In politics, much of what you do hinges on the ability to tell a good story. Political consultants often talk about the need for candidates to stay "on message," whether on a national debate stage or while working a rope line in Sioux City, Iowa.
The problem for most candidates is that people don't always want to hear politicians talk about politics. Voters want to feel like they understand candidates on a personal level—if that weren't the case, no one would care about Sen. Lindsey Graham's bachelor status, or Hillary Clinton's affinity for pantsuits.
And in his 2016 presidential run, Ben Carson has been fearless in spinning yarns—even those with little obvious connection to politics.
In a freewheeling speech delivered to the Faith and Freedom Conference on Friday, Carson eschewed political talk to speak about his relationship to his Christianity, and his time living in Australia, and a time when he tried to stab someone with a camping knife.
Like many fellow presidential candidates who spoke at the conference, Carson started his speech with a dedication to the victims of Wednesday night's shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Carson mentioned that one of the people who was killed, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, is a cousin of Carson's business manager, Armstrong Williams.
"If we don't pay close attention to the hatred and division going on in our nation, this is a harbinger of what we can expect," Carson told the crowd.
In his first anecdote, Carson provided an explanation for his perpetually relaxed state, which some have interpreted as "sleepy." Unlike someone like Sen. Ted Cruz, who delivers speeches with the fire of an evangelical preacher, Carson often sounds like a soothing parent telling a bedtime story to his audience.
He spoke of a time when he was growing up when he tried to stab someone "in the abdomen" with a camping knife. Luckily, the would-be victim was wearing enough protective clothing to prevent injury. Carson said that moment marked a change in his life, and brought him closer to his faith. "I was trying to kill somebody over nothing," Carson said. "That was the last time I had an angry outburst. It has never happened since that day.
In a second anecdote, Carson went further in hinting at racist behavior he's experienced in his life. He told a stemwinder about being courted to work in Australia after he finished his residency at Johns Hopkins University.
Carson said he was hesitant to move across the world, partially because he'd heard they had a whites-only immigration policy, which was abolished in 1966. Working in an Australian hospital, Carson recalled that coworkers drew attention to his race. "Someone would ask, 'Can I feel your hair?'" Carson said. "I'd say, 'You can feel it, but it's gonna cost you ten bucks.'"
He joked that he told the Aussies they all looked alike (and affected a delightfully bad Australian accent in the process). While this may seem like an innocuous comment, it could be the closest that Carson has come to publically acknowledging how his personal life has been affected by racism. His usual line of response when confronted with racially charged events—such as the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore—is to emphasize self-determination rather than allot blame to institutional racial prejudice.
In another story from Carson's speech, he told of treating a child who had a seemingly inoperable brain stem tumor. Despite Carson's grim prognosis, the child's parents' faith was unshakeable, and eventually he was cured.
"That boy walked out of the hospital," Carson said. "Today he is a minister."
No matter your political views, it's hard not to feel enthralled when Carson talks about his work in the operating room.
Carson's speech did eventually turn political. He recalled arguing with an atheist about evolution versus creationism, which Carson believes in.
"I believe I came from God, and you believe you came from a monkey, and you've convinced me you're right," Carson said he told the atheist. The audience laughed.
But like the story of the near-stabbing, and the Australia story, the story about the patient who survived a malignant brain tumor had no direct political message. What it did have was a message about the events that have shaped Carson's life, and how that has informed his outlook on the world. Faith is a big part of that. So is the idea that self-determination alone is a stronger force than entrenched adversity.
It's a good reminder that it takes more than political rhetoric to understand a candidate, and for voters to empathize with that candidate. Carson understands that sometimes, the best delivery mechanism for his message isn't a political one at all.
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