Two Liars

Last week America woke up to the news that improbably successful GOP Presidential Candidate Dr. Ben Carson was something of a fibber. There’s nothing serious here—no fake degrees or made up purple hearts—but it wasn’t good, for sure.

As one blogger put it:

First, stories about his past, particularly those told in his book Gifted Hands, have been all but debunked — including the ultimate lie about his supposed offer of a full scholarship to West Point, as well the apparently tall tale about his supposedly violent past..

Another story… is just as sketchy as the others that are unraveling before our very eyes. The good doctor also insists that he was named the “most honest” student in one of his classes at the prestigious Yale University.

This alleged incident took place in a Psychology class called Perceptions 301. There’s just one little problem with that, though: Yale University itself has informed The Wall Street Journal that this was not a class that was offered when Ben Carson attended Yale.

Bad news. And some rushed to condemn the whole project. According to a Chicago Tribune editorial:

The unverified tales are particularly dangerous for Carson because they strike at the heart of his appeal: a powerful story of overcoming poverty and an absent father through faith and hard work to gain fame as the first surgeon to separate twins conjoined at the head. Unlike most other candidates, he has no record in office by which his fitness can be assessed.

Why does providing misleading information about his personal life matter more for Carson than anyone else? This has never seemed to have any impact on someone’s success as chief executive. Carson actually was the first surgeon to separate twins conjoined at the head. That’s already a more impressive accomplishment than any other candidate can point to. It’s obviously going to be a news story whenever someone running for or serving in public office is caught lying, but there’s no reason to be all that concerned by this sort of thing.

Politicians lie. Politicians have always lied. Sometimes the lie is substantial and intended to benefit the politician. Bill Clinton’s claim that he “did not engage in sexual relations with that woman” qualifies here. So does Marco Rubio’s claim to be the offspring of people who fled Cuba in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s revolution (rather than before, which put him in a different class of Cuban Americans and much less attractive to the exile community he represents).

BenCarson

Carson’s lie is not in that category.

Mike Lupica writes in the New York Daily News that in American politics we “may never have had anyone quite like Dr. Ben Carson.”

Carson’s lies are strange, yes, but we have had someone like Carson before. His are the sort of personal lie that should be pretty familiar to Democrats, if they just think back a few years. Remember this? From an ABC News article:

[The candidate] …has a penchant for exaggeration.

From tales about his relatives to claims about his own achievements, the vice president’s embellishments frequently send media “truth squads” cracking and campaign aides back-peddling.

That was about Al Gore. There were, and continue to be, a lot of things about the erstwhile vice president that Americans find unattractive. But after the news cycle on this one ran out, it turns out we didn’t care so much if Gore was found to have told the slightly self-aggrandizing fib. He was the first to begin the investigation of Love Canal. He invented the Internet. He and his wife were the inspiration for Love Story. Those aren’t politically calculated Machiavellian maneuvers; it’s just the sort of things people do at parties and meetings all the time. They make stuff about themselves because it’s sort of fun, and makes them seem more interesting, and it seems likely no one’s ever going to check.

It’s not even clear that politicians lie more than American private citizens. Justin Moyer points out in a piece for the Washington Post that “Carson’s memory problems are not unique to the pediatric neurosurgeon. They are shared by countless memoirists and witnesses to crimes; indeed, they are shared by anyone who remembers anything.”

There are a whole bunch of reasons why it might not be a good idea to elect Carson president of the United States, or even choose him to be the Republican candidate for president. There’s the fact that he’s never run anything. He also supports a variety of truly terrible policy ideas. He seems ignorant of history; he thinks the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the world’s most famous tombs, were built to store grain.

But the fact that he seems to think he was a juvenile delinquent? The thing about how he one once said got an award from a Yale professor and got his picture in the student newspaper? The way he thinks he got offered a special scholarship to the (free) U.S. Military Academy at West Point?

No, none of this matters. It didn’t matter for Al Gore anyway. It shouldn’t matter for this guy.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer