Uh oh: Carson campaign admits West Point acceptance story is false; Carson campaign responds: Politico lied; Update: Politico changes lede, headline; Update: My apology

Update, 11/9, 9:04 am (Ed): After a long weekend to think about this, and after reading feedback from readers and friends, I’ve come to the conclusion that I was wrong to assume the worst about Ben Carson and these recollections. I think Carson may have exaggerated a bit, but he didn’t fabricate this story, which is what I assumed from reading Politico’s take on the story. I want to apologize to readers and to Dr. Carson for that assertion, and I am also noting this in a Jazz Shaw post that will go up in a more timely manner on 11/9.



Original post follows (with updates in line): 

Alternate headline: Make room for Chris Christie on the main debate stage next Tuesday. With Ben Carson riding high in the polls, the media has tried vetting many of the claims he has made, including his stories about transcending violence in his childhood. But it’s another story about West Point that has tripped up Carson to the point that his campaign had to retract it as false this morning. Politico’s Kyle Cheney exposed the fabrication:

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.

“In 1969, those who would have completed the entire process would have received their acceptance letters from the Army Adjutant General,” said Theresa Brinkerhoff, a spokeswoman for the academy. She said West Point has no records that indicate Carson even began the application process. “If he chose to pursue (the application process) then we would have records indicating such,” she said.

When Cheney asked the Carson campaign to explain the situation, they admitted that the story told in “Gifted Hands” was not true:


“Dr. Carson was the top ROTC student in the City of Detroit,” campaign manager Barry Bennett wrote in an email to POLITICO. “In that role he was invited to meet General Westmoreland. He believes it was at a banquet. He can’t remember with specificity their brief conversation but it centered around Dr. Carson’s performance as ROTC City Executive Officer.”

“He was introduced to folks from West Point by his ROTC Supervisors,” Bennett went on. “They told him they could help him get an appointment based on his grades and performance in ROTC. He considered it but in the end did not seek admission.”

In other words, Carson at best wildly exaggerated — and it’s not the only point on which people suspect the doctor of doing so. CNN tried verifying some of the claims Carson made about his violent childhood and reported that it could not do so. Carson ripped the CNN probe earlier today:


During an interview on CNN early Friday, Carson said the report was filled with “lies” and was “pathetic.”

“I saw your article. I didn’t see any elementary school friends there,” he told CNN. “It’s a bunch of lies. That’s what it is. A bunch of lies, attempting to say that I’m lying about my history. I think it’s pathetic.”

Carson called the media’s scrutiny of his candidacy unfair, compared to their investigations of Barack Obama, when the then-Illinois senator was running for the White House.

“Obama was not vetted like this,” he said. It “doesn’t even come close to what you guys are trying to do in my case.”

“It is just garbage,” the GOP contender added. “We have too many things that are important to deal with.”


Carson might have had the benefit of the doubt with voters on the CNN story before Politico’s exposé. Now, it starts to look like a pattern, and it may not be the end of the story, either. Now that this probe has hit pay dirt, Carson can expect other media outlets to do a lot more vetting on his backstory.

It’s true that Obama wasn’t vetted like this, but after what happened to Sarah Palin, one would think that a political neophyte running for the Republican presidential nomination would know what to expect. Republicans have complained for eight years that the media didn’t perform due diligence on Obama, so it’s difficult to complain now about their interest in Carson’s autobiography, especially with Carson’s campaign admitting to a fabrication.

Can Carson survive this? It’s difficult to see how, although the GOP base has a lot of affection for the brilliant neurosurgeon. Part of that affection was based on the perception that he was a truth-teller to power, so exaggerating or fabricating his own life story undercuts that perception, does it not? Even assuming that this is the only exaggeration that would emerge with more scrutiny — and that’s a very risky bet on a newcomer — the fact that Carson didn’t act to correct the record on his own undermines the truth-teller narrative, too. With other options in the field, it seems unlikely that Carson can maintain his momentum after getting caught in a fabrication and admitting to it.


Update: I changed the headline for a more precise description of the story.

Update: I was looking for the text in Gifted Hands, but Benjy Sarlin beat me to it:


Yes, that’s pretty blatant. There isn’t room for misunderstanding that; Carson fabricated the story.

So who benefits from this, if Carson exits? That’s a big if, of course, but we can start thinking about it in the context of lost support, if indeed Carson tanks as a result. Given that Carson was tracking best in the so-called “conservative lane,” I’d say Ted Cruz gets at least some of Carson’s support. It might make some skittish about Donald Trump, too, and Cruz would stand to gain from that constituency as well.

Update: Carson repeated the story on his Facebook page three months ago:

The next question is from Bill. He wanted to know if it was true that I was offered a slot at West Point after high school.

Bill, that is true. I was the highest student ROTC member in Detroit and was thrilled to get an offer from West Point. But I knew medicine is what I wanted to do. So I applied to only one school. (it was all the money I had). I applied to Yale and thank God they accepted me. I often wonder what might have happened had they said no.


This seems more of an exaggeration than a fabrication. He got an offer of assistance in applying to West Point, not an “offer from West Point” of acceptance. But it’s still problematic, and it underscores the walkback from Gifted Hands.

Update: A month ago, though, Carson was telling the scholarship story to Charlie Rose:

Update: It’s worth asking whether a military “scholarship” fib is worse than … oh, say, a Tuzla dash. Or “dead broke.” Or immigrant grandparents.  Answer: No, but the key differences are (1) that Carson’s main argument for his campaign is his honesty and integrity over experience, and (2) Republican.

Update: The Carson campaign has its feet underneath itself again, and has come out swinging:

Carson’s story, as quoted in Cheney’s piece, is that Westmoreland “opened doors” and offered him a “full scholarship” to West Point, and that he considered the offer but ultimately “did not seek admission.” Has Politico somehow verified whether Westmoreland, who is now deceased, made the offer?

Carson spokesman Ben Watts attacked the story, telling The Daily Caller News Foundation, “The Politico story is an outright lie. Dr. Carson as the leading ROTC student in Detroit was told by his commanders that he could get an appointment to the academy. He never said he was admitted or even applied.”


Ben Shapiro makes the case more strongly than Team Carson:

He reiterated that account last month in an interview with Charlie Rose, when he said, “I was offered a full scholarship at West Point, got to meet General Westmoreland and go to Congressional Medal of Honor dinners. But decided really my pathway would be medicine.”

Politico followed up on this story. They reported one additional pieces of information that seem to conflict with Carson’s story: Carson never applied to West Point, and was never extended admission.

But Carson never said he applied. He said he was extended a full scholarship offer. What’s more, West Point doesn’t offer scholarships: all admission is free contingent on serving in the military afterwards. It thus seems probable that Westmoreland or another military figure tried to recruit Carson, telling him that he wouldn’t have to pay for his education – and that Carson read that as a “full scholarship,” and never applied.

Well, that could have confused a 17-year-old high school senior, to be sure — but would it still have confused an established professional writing his memoirs? Or a presidential candidate? He didn’t get offered a “full scholarship” or admission — just assistance if he decided to apply — so why keep saying he was offered a place at West Point? At the very least, it’s sloppy, and should have been corrected or explained better before the media began applying its usual scrutiny of Republican candidates. And the campaign should have been better prepared for it when that scrutiny came.


Update, 4:03 ET: Alex Pappas notes a couple of changes in Politico’s story this afternoon:


Gabriel Malor gives Politico “four cowpies,” but I think it’s actually five.

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