Dr. Ben Carson, In Retrospect

Last Thursday evening, I had the privilege, for the eighth consecutive year, of acting as master of ceremonies for the Annual Dinner of the Center of the American Experiment. This year’s dinner featured Dr. Benjamin Carson, one of the most eminent physicians in the United States, whose speech at the National Prayer Breakfast made him a household name. There was a lot of excitement about Dr. Carson’s appearance, and 1,000 people, a sellout crowd, attended the dinner.

I had the opportunity to spend some time with Dr. Carson before the event began. He is, as you would expect, extremely impressive in person. Carson is about to wrap up a brilliant career as a neurosurgeon–among other things, he is head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital–in which, he said, he has performed between 15,000 and 17,000 surgeries. Carson is notably soft-spoken, but has the commanding presence of someone who is really, really good at what he does.

He said that since his prayer breakfast appearance, in which he criticized Obamacare, many have urged him to run for president. Carson says that he does not want to be president, but he does want to increase his engagement in public policy, especially with regard to health care. He said that in his view, Obamacare cannot be implemented, and is destined to crash on takeoff (my phrase, not his). Carson thinks that the key imperative, when Obamacare collapses, is to be ready with an alternative. Toward that end, he has been collaborating with other experts to assemble a market-based, consumer-oriented alternative that starts with expanded health savings accounts. Carson points out that 80% of an individual’s encounters with the health care system need not, and should not, involve insurance. That would be the realm of HSAs. Then, with respect to insurance, better information and the simplest forms of incentives can easily bring down costs. The truth is–this is me speaking–it wouldn’t be difficult to improve the health care system, if health care was your real concern, and you weren’t motivated mostly by a desire to increase government power.

Is Dr. Carson a conservative? He told me that he started out as a liberal Democrat, but became a Republican as a result of experience. However, he was turned off by what he saw as the hypocrisy of Republicans in attacking President Clinton over the Lewinsky affair, and became an independent, which he is today. However, he said that he generally finds Republicans more sensible than Democrats. In one sense, Carson is a radical: he is a religious person; not only that, he believes that God has taken an active role in his life. That puts him beyond the pale as far as liberals are concerned.

So how was his speech? One of my daughters took this photo as he paced back and forth on the stage:

We did something a little different this year. Thinking that Dr. Carson might be of special interest to young people, we had two of our daughters (22 and 16) at our table, along with several of their friends–five “kids” in total, along with some parents. So the next day, I asked my youngest daughter and one of her friends what they thought of Dr. Carson.

Not surprisingly, they admired him a lot. Their first comments were about how funny he was. They also found his history inspirational. Carson’s mother had lots of children, starting very young, but refused to accept welfare. [Correction: My memory garbled this; Carson’s mother was one of 24 children, but she had only two, and was married at the time.] When he was young, Carson says, he was generally regarded as stupid and was ridiculed by other children. He described how he eventually learned to get even with those kids, discovered books, and became ambitious. His history is interesting, to say the least, but I asked the girls whether they thought it was political in any way. They said No: they hadn’t perceived any political content in his speech. That’s a good thing; the implications of his story, not to mention his comments on Obamacare, among other things, are obviously conservative (although he describes them as representing mere common sense). But Carson’s story transcends politics, and he doesn’t come across as a political figure.

Which is also consistent with conservatism: to be a leader, you don’t have to be a politician. In fact, it sometimes helps not to be one.

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