Leaving larger footprints could become tricky

The name of Dr. Ben Carson definitely belongs in any listing of highly accomplished African Americans. A neurosurgeon who has been internationally respected for his trail-blazing work in the field during his career at famed Johns Hopkins University, Carson retired from his position at that august institution this year. Even before retiring, though, he was evidently of a mind to cast himself as much more than a top-of-the-line physician. In furtherance of which he spoke out on issues, he involved himself in humanitarian endeavors and he wasn’t shy about stepping into the role of advocate for causes he embraced. Last weekend he did an extended turn on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” program, talking about the four books he’s had published, with a fifth upcoming and fielding all manner of queries from viewers. This, after two Carson flashpoints earlier in the year that dramatized his undying urge to talk the talk…with what intent or ambition, who knows?

In February, Carson was the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast in D.C. and he seized the occasion to lambast President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, much of his economic policy and generally rip the Obama agenda as a failed one. The heavy bombardment going down with the president sitting just a few feet away, to boot. The glad-handing in the conservative sector couldn’t be contained, of course, following such dissing of the president. Others questioned the propriety of the thing, wondering whether a whole other vibe wasn’t what one expected at a prayer breakfast. Carson himself seemed not the least perturbed and thought his remarks not at all out of order. Normally, one would think the hellfire Carson ordered up quite apropos for Washington and even in Obama’s presence. But given what Carson thought to unload, the prayer breakfast setting does indeed come across as somewhat of a misnomer – a definite disconnect with what the doctor had in mind for the occasion.

A bit later, Carson, said to be a devout Christian and follower of the Seventh Day Adventist faith, sounded off on gay marriage, not only propounding the view that marriage should be strictly between a man and a woman, but coloring this with what some saw as distasteful references to certain non-conventional sexual behavior. Upshot of which was Carson having to apologize for his over-the-top putdown. He was also scheduled to speak at the Johns Hopkins commencement exercises and was forced to withdraw after a protest movement against his gay bashing outburst had mushroomed on the campus.

Clearly, forays like these do nothing to tamp down speculation that Carson is on a quest to enlarge the footprints he has already made as a stellar contributor in the world of medical science. A loaded schedule of speaking engagements and a seemingly ready availability for media exposure commitments when those opportunities arise would suggest Carson’s being fully wedded to a heavy-duty merchandising of himself, with the obvious conclusion that the guy must think himself a credible presence in the political arena. And there have been the not unexpected noises some have been making about his running for president.

For his part, Carson never seems to flat-out dismiss or discourage, even in mildly Shermanesque fashion, the presidential chit-chat. When and if he receives a firm directive from God on the matter, he says, he would have to respond. Politically, Carson refers to himself as an independent. And where Carson is really coming from gets murky here. That “independent” business has about it a straw man appearance. Carson must be the only one not identifying himself as being securely anchored in the conservative camp. All of his body language and the thrust of his pronouncements speak loudly to such a characterization. Carson recently became a columnist for the unapologetically conservative Washington Times, for crying out loud. In light of all this, one is curious about the obfuscation in Carson’s maintaining that he’s a political independent.

On TV last weekend he in fact suggested that political labeling is “crap.” This may be just a line he finds useful in his continuing efforts to mask his true political identity. Even so, we couldn’t disagree more. His advice to folks that being identified with a political party is of little or no significance in participatory democracy is guidance Carson might be better off keeping to himself. Especially in these times, when the forces now in control of one of the two major parties have transformed it into an unyielding, hard-line monstrosity, why would voters not want to be identified with a party that’s reflective of where they stand? Even decades ago, why would certain of us want to be grouped with folk whose presidential nominee (Reagan) would blithely declare that he was unaware of racial prejudice in this country? Or the very Reagan, as president, promising to veto legislation making Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Our sense is that Carson’s suggestion to the people that they steer clear of political allegiances has more to do with his personal calculations regarding where he’s headed or would like to head politically, than with any prescription of his for the electorate and its part in the democratic process.

Carson has proved himself a man of rare ability in one field. He seems now to be flirting with another where, as some examples have already shown, much of that accumulated goodwill could be frittered away.

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