The West Point Flap: How Much Will It Hurt Carson? [With comment by Paul]

Paul wrote earlier about Politico’s story alleging that Ben Carson has lied about being offered a scholarship to West Point. Since then, Politico has backed off slightly, changing its headline and deleting the word “fabricated” from its story (without noting the deletion).

Carson has apparently told the story many times, and it appears in almost identical form in each of his two books. Carson wrote, while relating his experiences in ROTC: “Later I was offered a full scholarship to West Point.” Carson’s staff has responded furiously to Politico’s accusation. The fact appears to be that someone, either his ROTC commander or perhaps General Westmoreland, told Carson that if he applied to the academy he would be accepted, even though he hadn’t been nominated by one of his state’s Senators or Congressmen. No doubt, that representation was true. I am sure West Point would have been happy to have Carson. Carson says that he chose not to apply because he already knew that he wanted to be a doctor.

I think Carson overstated the case. The average reader would understand “I was offered a full scholarship” to mean that he applied to West Point, was accepted, and the scholarship was officially tendered. That didn’t happen. (Everyone who is accepted at the service academies gets a “full scholarship”; no one pays to attend.) But the point strikes me as a minor one. Carson probably should have written “I was encouraged to apply to West Point, where I was told I would be admitted and would receive a full scholarship.” He may have thought the way he phrased it was shorthand for that longer formulation.

In the history of “fabrications” by candidates for office, this is very small beer. Nor, I think, can it plausibly be claimed to be important because it sheds light on Carson’s character. (Hillary Clinton’s lie about being named after Sir Edmund Hillary might be an example of an otherwise insignificant fib that betrays a flawed character.) No one can seriously claim that Carson makes a habit of exaggerating his academic or professional accomplishments. He has had a brilliant career, of which he is justifiably proud, but about which he is quite modest. I have discussed his career with him, and can attest that in person, that is exactly how he comes across when he talks about his years as a surgeon. The West Point episode is so minor in the context of Carson’s accomplishments that I don’t see how much significance can be attributed to it.

So, did Carson misstate, to a degree, that minor detail of his biography? I think he did, yes. Is there any reason why that should cause voters to re-think their support for his candidacy? I don’t see why it should.

PAUL ADDS: Reasonable people can disagree about how much weight to give a candidates’ repeated misstatement about an incidental matter from his past. They can also disagree about what constitutes genuine modesty. In my view, modest people tend to understate, not overstate, their achievements and honors.

At this point, I think the most interesting question is the one John poses in the title: How much will [this] hurt Carson? In my post earlier today, I predicted that it would hurt him a lot.

After seeing plenty of the back-and-forth on the subject, I’m no longer convinced that, standing alone, it will cost him much of the support he already has. It may, however, limit Carson’s ability to broaden his support.

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