Benjamin Carson, balancing healing with political activism
BALTIMORE — The voice mail greeting at Benjamin Carson’s Johns Hopkins Hospital office, where he is the director of pediatric neurosurgery, stretches for almost eight minutes.
There are instructions for patients calling with medical emergencies. There’s information for fans who want to get one of his books autographed or book Carson as a motivational speaker. The most recent addition followed his National Prayer Breakfast appearance last month: “There has been an overwhelming response to Doctor Carson’s speech,” it warns. “If you are calling with remarks . . . please do not leave a message on this voice mail since it will impact our ability to get messages from patients.”
Carson’s voice mail greeting, which has been growing in 20-second increments for almost two decades, reflects the many identities that he has added through the years. The list includes world renowned neurosurgeon, author, speaker, inner-city folk hero, role model to evangelical Christians and, most recently, rising conservative political star.
His latest brush with fame followed the prayer breakfast speech in which he criticized the president’s health-care overhaul, called for a flat tax and warned that the enforcers of political correctness had put a dangerous “muzzle” on debate in the country. To the delight of conservatives, Carson delivered the address with a stone-faced President Obama sitting a few yards away.
Within days of his remarks, Carson was being touted as a possible presidential candidate by the Wall Street Journal. He got one of the most enthusiastic receptions at the recently held Conservative Political Action Conference, where he stoked speculation that he may, just may, be willing to run for president.
After a several-day onslaught from fans and the media, many wanting to know his potential political plans, Carson has eased away from suggestions he may have his eyes on the White House. The 61-year-old doctor now says the likelihood of a presidential run is “incredibly small.” What he really wants is a second career in television when he retires from Johns Hopkins later this year.
“Maybe if you write about it in your article, somebody will say, ‘Let’s do it,’ ” he said in an interview.
For now, his small office staff is struggling to manage the crush of attention from smitten conservatives and find time for his brain surgery patients between his sit-downs with the national media.
“Here you go Mister Hollywood,” joked Carol James, Carson’s physician assistant for the last 31 years.
She dropped off the latest unsolicited offering. It was a box of buttons bearing the letters “P.C.,” crossed out with a red slash, and a note from a supporter in Gulf Breeze, Fla.
“When you spoke on national television,” the fan wrote, “I knew I must send you these buttons.”
‘Treading new ground’
Carson relays his personal story these days with the practiced confidence of someone who has been telling and retelling it for decades. Each of his anecdotes has been honed to make a specific point aboutthe importance of religious faith, self-reliance and education.
“I was a horrible student. Most of my classmates thought I was the stupidest person in the world,” he says regularly of his early elementary school years. “They called me dummy.”
In the fifth grade, Carson’s illiterate mother pressed him to read at least two books a week and submit book reports that she pretended to grade. Within a year, he was among the top students in his class and a series of remarkable accomplishments followed. Carson vaulted from his inner-city Detroit high school to Yale, earned a medical degree at the University of Michigan and became the nation’s youngest chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“When I decided to become a neurosurgeon, there had only been eight black neurosurgeons in the history of the world,” he said. “Really from the very get-go, I was sort of treading new ground.”
At Hopkins, Carson pioneered a lifesaving surgical procedure for children with epilepsy and in 1987 vaulted to national recognition when he led a surgical team that successfully separated twins conjoined at the head.
A few months later he signed a contract with a small Seventh-day Adventist press to publish his autobiography. Before the book was finished, Carson and his co-writer had concluded that his life story was worthy of much wider distribution and changed publishers.
“Some people who were very well versed in literature said: ‘This book is amazing. This is going to be a classic,’ ” Carson recalled. “I was a little skeptical, but they were right.”
The book, titled “Gifted Hands,” was published in 1990 by Zondervan, the country’s largest Christian press, and was an immediate hit with inner-city teachers who saw the black physician as a role model for their students.
Demand for Carson as a speaker soared. “I lost four secretaries in one year because people were calling and putting so much pressure on them,” Carson recalled.
Carson and his wife started a nationwide scholarship program to reward academic achievement — and he was name-checked on the HBO television drama “The Wire.”
Some of Carson’s fellow doctors have criticized his relatively low output of scholarly articles in medical journals. But in the Christian publishing world, Carson has been prolific, writing four books since 2000. “Gifted Hands” has sold almost 2 million copies and has become a standard part of many evangelical home-school curricula.
“It just sells and sells and sells,” says Stan Gundry, a senior vice president at Zondervan, a Christian media company and unit of Harper Collins.