happens. Sometimes, you'll get bits and pieces and sometimes it's jaded and a bit and sometimes it's creative journalism—to put it mildly.”
Exasperated as she is, Candy Carson is an optimist. She paused before adding, “The thing is, it's not brain surgery. That's what he would say. He has a burden on his heart for this country.
“He’s not doing this because of glory he wants. We’re almost at the point of no return now. We’ve got to have someone in there that has the country’s best interest at heart—not this party, that party, but to be someone that represents all of the people. That’s what he’s about. That’s the only special interest group he represents: the people.”
As she spoke, there were strong echoes of her husband’s stump speech, but the cadences were her own.
“For me? Yeah, it's difficult. It's hard. It's packing up every day. It's a different hotel every day. It's a real treat when you can stay in the same bed two nights in a row,” she said. “But the good thing is that wherever we go, believe it or not—and you're not seeing this on the news a lot—but people resonate with logic, common sense, and Judeo-Christian values.”
As they rehearsed, she grew frustrated with herself after repeated takes (she played Conga drums as well as violin and piano), lamenting throughout that she wished she had more time to practice and prepare.
But later that afternoon, she appeared at a rally in Mobile before 2,000 people to sing “America The Beautiful” with the two campaign staffers and the wife of a Carson adviser. With a smile on her face and pitch pipe, she played their notes to get them on-key.
“To tell you the truth, it's not hitting me yet,” she’d said earlier. “You're thrust into it and you just start doing what you need to do to get it done.”
The crowd gave her a standing ovation.