People may recall the famous interview that Katie Couric had with Sarah Palin when the latter had just burst on the national stage as John McCain’s pick as his running mate in 2008, a choice that will doom him forever as one of the worst judges of running mates in modern politics. In response to an innocuous question as to what seemed like a softball question about what publications she reads to keep up with world affairs, Palin flailed around defensively. But when pressed for specific newspapers, she memorably said “All of them”. That answer sealed the impression that she just does not read much at all.
Here is that brief clip in all its cringe-worthy, classic Palinese.
What became clear in 2008 is that Palin was not only ignorant but what was much worse, pretty much unteachable, so increasingly confident about her ability to blind her adoring fans by stringing together meaningless word salads that she felt no need to try and get up to speed on important issues. New information seemed to just flow around her leaving no lasting impression.
Mover over Sarah, you have competition. Ben Carson had a Palin moment last Sunday. He had called for the US to create an international coalition to fight ISIS. When asked as to which nations he would call first to join, he goes into classic Palin word salad mode to avoid answering the question but when pressed three times, he finally replies “All of them”. Watch, beginning at the 2:00 mark.
But it seems like the problem is not that Carson was surprised by what was an obvious question. He has advisors on foreign policy and he had been prepped on this (and also against his unsubstantiated claim that there were Chinese military personnel in Syria) but that he had just refused to listen.
Faced with increasing scrutiny about whether Mr. Carson, who leads in some Republican presidential polls, was capable of leading American foreign policy, two of his top advisers said in interviews that he had struggled to master the intricacies of the Middle East and national security and that intense tutoring was having little effect.
“Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,” said Duane R. Clarridge, a top adviser to Mr. Carson on terrorism and national security.
Mr. Clarridge, who contacted Mr. Carson nearly two years ago to offer his services without pay, has helped the candidate prepare for debates. But the briefings do not always seem to sink in, Mr. Clarridge said. After Mr. Carson struggled on “Fox News Sunday” to say whom he would call first to form a coalition against the Islamic State, Mr. Clarridge called Mr. Williams in frustration. “We need to have a conference call once a week where his guys roll out the subjects they think will be out there, and we can make him smart,” Mr. Clarridge said he told Mr. Williams.
As Kevin Drum says:
This seems to be Carson’s MO. One way or another, he decides what he believes. Glyconutrients are a miracle. Hitler took away people’s guns. The Chinese are in Syria. Hydrogen cars will fix global warming. And once he’s fixated on something, that’s it. He just isn’t interested in learning any more. You can brief him until you’re blue in the face, but it’s water off a duck. He’s already made up his mind.
I wonder what happened to make him this way? It seems clear that he wasn’t always like this. Did this change occur slowly? Or was there some dramatic event that changed his worldview? We’ll probably never know. But it leaves him wide open to every weird idea and kooky conspiracy theory out there if it happens to press one of his buttons. Usually characters like this are relegated to post-midnight talk radio or sending out chain emails about Obama getting ready to declare martial law. But this one is running for president. And winning.
Matt Taibbi has an entertaining update on the current mad state of the Republican primary race. After providing amusing sketches of Jeb! Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and Carly Fiorina, he gets into full stride with a priceless synopsis of the Ben Carson phenomenon, a subject that is the basis of endless fascination
Enter Ben Carson. Reporters early on in the summer thought he was a Jerzy Kosiński character, a nutty doctor who had maybe gotten lost on the way to a surgical convention and accidentally entered a presidential race. In the first debate, he looked like an amnesiac who might at any moment reach into his pocket, find a talisman reminding him of his true identity, and walk offstage.
Then he started saying stuff. First there was that thing about using drones on immigrants crossing the border. Then people began picking apart old stories he’d told, like that a Yale professor in a psych class called “Perceptions 301” had once given him $10 for being honest (nobody remembers that class), or that he’d helped hide frightened white high school students in a lab in Detroit during race riots (nobody remembers that, either).
