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Is Ben Carson Just Making Stuff Up?

Questions about Carson's claims of his violent past are compounded by his admission on Friday that he did not receive a scholarship to the US Military Academy at West Point, as described in his autobiography.

by Liz Fields
Nov 6 2015, 10:10pm

Photo via mpi10/MediaPunch/AP

It was a classic tale of the American Dream. An impoverished boy from Detroit stabs a close friend but moves past his "pathological temper" to become a prominent neurosurgeon, and eventually ends up leading a field of Republican candidates running for president. Such is the widely chronicled personal history of Ben Carson, which the former doctor laid out in his autobiography and now tirelessly recounts on the campaign stump. 

But details of Carson's background were called into question after former classmates and neighbors expressed their surprise to CNN about his claims of youthful violence, inciting a media firestorm that is threatening his White House ambitions and undermining his recent surge in voter support.

Compounding the controversy, political commentators on both sides of the aisle on Friday acknowledged the potentially damaging effects of an admission from Carson's campaign that, contrary to what he has long claimed, he did not receive a scholarship to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

In Gifted Hands, Carson's autobiography published in 1990, he recalled dining with the former commander of US forces in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, and other officers from West Point, after which the 17-year-old ROTC student was offered a "full scholarship" to the prestigious academy.

Carson's campaign manager Barry Bennett backtracked on those claims on Friday, telling Politico that his ROTC supervisors had introduced him to "folks from West Point" who "told him they could help him get an appointment based on his grades and performance" in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at Detroit's Southwestern High School. 

"He considered it," Bennett said, "but in the end did not seek admission."

The concession came after Politico presented the campaign with a statement by West Point spokesperson Theresa Brinkerhoff, who said that the academy had no record of Carson ever applying or being admitted. Furthermore, the academy doesn't actually offer full scholarships. A student applies to West Point only after being nominated by a prominent military or government official. If the student is admitted to the academy following a competitive vetting process, costs concerning tuition, room, and board are covered.

Related: Ben Carson Thinks Hip-Hop Is Ruining Black Communities, But He'll Use It to Get Votes

The admission to Politico came after the CNN report on Carson's purported youthful escapades wobbled the legs of his unexpected and seemingly unshakeable ascendancy in the GOP's 2016 presidential race. The candidate has long defined his personal narrative as one of redemption from a violent past, and has used his faith as a twice-baptized Seventh Day Adventist to connect with religious supporters. But he was forced to defend key claims, particularly an anecdote in which the 14-year-old Carson attempted to stab a friend named "Bob" with a blade that fortunately snapped after it hit his target's belt buckle.

In Gifted Hands, Carson described that moment as seminal in transforming him from an angry young man who threw bricks and took baseball bats to rivals into a responsible member of society. He said the incident led him to finally placate his "pathological temper," and set him on a path that would lead him to become one of the foremost surgeons in America and the soft-spoken conservative presidential candidate he is today.

"The knife blade struck with such force it broke and of course, he fled in terror. But I was even more terrified because it dawned upon me at that moment I was trying to kill somebody over nothing," Carson said in a 2008 interview with PBS, recounting the incident. He said that he locked himself in a bathroom and prayed to God for help with his temper. "When I came out of the bathroom after three hours I was a different person, and I never had a problem with temper since then."

When CNN approached nine friends, classmates and neighbors from Carson's past to discuss this memory and other violent acts that he has described, none of them had any memory of such outbursts. One acquaintance told reporters that he was "shocked" when he read Carson's account of his childhood in his autobiography, while others remembered him as a quiet and obedient kid who refused to break his mother's rule against crossing the street.

The candidate, however, is sticking to his story and said that CNN's report was a "smear campaign."

"This is a bunch of lies attempting to say I'm lying about my history," he said. "I think it's pathetic, and basically what the media does is they try to get you distracted."

In responding to the furor that followed, Carson also acknowledged that his alleged stabbing victim, Bob  — whom he said he had identified using a pseudonym — was in fact a close relative, despite having previously said that he was a classmate.

"He was a family member, and you know, I really don't want to expose him further," Carson said. "I talked to him, he would prefer to stay off of the media, and I think I want to respect that."

The background details dogging Carson aren't confined to his childhood. At the third Republican presidential primary debate, held last month, Carson claimed that he "didn't have an involvement" with a dietary supplement company called Mannatech, despite the fact that the company paid him to deliver four speeches to its workers. Carson has also appeared in promotional videos produced by the company.

This week, his campaign continued to minimize his ties to Mannatech's nutritional supplements, which Carson partially credited with eliminating symptoms of his prostate cancer diagnosis in 2004. At a 2011 Mannatech convention, Carson also received applause when he told the audience that he had received a coveted endowed post at Johns Hopkins Medicine with the company's help.

"Well three years ago I had an endowed chair bestowed upon me," Carson remarked before the convention. "And uh, it requires $2.5 million to do an endowed chair and I'm proud to say that part of that $2.5 million came from Mannatech."

After video of his statement surfaced, Carson's campaign denied the contribution, saying it was a "legitimate mistake" and "confusion" on his part.

Carson has become something of a shooting star among Republican supporters, but his trajectory might change after the latest controversy concerning his West Point "scholarship"  revelations. Conservative commentators are already calling the revelation "very bad" and a "problem" for his campaign.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields