Gaffe Track: Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? With Ben Carson

Patrick Semansky / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The candidate: Ben Carson

The gaffe: Speaking to a fifth-grade class in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the good doctor asked, “Who’s the worst student?” Almost everyone pointed to the same child. Nothing like shaming a 10-year-old to put some pizzazz in a campaign event.

The defense: Carson likes to talk about how he felt like the dumbest kid in his class growing up. But this wasn’t a setup to make the dumbest kid feel smarter, it was just, well, dumb: “I figured people would be pointing around to all different people who they didn’t like,” he said later. The kid at least seemed pretty chill about it. “Knowing Seth, I think he’d take it in stride,” his mom said. “He’s very well-liked by all the students."

Why it matters (or doesn’t): This is a guy who’s obviously ready for the delicate diplomatic interactions required of a head of state. Seriously, who does this?

The moral: It takes serious smarts to go to Yale and become a decorated neurosurgeon, but there’s no emotional-intelligence requirement.