Monday morning in Detroit, Dr. Ben Carson officially announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination and I’m literally nodding off while I write this.
Okay, back from a power nap.
So, yeah, Ben Carson put on quite a show this morning. It was as pulse pounding as, I don’t know, a Lawrence Welk rerun played at half-speed. Set aside everything we know about Carson’s politics — his theory that homosexuality is choice, his regressive and untenable flat-tax plan based on biblical tithing (not making that up), and his climate change denialism — and strictly as a political performer, Carson is about as thrilling as watching paint dry while heavily dosed on Thorazine.
The presentation began with a gospel choir covering Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” followed by the very religious Richard Smallwood song, “You Are The Source Of My Strength.” I suppose the metaphor is that Republican voters are like Jesus and — yawn — whatever. Don’t get me wrong, it was well performed (Carson’s lovely wife accompanied the group) but seriously, have rock bands been so merciless with copyright claims against GOP candidates that all they’re left with are old-timey gospel standards? Next up was a Nashville-based men’s vocal quintet called “Veritas” (yes, really) performing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” followed by dirge renditions of “God Bless America” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Unfortunately, none of the quintet members will be able to buy a wedding cake if Carson actually wins.
Capping off what seemed like the most poorly produced introduction to a roadside televangelist show was, of course, Carson’s speech itself. And by speech, I mean hypnotic mumbling. Before we continue, let’s be perfectly clear. Carson is an extraordinarily smart and gifted man. He has to be in order to succeed as one of the nation’s topic pediatric neurosurgeons. But to say he’s as boring as sin is an insult to sin-worthy boring things. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being unpolished and boring, but there are certain realistic expectations in politics and one of the first ones is that successful politicians have to hold an audience’s attention through a lot of otherwise boring crap. Carson is so soft-spoken that his headset microphone sounded like it was parked somewhere in Illinois — barely able to pick up his voice and amplify it to the audience. Have I underscored how somnambulant he is? I really don’t think so.
So, out came Carson, who spent what felt like 72 hours improvising his way through introducing his family and walking us through his biography. He actually has a very compelling story, it’s just a shame that he tells it in a tone of voice that sounds like — shhh! — he’s trying not to wake us.
At one point, Carson seemed like he was leading up to a fairly typical GOP “liberal media” rant, but instead of fireworks, it culminated in an anticlimactic, whispery fizzle, “You guys have an almost sacred responsibility. Please don’t abuse it.” Huzzah! Oh. That’s all?
Remember how Glenn Beck used to terrify his audience by invoking far-right shibboleth Saul Alinsky, the left-wing community organizer and author of Rules for Radicals? Arguably most of his viewers didn’t know, and still don’t know who Alinsky was, but Beck spun hathos-packed yarns about how dangerous he was, painting Alinsky as a creepy Babadook lurking under our beds. Well, about 38 minutes in, Carson invoked Alinsky in a tone of voice better suited for walking your grandmother through using her remote control.
Carson also brought up Baltimore and somehow segued from the turmoil there into, yes, the labor participation rate, which Carson described as being at a 37-year low. Coincidentally, by this point in the speech, my adrenaline level was also at a 37-year low. Of course, the labor participation rate argument is a big GOP deception. The Congressional Budget Office largely attributes the low labor participation rate to the largest group of retirees in U.S. history — Baby Boomers. But it’s easier to undermine the job creation record under President Obama to some sort of failed policy. By this point, between Carson’s speaking style and his hypnotic pacing back and forth, he could have convinced viewers that shape-shifting lizard people from outer space are taking all the jobs, and everyone would’ve believed him.
Later, Carson ran through a paragraph or two about the “so-called Affordable Care Act.” No, not “so-called,” Dr. Carson. The Affordable Care Act is the actual name of the law. He went on to say the usual — that the law was “rammed down our throats” because it was unpopular. Interesting coming from a Republican whose congressional allies have voted against many popular things, including expanded firearm background checks; withdrawing form Iraq and Afghanistan; same-sex marriage; health benefits for 9/11 heroes; and on down the line. Not for nothing, but by the time the 2016 election rolls around, polling trends show that more Americans will actually approve of the ACA than will disapprove (feature-by-feature Americans approve of all but one of the individual parts of the ACA).
The presentation mercifully wrapped up after about an hour, but not before a final reprise of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with the Carson family standing awkwardly and stone-faced in front of the choir from earlier.
My heart really goes out to the reporters assigned to the Carson beat who will have to suffer through this exact same stump speech, five times a day for the next 12-plus months. I’m considering a Kickstarter aimed at supplying Carson’s press pool with relief packages of booze and distracting iPhone apps so they can better endure the harrowing monotony of it all. Imagine the worst TED Talk ever, then extend that TED Talk to about nine days in length and insert it into stuffy school gymnasiums and sweltering South Carolina and Iowa farm fields in August, accompanied by the dullest compositions ever belted out by underpaid singers. It might not literally be torture, but it’s somewhere on the spectrum.