Ben Carson's former colleague: He told me the story about stabbing someone before he became famous

Another nice catch by Andrew Kaczynski and BuzzFeed to go with the old clipping of Carson’s mother telling a newspaper in 1997 that the stabbing incident most certainly happened. Nothing’s going to prove that definitively, but knowing for a fact that Carson was telling this story before he had any reason to (when he had every professional reason not to) is the next best thing. And every time one of Carson’s biographical anecdotes is tested and checks out upon close scrutiny, the impulse to believe him among those who are already well disposed to him and see him as the most honest in the field grows stronger. The perception that he’s fought the media and won could be a tonic to voters.

This isn’t the only corroborating evidence for a Carson story floating around today either. Legal scholar Seth Barrett Tillman chipped in with his memory of being informally recruited to attend West Point at a conference for high-school students in the late 1970s:

During the conference, a major approached me individually, by name, and pulled me out of earshot of other student-attendees. I have always assumed he (or his colleagues) had similar conversations with many if not with all the other student-attendees. I was told that if I apply, I would get in. It was as simple as that. I had very good standardized test scores and very good grades from my high school. When the major told me that I would get in if I applied, I believed him. I was told that West Point would find a Senator or Representative to nominate me, or I would come in with a number of students the academy could choose itself…

My scores and grades were good, very good, but I have no reason to think mine were the highest among the many student-attendees. I cannot believe that I was the only person to have received, what was in effect, assurances that if I applied I would get in. By any fair-minded description: it was an offer to attend West Point. Albeit, the offer was not in writing; it was an informal oral offer. Surely, many, many other people received similar offers. I expect that large list also includes Ben Carson.

PS: This conference was less than a decade after the end of the Vietnam War. This was a time when the service academies still had to make some substantial efforts to attract candidates with strong academic records. I expect those days are long gone. 

One of the sticking points about Carson’s memory of being “offered” a “scholarship” (i.e. free tuition) to West Point during a conversation with Gen. Westmoreland was the idea that recruiters wouldn’t and couldn’t guarantee admission when encouraging a student to apply. It’s not an “offer” unless an acceptance letter has been issued, right? Wrong, per Tillman. Some students were sufficiently attractive to the military that the application process was treated as a formality. It’s not hard to believe that Carson, a brilliant student involved in ROTC who’d overcome poverty, would be seen as worthy of an informal offer if so many others were.

Now, anyone want to explain to me why it’s fallen to BuzzFeed instead of Carson’s campaign to dig this stuff up? I don’t get it. Exit question: What’s the next story that’ll be proved entirely or mostly true? This one seems similar to something that really did happen, although the detail about a professor rewarding Carson for his honesty is hard to square with the fact that the make-up exam was a prank.

Update: Well well. Kaczynski scores a hat trick by answering the exit question:

In an interview with BuzzFeed News on Monday, Curtis Bakal, an editorial assistant at the satirical Yale Record who says he helped write the fake test, said he was “99% certain the way Carson remembers it is correct.”

“When I read about the story in the Wall Street Journal, I immediately said, to my wife and friend, ‘That was the prank we played at the Record! And Ben Carson was in the class,’” said Bakal, who noted he wasn’t actually present during the taking of the fake test. “We did a mock parody of the Yale Daily News during the exam period in January 1970, and in this parody we had a box that said: ‘So-and-so section of the exam has been lost in a fire. Professor so-and-so is going to give a makeup exam.’”

“We got a room to do do the test in and one of us from the Record impersonated a proctor to give the test,” he said.

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David Strom 5:21 PM on March 31, 2023