With Ben Carson a contender, a look at wife Candy

Candy Carson, Ben Carson
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This is the second in a semi-regular series on the spouses of presidential candidates. Other installments profiled Jane O'Meara Sanders, Frank Fiorina and Jeanette Rubio.

Lacena "Candy" Carson, 62, has said that being married to renowned brain surgeon, Ben Carson, 64, was not easy. He worked long hours as the director, for 29 years, of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital; at age 33, the first African-American and youngest doctor to hold that position.

Candy stayed home and raised their three sons, now adults, mostly by herself. She told Megyn Kelly of Fox News earlier this month that "sometimes I felt like a single mom because he wasn't around most of the time."

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If a doctor can be a superstar, Carson certainly qualifies. He developed an international reputation for his "gifted hands" (the title of his bestselling 1989 autobiography), the first to separate, in a 22-hour surgery in 1987, twins conjoined at the head and sharing blood vessels in the brain; the first to treat, in utero, a hydrocephalic fetal twin. He was also the surgeon who helped revive the use of hemispherectomies on young children, removing half of the brain from those suffering from uncontrolled seizures.

In 2008, President George W. Bush presented Carson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has received honorary doctorates from more than 50 schools, among them Yale and Columbia. His entry in Who's Who is one of the longest I've ever seen.

Although Candy has remained in the background, her story, like his, is a tale of excelling despite tough childhood circumstances. She was one of five siblings in inner-city Detroit, daughter of a teacher and a factory worker, and, in her words, "grew up poor." Yet she studied classical violin and won a scholarship to Yale University, where she triple-majored in music, psychology and pre-med and played in the Yale Symphony Orchestra and the Bach Society.

In her sophomore year in New Haven, she met her husband, then a senior and also from Detroit. Soon after Ben graduated in 1972, he entered medical school at the University of Michigan. They married upon Candy's graduation in 1975, and, post-medical school, moved to Baltimore, where he did his Johns Hopkins internship and residency and eventually made his career. Along the way, she earned an MBA from Johns Hopkins University and, according to the National Review, "arranged and conducted for several groups including the University of Maryland Medical Center Chamber Players."

In 1994, with her husband, she cofounded the Carson Scholars Fund, a nonprofit that started by awarding one scholarship to a student in each Maryland county, but now awards scholarships in 50 states and the District of Columbia. The recipients are young people who exhibit high academic achievement and good character.

She helped Ben write the bestselling A More Perfect Union: What We the People Can Do to Reclaim Our Constitutional Liberties, published this month; One Vote: Make Your Voice Heard, (2014); One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America's Future (2014); and America the Beautiful: Rediscovering What Made This Nation Great (2012). (She is usually referred to as coauthor of these books, when, in fact, she gets much less than equal cover credit; a much smaller byline than her husband's, and a "with" instead of an "and.")

By 2001, the Carsons had definitely joined the "1 percent," living on 48 acres in what Baltimore magazine described as an "estate" (eight bedrooms, 12 bathrooms). Ben's mother, Sonya, to whom he attributes his life's success, lived with them in her own suite.

The accolades for Ben kept coming: In the TNT made-for-TV adaptation of Gifted Hands, filmed in Detroit and debuted in 2009, Cuba Gooding Jr. played Ben, Aunjanue Ellis played Candy and Kimberly Elise played Sonya Carson.

In 2013, Ben retired and he and Candy moved to West Palm Beach, Fla. Part of the reason for the move, he told The Palm Beach Post, was to escape the "enormous taxes" he paid in Maryland. 

Candy savored the idea of relaxed time with her husband, but something big got in the way. At the bipartisan and normally nonpolitical 2013 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, when Ben stood up to speak — President Obama just two seats away on the dais — he blasted political correctness, warned that the U.S. was descending down the path of ancient Rome and that Obama's healthcare law was "the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery." Carson became a darling of ObamaCare's opponents in particular and of conservatives in general. The courage or tone-deafness of it — depending on one's point of view — catapulted him into an unlikely run for the White House. (The speech so impressed The Wall Street Journal's editorial writers that the paper ran an editorial, "Ben Carson for President.")

