For a man unknown to most of America a month ago, Dr. Ben Carson is suddenly everywhere.
The Johns Hopkins pediatric neurosurgeon is now a viral phenomenon, with a half-hour National Prayer Breakfast speech that has found its way to millions of inboxes.
That address, covering topics from personal responsibility to education to taxes to health care, landed him on a smattering of political shows in the days following, as questions sprang forth:
Why did he address such specifics with President Obama seated two chairs away?
Does he envision running for office himself?
What is the meaning of his sudden popularity?
All good questions. And this week, over lunch, he answered them.
It’s a world of connections, and I am very fortunate to be close to James and Betty Robison, whose “Life Today” evangelical broadcasts reach millions of viewers over religious and secular stations alike from their Texas headquarters.
James was kind enough to invite me to the Thursday taping of an interview with Dr. Carson, which will air in a few weeks. His answers during that taping and at a private lunch thereafter might be of some interest to those who have been wondering what the good doctor has up his sleeve.
He continues to accept speaking engagements while the Prayer Breakfast iron is still hot. He will speak at CPAC in Washington in two weeks. Part of the motivation is the natural boost in interest for his book, “America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great.”
But there is a deeper agenda, and I don’t mean political aspirations.
In fact, let’s get that out of the way first. Before I could badger him personally about whether he will satisfy those who would like to see him enter the 2016 presidential field, a questioner in the Life Today audience beat me to it.
“I was actually thinking about retiring,” he said. “Propping my feet up, playing golf, learning to play the organ...”
But he went on to say that from choosing the content of a single speech to plotting the course for his remaining life, he likes to quiet himself and listen to guidance from God.
In other words, he isn’t announcing anything anytime soon, but nor is the door closed.
Carson talks about God a lot, and not just at prayer breakfasts or religious TV tapings.
This is a man of deep faith, which will attract a lot of attention. It will draw praise from admirers, and criticism if not condemnation from the dominant media culture, which tends to mock such attributes, especially when it comes in a black conservative package.
But unlike Allen West, who is smart but occasionally indelicate, or Herman Cain, who is principled but unpracticed on a national political stage, Carson has the exact tools to disarm any attacker: a gentle demeanor and a giant brain.
He likes to share the reply he gives whenever people ask why he takes side-trips into areas like taxes and spending: “It’s not brain surgery.”
Brain surgery is, of course, what he does. And he brings a doctor’s diagnostic eye to a host of national problems.
He sees out-of-control spending and sees a need to rein it in.
He sees punitive taxation and sees a need to level it out.
He sees over-reliance on government and sees a need for personal responsibility.
And on February 7, he saw no need to muzzle those thoughts just because President Obama was in the room.
Did he wonder how the President received those remarks? “I didn’t think about it that much, really.”
And he not being dismissive in any way. He was there to speak basic truths without any intent to score partisan points.
As the Prayer Breakfast video became a huge talk show topic, I noted various voices, not all from the left, who said Carson’s comments were beyond the scope of the event.
I didn’t think so then, and I don’t now. Dr. Carson shares my belief that there is a moral component to many of our earthly struggles.
It is morally wrong to overtax. It is morally wrong to saddle our heirs with monstrous debt. It is morally wrong to create a culture of dependency on government.
If those messages fell hard on the President’s ears, that strikes me as his problem. It does not mean there was any intended slight toward his agenda.
The fixed C-SPAN camera which gave us Dr. Carson on the right and President Obama on the left invited a national reaction that this was somehow “speaking truth to power.”
He does not see it that way. He says he wants to deliver truth to everyone, irrespective of party.
Seeing a government often unable to solve our problems, Dr. Carson sees a need for citizens to bring about change by educating themselves and committing themselves to concepts of good child-rearing, responsible living and frugal spending. Perhaps then, he believes, we will bring those values to the ballot box.
Until then, he says he wants to be part of a grassroots community of people who speak boldly about various values, unintimidated by political correctness.
Ben Carson knows he has a lot of time to weigh any possible run for elected office. It appears he will spend that time asking for our attention in a wide variety of forums on a wide variety of issues.
On each occasion, he will deliver sharp truths wrapped in a soft-spoken manner that will have broader appeal than the safe predictability common to career politicians.
He has been nudged toward running for office before, as when supporters urged him to run last year against first-term U.S. Senator Ben Cardin in Maryland.
“That would have been confusing,” he chuckles, “Ben Cardin, Ben Carson....”
Oh, I don’t know. I think the differences would have been enormously clear.