In his acclaimed autobiography, Gifted Hands, Ben Carson says he had an offer and scholarship from the West Point military academy as a teenager, which he declined in favor of Yale University. “I was offered a full scholarship to West Point,“ Carson wrote, describing a meeting with Gen. William Westmoreland. ”I didn’t refuse the scholarship outright, but I let them know that a military career wasn’t where I saw myself going. As overjoyed as I felt to be offered such a scholarship, I wasn’t really tempted. The scholarship would have obligated me to spend four years in military service after I finished college, precluding my chances to go on to medical school."
There are immediate problems here. There are no scholarships to West Point—all costs are covered for all students. And the only way to get an offer is to apply, but the school has no record of Carson’s application. When pressed by Politico, Carson’s campaign conceded he never applied. “He was introduced to folks from West Point by his ROTC Supervisors,” explained his campaign manager, Barry Bennett. “They told him they could help him get an appointment based on his grades and performance in ROTC. He considered it but in the end did not seek admission.”
This prompted a story—“Ben Carson Admits Fabricating West Point Scholarship” was the original title—and a flurry of activity on Twitter, as Carson supporters and conservative defenders attacked Politico for smearing the former neurosurgeon. “It is true, Carson never applied and was never accepted to West Point,” wrote conservative activist Erick Erickson. “The Politico’s representation of that is demonstrably false and is not something Carson claimed.”
The Carson campaign has also responded. “He was told by the ROTC Commander that he could have an appointment,“ said Doug Watts, a spokesman for the campaign, to the Washington Post. “Dr. Carson rejected the offer, did not apply or pursue admission. Had he done so, and been accepted, that would have been tantamount to a scholarship, the same that all cadets receive."
So, is Politico right? Did Carson “fabricate” his West Point story?
If you judge by the text of his book, as well as other statements about the same story, the answer is not exactly. Carson never claimed that he applied to the school. And while West Point doesn’t give scholarships, it’s not hard to see how encouragement from authority figures—You’re a shoo-in—becomes, after years of telling and retelling, the tale of an offer and a scholarship. It’s just how memory works.
Carson is guilty of run-of-the-mill embellishment. Still, it’s tempting to say that this will harm his campaign. Embellishing about entrance to a military academy doesn’t look good, especially for someone who has built his campaign on honesty and integrity. Some Republicans might just recoil from the former neurosurgeon, in favor of someone else.
But I doubt it. Carson is extraordinarily well-liked among Republican voters—it will take more than an exaggeration to tank his ratings with the grassroots. And indeed, the fact that Politico has had to walk back from its initial claims will work in Carson’s favor. Now this is another case of the “liberal media” on a witch hunt against a strong, conservative Republican.
Far from hurting Ben Carson, this whole flap may strengthen his standing with Republicans, as they rally to defend him. Carson may well stumble in the race for the GOP nomination—I think it’s inevitable—but it won’t be over old memories of college applications.