The fourth Republican presidential debate jumps off Tuesday night, and just in time, another controversial episode from Ben Carson's past is gaining widespread attention.
Presidential candidate and Holocaust comicBen Carsonheld a gonzo press conference on Friday to answer questions about his alleged full scholarship to West Point (and perhaps get people to believe he might actually stab a fool), and while most of the focus on that presser has been on Carson's uncharacteristic anger, there was something else that piqued my interest. Aside from his newly-disclaimed description of meeting General William Westmoreland, Carson weirdly foreshadowed the media's next quest for dirt on him (emphasis mine):
"There's gotta be some scandal, there's gotta be some nurse he's having an affair with, there's gotta be something. They are getting desperate. So, next week, it'll be my kindergarten teacher who said I peed in my pants."
The "peed in my pants" line was good for a laugh, but it was that nurse line that caught my attention because I thought to myself that if this had been any other candidate, I'd have thought it sounded like getting out ahead of something. Picture Bill Clinton saying at a press conference "Next thing you know, they'll be saying I'm getting blown by an intern in the Oval Office, HAHAHA!"
But say what you will about Ben Carson, it's extremely difficult to picture him as an unrepentant snatchhound, maybe even more so than a knife-fighting berserker with hammers for hands.
As it happens, though, I was also researching videos for my epic slideshow of weird Ben Carson pronouncements, and I ran across a clip that's on point with this issue. At a commencement speech in 2003, Carson told the crowd that he had been sued for paternity by a Florida woman who claimed to have given birth to his love child:
A few years ago I was in the operating room, and I got a phone call from one of the Hopkins attorneys, and they said that the state pf Florida was trying to attach my wages for child support. And I said "Well, I have three children, and I support them very well."
They said "No, there's a lady in Florida who claims that you are the father of her son. And she has provided evidence of same. She told where you went to high school, where you went to college, where you went to medical school, where you did your internship and residency, how you went to Australia after that, she even has a picture of you in scrubs."
Well, you know, all that is public knowledge, so how are they going to pursue that on the basis of public knowledge? But they were going to do it, I had to get my attorney involved, and it escalated. And finally, they said "Well, we can resolve all of this if you send us some of your blood, and we can do DNA testing. And I said "Wait a minute, you people, as incompetent as you are, want me to send you a specimen of my blood?"
I said "The next thing I know, it will be in a murder scene, and I'll be in prison for the rest of my life," I said "There's no way you're getting my blood."
So, you know, it continued to escalate, but you know, eventually it died. And the reason it died is because I stood boldly, I never caved. But there was a reason that I never caved. Because I knew that in my entire life, the only woman I had ever slept with was my wife.
The purpose of the anecdote seems to be to slip in that humblebrag about never having slept with anyone other than his wife, but confessing to having been sued for paternity seems like an awful long walk to get there. It's not as though this story was ever out there; the only published reports I could find about it were of Carson telling the story himself.
Although Carson routinely repeats a rotation of anecdotes in his speeches, I couldn't find another example of this one between 2003 and 2014, when he told it again in an op-ed for the Washington Times entitled "Cleaning skeletons out of the political closet":
I have had an opportunity to witness firsthand how the blackmail threat operates. Several years ago while I was in the operating room, I received a call from one of the legal offices at Johns Hopkins University informing me that the state of Florida was trying to attach my wages for child support.
I was quite shocked at such an allegation and informed them that I had three children, which I already support very ably. They said a woman in Florida was accusing me of being the father of her son, and that she had proof of our relationship. The proof turned out to be knowledge of where I went to high school, college, medical school, and where I served my internship and residency. To top all that off, she had a picture of me in scrubs. I said anyone could obtain such information. However, the paternity suit was pursued, and I had to involve my personal lawyer.
As the case advanced, I was asked to provide a blood specimen to facilitate DNA testing. I refused on the basis of the incompetence of any governmental agency that was willing to pursue a paternity suit on such flimsy grounds. I said that level of incompetence would probably result in my blood specimen being found at a murder scene and me spending the rest of my life in prison.
Shortly thereafter, the suit was dropped with no further ramifications. I’m virtually certain that the woman in Florida erroneously assumed that someone who travels as much as I do was probably engaging in numerous extramarital affairs and probably wouldn’t even remember all the parties with whom he had been involved. Under such circumstances, she assumed that I would be willing to fork over the money to avoid public embarrassment.
What she didn’t know is that I did not have to scratch my head and try to remember which affair she represented, because I knew that the only woman I have ever slept with in my life was my wife. Even if that had not been the case, I think confession and dealing with the consequences would have been the best course of action.
The anecdote seems out of place here, too, since the thesis of his piece is for all politicians to come clean about the skeletons in their closets, and seek forgiveness from the public. "If it’s all done in a short time span," Carson wrote, "the media will be overwhelmed, and the people will quickly understand the extent of the disgusting and dishonest practices infesting the highest levels of government."
