An Interview with Ben Carson
Ben Carson is a professor of neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, as well as a political commentator, columnist and author. Born in 1951, Carson was brought up in poverty by a single mother before attending Yale University and the University of Michigan Medical School. At just 33, Carson was named the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, the youngest major division director in the institution’s history. In 1987, he became the first surgeon in the world to successfully separate craniopagus twins, brothers fused at the head, an accomplishment that later earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Following several widely covered 2013 speeches on social issues and the federal government, Carson has become a highly sought-after conservative speaker and rumored 2016 presidential candidate. He has also served as co-director of the Johns Hopkins Craniofacial Center, authored four bestselling books, and served on the boards of the Kellogg Company and Costco. Carson is an emeritus fellow of the Yale Corporation.
The Politic: Has there been one most influential person or event in your life that had the most significant effect on your career?
The most influential person would be my mother, who had a very difficult upbringing and only had a third grade education, but was a person who never made excuses and never accepted excuses from us. I think in retrospect that was probably the best thing she ever did.
The Politic: You are a fellow Bulldog, graduating with the Class of 1973. What was the most formative part about your time at Yale? Do you have any general reflections or particular memories from your time at Yale?
I was a psychology major and had an opportunity to interact with a lot of very prominent psychologists, including a seminar with the daughter of Sigmund Freud. It was only after medical school that I went from the intangible to the tangible aspects of the brain. I’ve always had a very, very deep interest in the brain, in the thinking process and all of those things that makes each of us who we are. That has played a big role in my life today, as I try to understand why people think the way they do.
The Politic: What has been the most rewarding or meaningful part of your career especially as a brain surgeon?
Probably the most rewarding part occurs every time you walk out of the operating room and you go into the waiting room and you see that patient’s family and you’re able to alleviate their anxiety and tell them that good things have happened. That’s a feeling you never get tired of. It doesn’t have to be a big, internationally significant case because for each family, it couldn’t be more significant.
The Politic: You are most famous for the first ever separation of craniopagus twins, an operation that required a 70-person team and 22 hours. How do you prepare for something like that? What goes through your mind when you’re about to take on such an operation?
Each case is going to be different, obviously. Nobody really has an enormous amount of experience. You certainly want to read about what other people have done in order to add to your own basic knowledge. You also have to keep an open mind because one thing you can be sure of is it’s going to be different than what you expect. You need to be able to react to that difference, or there’s a good chance the patient won’t survive.
The Politic: How did you come to the decision to retire from surgery, in particular at the time which could possibly be considered the prime of your career. Why was that the right time for you?
First of all, someone had told me that neurosurgeons die early. I didn’t believe that, so I wrote down the names of the last ten neurosurgeons that I knew who died. I calculated the average age of death and it was 61. I really didn’t want to die in the battle. Secondly, I wanted to be sure that Johns Hopkins was in very good shape, so I felt that it was a perfect time for me to exit.
Also, I have been for many years very, very concerned about not only the young people in our nation and their future, but progressively I’ve become more concerned about the direction of the nation itself.
The Politic: Recently, you’ve received a great deal of national attention for your talks and lectures on the political circuit. How did you first become interested in politics? Was this something that has followed you for all your life?
I’ve always been interested, in general, about society. And I’ve always been very interested in history. But more recently, as I’ve thought about my children — and now I even have a grandchild with another one coming soon — I’m starting to think about their future. And the fact is, yes, there are some people who are alarmed, but some people really just say, “Eh it’s okay, don’t worry about it.” And that’s the kind of attitude that a lot of society is about before they self-destruct.
I think that there’s something very special about America. Yes, we are the pinnacle nation of the world. There is no question about that. There have been others before us, and they’ve all done the same thing and that’s destroying themselves like tolerating political corruption and relinquishing fiscal responsibility. I think that because of the special nature of the United States there is a possibility that somehow we can learn from what has happened to others and actually change the course. Some people say that there is no point in fighting history, but I just don’t think that that is true.
The Politic: We know that you are very vocal in the political policy debate. What are your thoughts on party affiliations and how they affect the debate in politics and the political world?
I personally wish that we had a national rule that when people vote, there can be no D, R or I on the ballot. They have to know what the person actually thinks, and not just vote on party affiliation. I think that contributes to the fact that a large number of people really don’t know who they are voting for. That contributes to what is going on in society. It was [once] a sacrifice, to go to Washington as a representative. But now, there is a really big disconnect between the people and their representatives.
For instance, it’s easier for people to become more distant from their constituents, significantly so. And they don’t really represent their constituents. I get to see it because I’m out talking with thousands of people at a time virtually every day, and most of them don’t feel that their people really represent them at all. This is supposed to be a nation that was built for and by the people. Their role is to really know the facts, know what their representatives are all about, and put in people who actually represent them. And that way, I think people will be much happier and much more engaged.
The Politic: To what extent has your medical career shaped your identity as a political spokesperson? As a career medical professional, what are your thoughts on the Affordable Care Act?
