Meet Dr. Ben Carson, the New Conservative Folk Hero

After confronting President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast, the accomplished doctor became an instant star. Is he destined for political success?

After confronting President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast, the accomplished doctor became an instant star. Is he destined for political success?

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Reuters

There are two ways you might have heard of Dr. Ben Carson. If you're a doctor or follow medicine, you might know of his great success -- the youngest head of a major division at Johns Hopkins, one of America's medical meccas; the first surgeon to successfully separate conjoined twins, back in 1987; a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner late in George W. Bush's term. He was also mentioned on The Wire.

Or if you've tuned in to Fox News or clicked onto National Review Online in the last week, you've probably heard his praises announced in loud voice. Carson, who is head of pediatric neurosurgery at Hopkins, also made a brief appearance on ABC's This Week Sunday. Carson's big break came when he spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on February 7. Here's his keynote speech:

Things don't get interesting for a while, so you might want to skip to about halfway through. Carson delivered an opening shot against "political correctness," and then -- after namechecking Tocqueville, recapping his own inspirational life story, and calling for a better education system -- voiced concern about the national debt and argued the case for a flat tax, using the Bible's injunction to tithe a set percentage, and for health-savings accounts, a medical option that has gained currency among conservatives. Crucially, he delivered this speech from a podium just feet from President Obama, who of course oversaw the passage of a very different health-care plan and has been a major proponent of progressive taxation. Obama, as he often does, remained somewhere between impassive and bored-looking. It's fair to say he didn't seem to be enjoying himself.

This act of courage (or chutzpah, depending on your perspective) has earned him instant fame among conservatives. National Review's John Fund, Daniel Foster, and Jonah Goldberg have all extolled him; Goldberg even tweeted this last Tuesday as Obama was finishing his speech to a joint session of a Congress:

The trio's boss, National Review Editor Rich Lowry, used his weekly Politico column to recap the speech. There were the many Fox News appearances, and the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial titled, "Ben Carson for President."

Not all the attention has been quite so positive, especially since the breakfast is usually treated as a nonpartisan, nonpolitical occasion. The speech earned Carson a sharp rebuke from the widely syndicated conservative columnist Cal Thomas, who called on the doctor to apologize publicly. 

"His remarks were inappropriate for the occasion," Thomas wrote. "It would have been just as inappropriate had he praised the president's policies. The president had a right to expect a different message about another Kingdom. I'm wondering if the president felt drawn closer to God, or bludgeoned by the Republican Party and the applauding conservatives in the audience." 

Liberal and mainstream outlets have been slower to pick up on Carson. When he appeared on This Week, interviewer Jon Karl seemed a bit bemused, shying away from probing questions about policy and favoring the formulation, "What do you make of ...?"

As for the rest of us, what should we make of Carson's sudden rise to popularity? As Lowry pointed out, Obama and most liberals would agree with the basic principles at stake: personal responsibility, the importance of education, the benefits of intact families. Obama has on occasion talked the talk about the national debt, though many on the right feel he hasn't walked the walk. Only the flat tax is seriously divisive. Carson has spoken publicly on controversial topics in the past, but has never received so much attention. He is a longstanding critic of Obama's health-care overhaul. He has also stated that he does not believe in evolution.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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