Everyone who’s ever been to an American megachurch recognizes the guy who overdoes the “before” portion of his evangelical testimony, telling tall tales about running with biker gangs or participating in coke orgies (this is always taking place somewhere like Lubbock or suburban Topeka) before discovering Jesus.
As some ex-evangelicals have pointed out, Carson fits this model. He claims in his autobiography, Gifted Hand, that he once tried to stab someone named “Bob,” failing only because he accidentally hit a belt buckle. Also, he told reporters decades ago that as a youth he attacked people with “bats and bricks” and hammers. The hammer victim was apparently his mother.
In Gifted Hands, none of this stuff seems any more real than the book’s other inspirational passages, like the one where as a college student he prays to God about being broke and gets immediate relief as he walks across campus. “A $10 bill lay crumpled on the ground in front of me,” he wrote (the magical $10 bill is a recurring character in Carsonia).
Soon, reporters were interviewing childhood friends, who were revealing what is clear if you read between the lines of Carson’s book, which is that he was probably never anything but a nerd with an overheated imagination. “He was skinny and unremarkable,” a classmate named Robert Collier told CNN. “I remember him having a pocket saver.”
Carson lashed out at reporters for doubting his inspirational tale of a homicidal, knife-wielding madman turned convivial brain surgeon. “I would say to the people of America: Do you think I’m a pathological liar like CNN does?” he said.
This bizarre state of affairs led to stories in the straight press that were indistinguishable from Onion fare. “Ben Carson Defends Himself Against Allegations That He Never Attempted to Murder a Child,” wrote New York magazine, in perhaps the single funniest headline presidential politics has ever seen.
Next, BuzzFeed reporters unearthed an old speech of Carson’s in which he outlined a gorgeously demented theory about the Egyptian pyramids: They were not tombs for Pharaohs, but rather had been built by the biblical Joseph to store grain. The latter idea he accepted after discarding the obvious space-aliens explanation.
“Various scientists have said, ‘Well, you know there were alien beings that came down and they have special knowledge,'” he said. “[But] it doesn’t require an alien being when God is with you.”
Scientists were quick to point out all sorts of issues, like the pyramids not really being hollow and therefore really sucky places to store grain. Then there was the fact that the Egyptians wrote down what the pyramids were for in, well, writing.
The pyramid story sent the Internet, which specializes in nothing if not instant mockery, into overdrive. Carson quickly became perhaps the single funniest thing on Earth. The Wrap ran a piece about Carson being “mocked mercilessly” on social media, where other “Carson theories” quickly developed: that the Eiffel Tower was for storing French bread, brains were actually a fruit, and peanut butter can be used as spermicide, etc. The whole world was in on it. It was epic.
As Taibbi points out, in a normal election cycle, this unending stream of nonsense would have ended a candidacy but this year none of the rules seem to apply. Even Donald Trump is reduced to wailing plaintively.
Poor Trump now had to concede that someone else in the race was even more ridiculous and unhinged than he was. The campaign’s previously unrivaled carnival expert/circus Hitler was reduced to sounding like George Will as he complained somberly – and ungrammatically – about the attention the mad doctor was stealing away from him.
“With Ben Carson wanting to hit his mother on head with a hammer, stabb [sic] a friend and Pyramids built for grain storage,” Trump tweeted sadly, “don’t people get it?”
By the end of the first week of November, Carson did not experience, upon close scrutiny, an instant plunge in the polls, as previous front-runners-for-a-day like Rick Perry or Herman Cain had in years past. Instead, he remained atop the polls with Trump, having successfully convinced his followers that the media flaps were just liberal hazing of a black man who threatened leftist stereotypes. And so the beginning of the long-awaited “real race” stalled still another week.
Trump commented during a rally in Illinois: “You can say anything about anybody, and their poll numbers go up. This is the only election in history where it’s better off if you stabbed somebody. What are we coming to?”
What are we coming to indeed. The problem is that we are rapidly reaching the point where it ceases to be amusing and becomes alarming. Palin is rightly the butt of jokes because she is now far away from the seat of power but what if she had become vice-president, laying the groundwork for a future presidency? Few of us would be laughing.