Candy told Megyn Kelly that while she will support her husband's calling “100 percent. ... This is not something that I was looking to do. After giving up my husband for 40 years to medicine, I really don't want to give him up to our country."

Ben formally announced last May at the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Detroit, with Candy at his side. She played "The Star-Spangled Banner" on the violin in front of a gospel choir.

Like her husband, Candy is deeply religious and worships as a Seventh-day Adventist. (Last Sunday, appearing at a Faith and Freedom Coalition forum at the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, Ben told the megachurch's audience that he became a great doctor after he decided, "God, you be the neurosurgeon; I'll be the hands.")

Unlike spouses of many of the other candidates of both parties, Candy has hit the trail for her husband, campaigning on her own, for example, at New Hampshire's Grace Capital Church, described by a Boston Globe reporter as "New Hampshire's version of a megachurch." Candy, on the violin, led a sing-along to "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and "How Great Thou Art."

Her television appearances, including one on "The View," show a spouse who seems to enjoy campaigning and explaining her soft-spoken husband to the public. She also showed a sense of humor, mentioning that last July she and Ben "celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in New Hampshire with '600 of [their] closest friends,'" as noted by the Daily Mail.

Predictably, Candy, who has an outgoing, bubbly personality, was soon being compared to Michelle Obama. It started last September with syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin, who cast Candy as the "anti-Michelle Obama" who is "always smiling" to Michelle's "East Wing politics of mope and complain" and "dour disposition." Malkin, a regular on Fox News, also described Candy as "devoutly Christian and proudly patriotic," while Michelle Obama "carp[ed] about racism and trash[ed] America."

Rupert Murdoch, founder and CEO of News Corp. (which owns Fox News), also weighed in, tweeting "Ben and Candy Carson terrific" after watching the couple's Oct. 6 interview with Megyn Kelly. Murdoch continued, "What about a real black President who can properly address the racial divide? And much else." (After a twitter outrage erupted, Murdoch tweeted, "Apologies! No Offense meant. Personally find both men charming.")

Candy told Kelly that she survives attacks on her husband by not watching "a lot of news." Yet she sounded so well-prepped, almost like a campaign operative: "[W]hen I look at our grandchildren [the Carsons have two granddaughters] and you think of that deficit that we have, the huge debt, $18.5 trillion to pay it off at a rate of $10 million a day would take you 5,000 years. To saddle them with that kind of debt? We're the first generation in the history of this country to make it worse for the next one."

As first lady, her main issue would likely be education, and she would probably make separation of church and state purists nervous by wearing her evangelical faith on her sleeve. And speaking of her sleeves, with her matronly style, she would likely not be a darling of the fashion designers, particularly not the edgy ones who compete to dress Michelle Obama.

Is there a real possibility that she could be Michelle Obama's successor?

Her husband holds some highly controversial views on major issues — Americans would "simply tithe" for taxes, with a 10 to 15 percent flat tax and no exemptions or deductions; universal preschool is "indoctrination"; political correctness is akin to Nazi Germany; homosexuality is not only akin to pedophilia and bestiality, but it is also a choice as proven by "a lot of people who go into prison straight, and when they come out they're gay"; climate change is a myth; the theory of evolution a bunch of "incredible fairytales"; and had Jewish Germans not been disarmed by their government, the horrific impact of the Holocaust might have been "greatly diminished."

But still, Ben Carson is a serious contender. He stands now, in the number of states in which he leads in fundraising, as second behind Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

And in the polls, he is battling Donald Trump for first place among Republicans. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released on Monday, Trump had 25 percent support to Carson's 22 percent. But when respondents were asked if "they could imagine themselves supporting" Trump, 64 percent they could, compared to 74 percent who could support Carson.

And for the first time, a Quinnipiac University poll released this week has Carson topping Trump 28 to 20 percent of "likely Republican caucus-goers" in Iowa. Just in time for the caucuses on Feb. 1, Candy Carson will be promoting her own book — a memoir titled A Doctor in the House: My Life with Ben Carson, which will be published in January.

Felsenthal is a political blogger and contributing editor for Chicago magazine. She has written biographies of Katharine Graham and President Clinton and profiles on former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and Roger Ebert, among others. Contact her at carolfelsenthal@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @cfelsenthal.

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