At first blush, it looked like Dr. Ben Carson's candidacy might be on the verge of implosion. According to a Politico report, his campaign 'admitted' that the former pediatric neurosurgeon had 'fabricated' the claim in his autobiography that he'd received a "full scholarship" offer to attend the US Military Academy at West Point as a teenager. Politico's lede:
Ben Carson’s campaign on Friday admitted, in a response to an inquiry from POLITICO, that a central point in his inspirational personal story was fabricated: his application and acceptance into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The academy has occupied a central place in Carson’s tale for years. According to a story told in Carson’s book, “Gifted Hands,” the then-17 year old was introduced in 1969 to Gen. William Westmoreland, who had just ended his command of U.S. forces in Vietnam, and the two dined together. That meeting, according to Carson’s telling, was followed by a “full scholarship” to the military academy. West Point, however, has no record of Carson applying, much less being extended admission...When presented with this evidence, Carson’s campaign conceded the story was false.
Damning stuff. Or is it? Check out the relevant passage from Carson's book, Gifted Hands, presented as a smoking gun by MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin:
For those looking for ambiguous wording in Gifted Hands on the West Point scholarship, it isn't there pic.twitter.com/erM1sHo283— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) November 6, 2015
Here's the thing: Nowhere in those paragraphs did Carson claim anything regarding an "application and acceptance" to West Point, which is part of the allegation leveled in Politico's opening sentence. In fact, Carson has stated elsewhere that he only applied to one college: Yale. Furthermore, the story's characterization that Carson's campaign "conceded the story was false" isn't supported by any of the subsequent quotes. Indeed, the Carson camp is now vehemently denying the report's entire premise. Some online observers quickly noted that the prestigious military institution in upstate New York does not technically offer "scholarships," per se, and that's true. There are no tuition or living expense costs associated with attending the school; students "pay for" their education through required military service post-graduation. But that's not dispositive, either. I'd argue that rather than advancing a fabricated, resume-puffing lie, it's entirely plausible that a young Ben Carson interpreted an encouraging recruitment pitch from a top US general as a "full scholarship" offer. This rings true:
If Gen. Westmoreland told you, age 18, to go to West Point free of charge, you would probably remember and describe it the way Carson did.— Phil Kerpen (@kerpen) November 6, 2015
Think of it this way: If a military big shot (update: or someone else, they're now clarifying) told you as a high school student that your grades and ROTC experience made you a prime candidate for a coveted slot at West Point -- which, he added, would provide a world class education, totally free of charge -- your teenaged brain might very well process that interaction as a full scholarship offer. Then again, Carson's declarative sentence, written as an adult, that he "was offered a full scholarship to West Point" simply isn't factually accurate. That's not good. Period. But if Ben Carson can be accused of terminological sloppiness or embellishment here, Politico is at least as guilty of both sins. As this story first circulated, I commented on Twitter that it had the potential to be crippling to Carson's campaign. As an inexperienced outsider running heavily on his biography, a falsified resume (particularly involving a military-related issue) would undercut two pillars of Carson's appeal: Honesty and humility. Carson can only defeat Hillary Clinton, I argued, by being above reproach as he prosecutes a case against her untrustworthiness, arrogance, and lack of accountability. Today's report appeared to seriously threaten his capacity to do so. But subsequent evidence strongly suggests that Politico vastly overstated its scoop. Unless and until additional information is produced that exposes Carson's explanation as false, the publication should be forced to print several retractions.
A few additional thoughts on this episode:
(1) The Carson campaign appears to have been caught flat-footed by this piece. The quotes they provided to Politico as push-back weren't nearly forceful or clarifying enough, to the point of being misinterpreted by the journalists as a concession of their central allegation. To beat the ruthless Democratic machine, Republicans need an agile, clear-thinking nominee who's surrounded by a top-notch team. Competent, effective rapid response is essential. Today's episode is somewhat troubling because conservatives online seemed to mount a stronger, swifter defense of Dr. Carson than his campaign did -- at least initially. More generally, Carson frequently looks every bit the amateur that he is, flanked by a campaign that occasionally makes some very odd choices. And although this kerfuffle doesn't undermine his reputation for honesty, this answer from the last debate certainly might. Also of concern is Carson's penchant for getting entangled in endless controversies, from frequent hyperbolic comparisons, to provocative comments about Muslims, to apparent policy fumbles, to questionable historical allusions, to bizarre theories about wildly irrelevant topics. Taking and returning fire from the media may well accrue to his benefit in a Republican primary setting, but the GOP needs a nominee who limits self-inflicted wounds, parries attacks adroitly, and exhibits the ability to have his or her core messages and priorities drive the campaign.
(2) When at first it seemed as though Carson's West Point story may have been an outright lie, many conservatives rushed to his defense with a "but Democrats!" line of argument. Hillary's Tuzla dash. Her numerous, verifiable email lies. Bill Clinton's serial mendacity. "If you like your plan, you can keep it." Etc. Perhaps most relevant were observations that Democrats happily nominated and elected two US Senators who distorted the record and brazenly lied about serving in Vietnam, which makes a West Point scholarship fable seem tame by comparison. Let's face it: The media's ideological double-standards are real, and they're maddening. But they shouldn't be used to excuse legitimate wrongdoing by a conservative. In today's case, the supposed "wrongdoing" looks a lot more like misinterpretation than malice.
(3) Intensive vetting of candidates seeking high office is an essential role of the fourth estate. Digging into candidates' records, conduct and beliefs -- even on issues as picayune as traffic tickets -- comes with the territory. It may be true that the press largely abdicated this responsibility with Barack Obama, whom they overwhelmingly supported. If you doubt this assertion, look no further than this telling exchange between Charlie Rose and Tom Brokaw from just days before Obama won the presidency. Some serious attempts at vetting were dismissed as "smears," broadly ignored, or simply buried as unhelpful. Obama's relative pass is an indictment of our political media's inherent, abiding bias, but it's not a justification for conservatives to close their eyes to discomfiting facts that may arise during contested campaigns. The Right should embrace genuine fact-finding and research, while holding the vetters' feet to the fire when they miss the mark. And that's exactly what happened today, it seems.
UPDATE - Egg, meet face:
New Politico headline eliminates "fabrication" allegation: "Exclusive: Carson claimed West Point 'scholarship' but never applied"— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) November 6, 2015