Carson told the story at least one more time, in November of last year, to a crowd in Iowa:
That even included an episode where he said a woman in Florida accused him in a paternity case of fathering a child. He said he aggressively fought off what he described as an attempt to extort money because he knew the truth.
"I knew something that they didn't know," Carson said. "I knew the only woman I had ever slept with in my whole life was my wife. I didn't have to say, 'Was there some conference in Des Moines or something?'"
Other than Carson's own recountings of this tale, I could find no other published reports of the story, nor will there likely be any. A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Revenue told me that "Child support cases are confidential. No records can be made public unless both parties sign waivers authorizing their release."
Like I said, ordinarily I'd think this was a politician trying to get ahead of a story, but Ben Carson is no ordinary politician, or man. Among evangelical Christians, "testimony" is a very big deal, the stories of how a person's faith is acquired and tested. That's why the stabbing story is so important, because it adds drama and redemption to Carson's testimony. No one is impressed if you were a really good person and then you found Jesus and continued to be a good person. No one remembers the non-prodigal son.
At my church, these stories usually consisted of realizing that Billy Joel was Of The Devil, and burning all your rock albums. In the 70s and 80s, there was a popular speaker/comic named Mike Warnke who regaled with tales of redemption from Satanism and drug addiction and palling around with Charles Manson. It was all garbage, but we ate it up at the time.
In Carson's case, the stabbing story is crucial to the redemption narrative, and the paternity story combines the testing of his faith, by resisting the temptation of other women, with the validation of his values, because he never had to doubt himself. Most people, if they were wrongfully accused of paternity, would not be the ones to bring it up publicly themselves, nor would most people concoct a story about a paternity suit in order to gain sympathy. Ben Carson, as has been amply demonstrated, is not most people.
Here's one more fun fact, though, before you go. Ben Carson actually did agree to give a DNA sample to Barack Obama's longtime pal, Professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates.
Update: According to the Florida Department of Revenue, there are a few holes in Carson's story. According to their spokesperson, the state would not have contacted an employer based solely on a claim of paternity. "Wage attachment (income withholding) must be based on an income deduction order issued by a court or administrative tribunal. Before an income deduction order is issued, paternity must be established, if needed, and a support order established," said the spokesperson in an email to Mediaite. Dr. Carson claims he learned of the claim through Johns Hopkins' attorneys.
The request for a blood sample could be accurate, depending on the timing of the claim. "Blood samples were used in Human Leukocyte Antigen testing. In approximately 1995/96, it changed to a buccal swab (tissue sample from inside of cheek) being used to complete DNA testing," the Spokesperson said. While Dr. Carson is vague about the resolution of the matter, unless the claim was withdrawn, it could only have been resolved with a genetic test or a hearing in a Florida court, the spokesperson added.
Since I reported on this story for Mediaite, it has been picked up by The Washington Post, and Gawkerhas even initiated a hunt for the alleged Floridian baby-mama. My instinct is still that this is bullshit, that Carson made it up to embellish his salvation narrative, but another detail that doesn't make much sense is that this alleged woman in Florida just targeted him at random for blackmail. For a neurosurgeon, Ben Carson was quite well-known in the 90s, but there were probably a million more attractive targets for blackmail, probably in Florida alone. If there is some real event at the heart of Carson's story, then there's more to it than someone who just picked him out of a celebrity mug book.
I had to address the problem of what to do about my current secretary, who, besides being incapable of doing the work, was an alcoholic. I had not told anyone else, but I knew that something had to change.
How do I handle this situation? The woman really needs help. My firing her might add one more disaster to her life. But I can’t have this kind of gross inefficiency, I thought. At the same time, I’m softhearted. I always feel sad when I have to do something unpleasant even if necessary, and it is especially hard for me to fire somebody. I was beside myself, not knowing what to do.
I walked back into my office, shut the door, and prayed quietly, Lord, how am I going to resolve this dilemma without having to hurt anyone? I want to be kind to her, but I can’t let this go on.
I did not get an instant answer, but I felt better.
Two weeks later, my then-secretary did not show up on a Monday morning. We called her apartment and got no response then or later. For days we kept trying to locate her, including checking with all the local hospitals. We never did find out what happened to her. She simply disappeared. I regret that the depth of this woman’s problems leading to her dismal situation was not more apparent to me and that I did not have more time to try to help her resolve her problems.
I am thankful that this problem was resolved without any unpleasantness on my part.
–Ben Carson, “Think Big”
So, to recap, in the 2016 Republican presidential field, it is somehow advantageous to convince people that you stabbed a guy, attacked your mother with a hammer, fended off a paternity suit, and made your secretary disappear.