"You only get one shot!" the gospel choir sang Monday morning, enunciating their point with raised fingers.
They had just finished a rendition of Eminem's "Lose Yourself"—punctuating perhaps the most eclectic introduction to a presidential campaign announcement ever performed.
The choral performance was apt, both for the venue and the event taking place. The venue: Detroit's Music Hall Center for Performing Arts. The event: Ben Carson's formal presidential campaign announcement.
Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, became the fourth major Republican candidate to announce a 2016 presidential run, followed closely by former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.
The event was simultaneously bombastic and poignant. Before the choir performed "Lose Yourself," one of its members gave an opening prayer calling for God to watch over Carson and "especially his mother Sonya," who has been grappling with Alzheimer's disease since 2011. Carson recently received news that his mother could die within days. Instead of going through with a scheduled kick-off rally in Iowa, he will fly to Dallas to be by her side.
Carson's announcement was unconventional in more than just one song. After the gospel performance, a Tennessee a cappella group performed a medley of American standards—"God Bless America," "America the Beautiful," and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". Before Carson's speech, an ominous campaign video played with a voiceover from a James Earl Jones soundalike. Toward the end of his remarks, Carson brought on his campaign team one by one, much like a rock frontman would shout out his band members at the end of a set. At the end, the gospel choir and the a capella group joined Carson and his wife on stage for one final reprise of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Carson used Monday's speech to showcase his faith while rejecting general political correctness and engaging in some good old-fashioned media bashing.
After Carson mentioned that he plays pool with his wife, Candy, and often wins, he paused. "I should be careful," Carson said. "There's media here and their headline will be, 'Carson Admits He Beats His Wife.'"
Since emerging onto the national political scene after his anti-Obamacare speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, Carson has seen his fair share of dismissive and critical media coverage. Central to Carson's message—and his appeal to Republicans—is that the welfare system is an untenable solution to unemployment. What he often leaves out: His mother made use of food stamps and other government assistance programs when she was raising her family.
"There were many people who are critical of me because they say, 'Carson wants to get rid of all the safety nets and welfare programs, even though he must have benefited from them.' This is a blatant lie," Carson said on Monday. "I have no desire to get rid of safety nets for people who need them. I have a strong desire to get rid of programs that create dependency in able-bodied people."
Later in the speech, Carson circled back to admonish the media for taking sides.
"The press is the only business in America that is protected by our Constitution. You have to ask yourself a question: why were they the only ones protected? It was because our founders envisioned a press that was on the side of the people, not a press that was on the side of the Democrats or the Republicans or the federalists or the anti-federalists," he said. "This is a direct appeal to media: You guys have an almost sacred position in a true democracy. Please don't abuse it."
Throughout his speech, the influence of Sonya Carson on her son's life was omnipresent. Carson's mother was raised in a large family in rural Tennessee, and while she only received a third-grade education, she made young Ben Carson read two books a week and write book reports that she could not read. Her son became the first neurosurgeon to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head, and now he is a presidential candidate.
It's a compelling life story. And while that can take a candidate far in an election, it doesn't win elections. Carson has never served in public office, but he touts that inexperience as a virtue.
"I don't have a lot of experience busting budgets and doing the kinds of things that have gotten us into all the trouble we are in now. I do have a lot of experience in solving problems: complex surgical problems that have never been done by anybody before," Carson said.
"The real pedigree that we need to help to heal this country, to revive this country, is someone who believes in our Constitution and is willing to put it on the top shelf; someone who believes in their fellow man and loves this nation and is compassionate; somebody who believes in what we have learned since we were in kindergarten—that is, that we are one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
But despite what Carson says, the combination of his personal story, his soaring rhetoric, and his penchant for vague assurances of returning America to greatness are all traits of a strong politician. Ironically, labelling himself a non-politician is the most politically savvy move he could make, and it's earned him a following that is not so easily dismissed.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.