In every possible sense, Ben Carson is a nontraditional presidential candidate. He has no experience in elected office. He has no background in government. He has no areas of policy expertise. He has no depth of understanding of current events. He has no real campaign platform, per se.
What Carson does have, however, is a fascinating personal history and a reputation for honesty. It's helped lead him, at least for now, to the top tier of the Republican presidential race.
But over the last several days, the central rationale for Carson's entire candidacy has faced intense and unflattering scrutiny, with multiple reports casting doubts on the retired right-wing neurosurgeon's version of previous events.
* West Point: Carson has claimed more than once to have been offered a "full scholarship" to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Though some of the initial Politico reporting on this has since been walked back, it's nevertheless clear Carson exaggerated the opportunity and no "full scholarship" was ever offered.
* 1968: Carson bragged about protecting some white students in 1968 from riots in Detroit after Martin Luther King's assassination, but there's no evidence to substantiate his alleged heroism.
* Yale: Carson boasted about events in a psychology course he took at Yale, but it now appears those events did not happen the way he claims. (He tried over the weekend to back up his claims, but his defense didn't exactly help his case.)
* Violence: Carson claims to have been a violent teenager who went "after people" with weapons, including an incident when he was 14, when Carson alleges he "tried to stab someone." Reporters who've spoken to his childhood friends and acquaintances cannot corroborate any of this.
Some of Carson's suspect tales appear to be outright falsehoods -- see, for example, his background with a controversial nutritional-supplement company called Mannatech -- while other anecdotes lack substantiation, but have not yet been entirely discredited.
Either way, the GOP candidate seems eager to present a defense: he's a victim.
When asked about whether he was ready for the intense scrutiny and vetting of a presidential campaign, Carson said he was but pushed back on whether what he is experiencing is fair. “I have always said that I expect to be vetted, but being vetted and what is going on with me --’You said this thirty years ago, you said this 20 years ago, this didn’t exist’ -- you know, I have not seen that with anyone else. If you can show me where that’s happened with someone else I will take that statement back,” he said. Carson said this kind of scrutiny is born out of the “secular progressive movement in this country.” He said he is a threat to that because he and his campaign are attracting a “a great diversity of people and it worries them.”
Hmm. We're to believe there's a conspiracy, which led journalists to uncover some apparent inconsistencies and falsehoods in his previous claims, which voters are supposed to believe is all part of the conspiracy.
At a certain level, I can appreciate why some of Carson's apparent falsehoods may seem trivial. His actual personal history is pretty amazing on its own -- it doesn't have to be embellished to be impressive -- and Carson taking liberties with his own biography, fudging details about decades-old events to make himself look better, may seem unimportant in the context of a presidential race.
But there's no reason to let Carson off the hook quite so easily. This personal narrative isn't tangential to his campaign; it is his campaign. If his life story -- literally the basis for an inspirational movie -- is filled with tall tales, exaggerated to manufacture imagined heroism, there's not much left to his often bizarre candidacy.
For now, many conservatives appear content to pretend Carson's dubious boasts and ridiculous ideas aren't a problem, and the real fault rests with rascally news organizations that have the gall to scrutinize leading presidential candidates. Indeed, at least in the short term, it's entirely possible that Carson's crumbling credibility with the reality-based community may actually help him with the Republican Party's far-right base, with conservatives rallying behind the GOP hopeful under fire.
But if Carson and his backers see this as a sustainable model in the months to come, they're likely to be disappointed.