It took less than 24 hours after Ben Carson took over the polling lead in the Republican presidential nomination race for the wheels to start coming off his campaign. The former pediatric neurosurgeon, already enduring widespread ridicule for his theory that ancient Egyptian pyramids were grain silos built by the biblical patriarch Joseph – contrary to all historical evidence – was slammed Thursday and Friday by suggestions that he had fabricated key elements of his life story.
On Thursday, CNN reported that in interviews with multiple people who knew Carson in his childhood, none was able to confirm the violent temper that he claims to have overcome in his youth, or the specific story he has told about once attempting to stab someone.
On Friday, Politico got the Carson campaign to admit that the candidate’s claim to have been offered a full “scholarship” to the United States Military Academy at West Point was not correct.
For the Carson campaign, it has been a rough couple of days, and according to Scott Sobel, president of the crisis consulting firm Media and Communications Strategies, he’s not doing a particularly good job of handling it.
Sobel said he happened to have a television on with the volume down when Carson appeared Thursday night, and even with no sound, he could tell that the candidate was struggling. “Watching his body language last night, it appeared that he was pulling stories out of the air,” said Sobel. “He wasn’t looking the people interviewing him in the eye.”
Carson is in a particularly tricky spot, Sobel said, because his stock in trade is the impression he has tried to cultivate as a no-nonsense truth-teller who doesn’t get rattled. But in an interview with CNN last night about the network’s inability to verify some of his descriptions of his childhood, Carson came across as angry and defensive.
“If he’s going to overcome these contradictions about his past he has to show consistency in his demeanor,” Sobel said.
Sobel compared Carson to a boxer who has just taken a blow to the head. The right strategy is to protect yourself – to go into the clinch and prevent your opponent from landing any more punches until you can clear the cobwebs out.
“If you’re constantly being hit, you’re not going to recover from that. I would take a deep breath and get out of the limelight for a day or two certainly, otherwise there is blood in the water,” Sobel said. “Otherwise, you’re going to make mistakes in how you respond and you don’t have time to develop a thoughtful strategy.”
However, according to Eric Dezenhall, author of Glass Jaw: A Manifesto for Defending Fragile Reputations in an Age of Instant Scandal, Carson’s strategy has at least an outside chance of working. “This is a strange election season in that the old rules of thumb go right out the window when the electorate’s primarily goal is to express anger, not elect a president,” Dezenhall said via email.
“It’s hard to survive résumé fabrication because the subtext is the fabricator saying to the public, ‘I think you’re dumb enough to believe this nonsense and the electorate hates to have their intelligence insulted.
“A lot of why we support certain candidates is due to what’s called ‘narratives of ascent,’ their personal stories. That’s the case with Carson. No one seriously believes that brain surgery qualifies someone for the presidency, but voters like his story, which is why this has the potential to be so damaging. If your narrative of ascent is bogus, what else have you got?”
There are two things going for Carson though, Dezenhall argued.
First, he said, at least with regard to the West Point story, “The misrepresentation isn’t exactly a whopper. It’s not like he said he was a Navy SEAL and he just wasn’t. What he appears to have done is inflate the technical nature of the offer he was allegedly given by West Point. People can quibble about the details, which may serve him well.”
Second, Dezenhall said, “Carson’s supporters may see current news reports as an effort by a biased media to dredge up something that falls short of being a kill shot to knock off a candidate they don’t like. There’s something to be said for Carson smashing back on this basis and seeing what happens. If we’ve learned anything this political season, it’s that the brazen counterattack seems to be working better than the groveling denial.”