Brain surgeon, Hollywood inspiration — and the next Republican hope

Republicans eye neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

As Republicans launch a new effort to recruit more candidates among racial minorities, one is already emerging into the national spotlight: a brain surgeon who happens to be African American.

Dr. Benjamin Carson is retiring as the head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, where he has drawn international acclaim as an expert in separating conjoined twins. He has dozens of honorary degrees, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a life story that is the stuff movies are made of: Cuba Gooding, Jr. played Carson in a 2009 film version of his rise from an impoverished childhood in Detroit’s inner city, where he was raised by a single mother with only a third-grade education but the highest expectations for her sons. Today, his foundation funds thousands of scholarships and reading rooms in poor schools.

Earlier this year, Carson electrified Republicans with a rousing speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington that mixed his gospel of personal responsibility (“I came to understand that I had control of my own destiny”) with conservative policy. He advocated replacing Barack Obama’s universal health insurance with individual health savings accounts and swapping the progressive income-tax system for a Biblically inspired flat tax. (“When I pick up my Bible, you know what I see? I see the fairest individual in the universe, God, and he’s given us a system. It’s called a tithe.”)

As the Obamas sat nearby, he implicitly criticized their choice of careers—saying there were too many lawyers running Washington. “I’ve got news for you: five doctors were involved in signing the Declaration of Independence. We need doctors, scientists and engineers—we need all those people involved in government.” At the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of Republicans, he got a standing ovation for his speech.

Not all his views align with GOP dogma. For example, he opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he has influential boosters. The conservative Wall Street Journal enthused, “Ben Carson for president.” Fox News host Sean Hannity said he’d vote for him. Rush Limbaugh said he’d scare Democrats. Carson has allowed that he’d run “if the Lord grabbed me by the collar and made me do it,” but later said the chances are “small.”

Of course, a presidential run is a tough place to start—just ask the last black Republican presidential hopeful, Herman Cain. Conveniently, a U.S. Senate seat in Carson’s native Michigan will be up for grabs in the 2014 mid-term elections, and a Carson campaign would draw a flood of national media attention and cash. According to Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley: “Carson would help a party addicted to white suburban candidates intrigue young and urban voters, black and white, who grew up looking at his picture hanging on their classroom walls.”

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