I had an interesting career because I was involved in a lot of controversial things. New techniques for operating, my work with craniopagus twins, and a lot of controversial tumor work. There was a lot of controversy and people saying to me, “You can’t do this,” or “Nobody is doing that.” I got kind of used to controversy and it came to a point to where you just say, “I’m going to do what’s right. I’m not going to do what may be popular, I’m just going to do what’s right.” And in my medical career, I’ve found that tended to work extremely well. I think that shapes my opinions a little bit because a lot of people have been saying, “Why aren’t you just not saying anything because you are going to make people upset.” If you go back and look at history, especially the history of social changes, they can never come without making people upset.
On your campus, there’s the statue of Nathan Hale, the teenage rebel. He is famous for saying, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” It takes bravery to make changes. People who will go along to get along and want everybody to like them seldom accomplish anything.
And for the Affordable Care Act, my big concern is that it could put too much control of people’s lives in the hands of the government. And I think this represents a fundamental shift of power in the structure of America. People were supposed to be at the pinnacle of power; it is supposed to be a nation built by the people and for the people. The most important thing that anyone can have is their life and their health. This [act] is something that has fundamentally changed that relationship, and that’s very, very concerning. Most people don’t even realize what is happening.
The Politic: On that very note, to what extent do you think the debate regarding the Affordable Care Act has become purely political as opposed to a discussion on what this will or will not do for the medical community?
The reason that I know that it’s purely political is that I had a conversation with a high-up administration official just before the act was passed. The guy said, “you know, there’s so [many] things here that I think a lot of people would agree with, like the terms of pre-existing diseases.” And I said, “I don’t think there will be a lot of pushback on that. Why don’t we start with those things that we have general agreement about so we have a foundation for healthcare reform and then build together on that? But if you bring it through with just one party and end up twisting people’s arms even to that, you are going to create so much animosity that you are never going to get cooperation from the other side. You are probably going to lose the House, you may lose the Senate.” This person said, “You are probably right, but this is Washington and this is politics.” The real purpose of the Affordable Care Act was to gain control of people’s lives. As we see it rolling out, we are finding all of these things out about it. We spend twice as much per capita on healthcare than the next closest nation, and yet we don’t have good access and we still have a lot of issues. You can’t fix that with a 2,000 page monstrosity and 10,000 pages of regulations.
The Politic: Given the current political atmosphere, what are your thoughts on the GOP and how do you see the Republican Party changing in the coming years?
I think that it’s important for both parties to recognize that we need to be doing things to help everybody. I think the GOP needs to really brand themselves as the “party of opportunity.” What has happened with the Democrats, unknowingly I believe, is that they have maintained a lot of the downtrodden in a depressed situation. What you really have to do is provide people with a hand up, a way to utilize their resources and turn their resources into helping the community. There are a number of economic things to empower people. We need to be concentrating on those kinds of things, not on, “somebody did you wrong.” It’s this arrogance that is permeating our society, as opposed to the “can-do” attitude that characterizes how America rose to the pinnacle of the world.
The Politic: On the note of Washington doing what’s best for the American people, how would you evaluate the Republican and Democratic leadership during the recent shutdown fiasco?
Well I think that the “my way or the highway” mindset is extremely immature. I find it extremely disappointing. I think that we just have to keep trying to show that there is a better way. That we all have to live here together, that we’re all in the same boat. We need to stop fighting so much. Many of the politicians are above this, and the American people are not each other’s enemies, but we have people who drive wedges into any crack that they can see. And they create wars — racial wars, age wars, gender wars, any kind of war that they can create — because it’s much easier to handle that than to deal with the whole problem. One of the things that I hope to do is to travel around the country and try to get people to realize that they are not each other’s enemies. They don’t know where the real enemies are. We should teach them how to identify those enemies. It doesn’t matter whether you are Republican or Democrat or Independent, those people are just not helpful.
The Politic: I know morals and family values have been a big part of your life. How do you integrate that into today’s political discussions?
Values are absolutely essential. The reason why America isn’t competing as well as in the past is because, in our public schools, we used to teach morals, we used to teach principles. We taught the difference between right and wrong. Our society today has become so politically correct that nothing is right and nothing is wrong, everything is relative. Because if you proclaim one thing to be right or wrong, you might hurt somebody. That is such an immature attitude and yet that permeates particularly universities where you have a lot of left-leaning faculty. I think if people thought through what they were teaching, they might be able to fix some of this. I think political correctness is anathema to a free society, and I would encourage everyone to read a book called “Rules for Radicals” by Saul Alinsky. He points out a lot of what is going on in America in that book.
The Politic: To wrap things up on somewhat of a light-hearted note, the Wall Street Journal recently published an op-ed titled “Ben Carson for President,” which stated, “Carson may not be politically correct, but he’s closer to correct than we’ve heard in years.” Have you ever considered a run for office?
It’s not something that I really want to do to be honest with you. Obviously I get a lot of pressure every place I go. What I see myself as is the voice of reason, helping to wake people up. Maybe someone will come along who really wants that title. I’m not the one who really wants to do that, but at the same time I also don’t want to run away from responsibility. I’d much prefer to learn how to play the organ and improve my golf game, but there are troubling things going on in this country and I would love to make this a better place for the future.