In his runaway bestselling 1992 book Gifted Hands, Ben Carson, the superstar nuerosurgeon who is now leading the GOP primary race in some polls, claimed to have been "offered a full scholarship" to the West Point military academy following a meeting with General William Westmoreland in 1969 (Carson was a top ROTC student in high school).
The anecdote is a notable element in Carson's overall life story, which is built around his rise from poverty and hardship and his path to eventually becoming one of the most celebrated pediatric nuerosurgeons in the world.
There's a big problem with the story, though. It isn't true.
As Politico reports today, West Point verified that it had no record of Carson's application or acceptance, and Carson's campaign has admitted that the story is incorrect:
West Point, however, has no record of Carson applying, much less being extended admission.
"In 1969, those who would have completed the entire process would have received their acceptance letters from the Army Adjutant General," said Theresa Brinkerhoff, a spokeswoman for the academy. She said West Point has no records that indicate Carson even began the application process. "If he chose to pursue (the application process), then we would have records indicating such," she said.
When presented with these facts, Carson's campaign conceded the story was false.
(Indeed, it's not exactly clear how Carson could have been awarded a "full scholarship" given that tuition at West Point costs nothing.)
This sort of thing would be damaging for any presidential candidate, but it's a particular problem for someone like Carson who is effectively running on his life story.
When it turns out that a critical element of that story is false, it raises questions about the veracity and authenticity of other elements of the narrative. Indeed, reporters are already digging into other elements of Carson's story and finding potential weak spots.
Carson, for example, often talks about his youthful struggles with an angry temper, including some surprisingly violent incidents. But earlier this week, two CNN reporters who spoke to a number of childhood friends and acquaintances found that none recalled Carson as having violent tendencies:
"I was trying to kill somebody," Carson said, describing [one] incident—which he has said occurred at age 14 in ninth grade—during a September forum at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.
But nine friends, classmates and neighbors who grew up with Carson told CNN they have no memory of the anger or violence the candidate has described.
That person is unrecognizable to those whom CNN interviewed, who knew him during those formative years.
All of the people interviewed expressed surprise about the incidents Carson has described.
CNN's report doesn't go quite so far as to prove that Carson's stories about his temper are wrong, but it certainly raises questions about the accuracy of his claims, especially in combination with Carson's admission that his West Point story isn't true.
That's a big problem for Carson, whose campaign is almost entirely built around his honest-and-decent manner and his compelling personal narrative, which he often recounts at length in his speeches.
The debates have made it clear that he's just not well versed on national policy issues, and his awkward, more-than-a-little confused attempts to describe his policy ideas, especially when it comes to Medicare (which, given his background in medicine, you might expect to be an area of interest), mean that his life story has to effectively carry the campaign. When that story starts to break down, it means there's not an awful lot left to run on.
Update: The Carson campaign has responded with a statement calling the Politico story "an outright Lie." You can read the full statement here, but basically it says that he never said he applied to West Point. The important bit:
[Carson] was introduced to folks from West Point by his ROTC Supervisors. 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.
It does appear to be the case that Carson never claimed to have applied to West Point. (He said he only applied to one school.) It's still at least a little odd to have claimed, as he did in Gifted Hands that he was "offered a full scholarship to West Point," which is different being being told, in what sounds like an informal conversation, that he could likely "get an appointment"—which requires going through the process of being nomina with the understanding that once in, tuition is free.
Update 2: In an interview with The New York Times today, Carson says that he was recalling an informal offer:
In an interview with The New York Times Friday, Mr. Carson said: "I don't remember all the specific details. Because I had done so extraordinariy well you know I was told that someone like me – they could get a scholarship to West Point. But I made it clear I was going to pursue a career in medicine."
"It was, you know, an informal 'with a record like yours we could easily get you a scholarship to West Point.'"
Mr. Carson has recounted the episode of being offered a scholarship at various points in telling his triumphant personal story. (Technically, West Point does not offer scholarships; it is free to attend.)
There's less here than the initial story suggested. But Carson's story that he was offered a West Point scholarship was exaggerated and poorly, misleadingly told.