Dr. Ben Carson is often hailed as a renaissance man—sometimes by himself. He's been an acclaimed neurosurgeon, a best-selling author, a conservative pundit, and a likely presidential hopeful. Well, he can add another checkmark to the list: He's probably one of the few people to have a political documentary made about him before actually holding or explicitly seeking political office.
On Sunday, 37 local television networks across the country (including in Iowa) aired an hour-long "documentary" about Carson. The documentary, called A Breath of Fresh Air: A New Prescription for America, was paid for and produced by Armstrong Williams Productions.
The idea that a physician with no political experience could become a serious presidential candidate heading into next year may sound ridiculous, but the money behind Carson, combined with his bootstrapping life story and his success in medicine, show that he's not someone who should be so easily written off. He's by no means a front-runner, but that doesn't mean he won't be a contender.
The documentary begins with a shot of a beeping heart monitor, then dramatic string music swells into life as we see Carson walking into an operating room, gowned for surgery. That scene dissolves into footage of Sean Hannity talking about Carson's potential run for president in 2016.
The first four minutes of the documentary feature Ken Burns-style zoom-ins on illustrations of the Founders, pointing out that three of them were physicians.
"The Founding Fathers were Republicans, in the sense that they believed that serving as a government representative was a civic duty, not a license for unlimited power," the program's female narrator says. "Is it necessary to have spent one's whole life in politics, doing nothing else productive other than running for office?"
Carson certainly doesn't think so; neither do his supporters. Bring up Carson in the context of GOP 2016 contenders, and you're likely to get laughed out of the room. But the case for Ben Carson 2016 is there; he's just the type of candidate to either find wild success in the Republican primaries, or crash and burn fabulously.
Consider Carson's explanation in the documentary of how the U.S. should fight "the plague of radical Islamic extremism": if political leaders don't "micromanage" military leaders and let them "use their talents," then "we can take care of this problem pretty quickly."
While his policy platforms could certainly use some fleshing out, Carson himself has shown a genuine knack for getting people—and especially conservatives—excited about his ideas. In January, Carson's book, One Nation, reached No. 1 on The New York Times' nonfiction best-sellers list and remained in the top 10 for eight months. In August, Carson's book outpaced sales for Hillary Clinton's book, Hard Choices.
Carson isn't just popular on the page, but also in person—just watch his speech from 2014's Conservative Political Action Conference. As an orator, Carson has a calm, even demeanor that he can erupt at the perfect time to animate the crowd.
Last but not least, Carson is a proven money-maker. It is still very early, but one PAC supporting a Carson 2016 bid—the clumsily named National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee—is already making headway. In between January and April alone, that group put up $2.4 million—more than similar groups supporting candidates such as Clinton and Sen. Rand Paul.
In tone, A Breath of Fresh Air lies somewhere between a Church of Scientology recruitment video and a cash-for-gold infomercial. In the documentary, you'll learn about the dangers of political correctness and the "liberal orthodoxy," along with the triumphs of Ronald Reagan and Galileo. You'll also hear an almost inscrutable metaphor about American greatness and oxygen masks.
Still, Carson's success as a neurosurgeon is undeniable, and seeing him talk about medical procedures that he helped pioneer is the most informative part of the documentary. Carson was the first neurosurgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head. The book he wrote about it, Gifted Hands, was even made into a TV movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Carson.
Armstrong Williams, who serves as Carson's business manager and oversaw the documentary production, has been friends with Carson since the 1990s, when the doctor appeared on one of Williams's talk shows.
Williams told National Journal that he was first inspired to make the documentary after witnessing the reactions to Carson's 2013 National Prayer Breakfast speech, which criticized the Affordable Care Act to President Obama's face and turned Carson into a conservative darling.
Here's how the narrator in A Breath of Fresh Air describes Carson's Prayer Breakfast speech (emphasis added): "Carson stood by his prescription for America, and his critique of bloated, ineffective and ultimately tyrannical government overreach. From a surgeon with such renown and gravitas to directly contradict the reigning dogma about health care was pure heresy in the eyes of his critics. But to others, it sounded a lot like common sense."
After news of the documentary broke, Fox News promptly ended its contract with Carson, who was a Fox contributor. In the past, the network cut ties with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum after they made clear their intention to run for president.
But while Williams wanted to make a political documentary about his friend, expounding on his personal and political virtues, William maintains that he does not actually want Carson to run for president.
"I hope he doesn't," Williams said. "He definitely has the character. He has the experience. He has the intellect. He's decisive. He's a visionary. But politics is a dirty, nasty game!"
"I would not wish that upon my worst enemy," he added.
That sort of rhetoric sounds a bit pat for someone who wants to see his friend become more of a national name. The documentary was originally supposed to air on two TV stations that Williams owns—one in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and one in Flint, Mich. But Williams dared to dream bigger.
"I got to thinking, 'We did not spend a year compiling all this footage and just gonna let it air in two markets. The world needs to see it!'" Williams said.
Perhaps not all of the world, though.
"It will never be put online,"Williams said, explaining that publishing the documentary online would violate his paid-programming contract with the networks that aired it.
But don't be surprised if you see some bootleg DVDs pop up in Iowa flea markets between now and January 2016.
Correction: This article originally referred to USA First PAC as a super PAC. It is not a super PAC, nor did it finance the production of the documentary.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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