Presidential Campaign

Stop giving Ben Carson a pass on issues just because he’s a ‘brilliant’ surgeon

Greg Nash

So Ben Carson is a neurosurgeon. Maybe he’s even a “brilliant” neurosurgeon. Big deal.

His success in his field provides us with no indication of whether or not he would be a good president. Yet, for some reason the media has largely given him a pass on addressing substantive policy issues — is it because he’s smart and good at his profession?

Being good — even great — at one profession doesn’t mean that one will inevitably be good at another, let alone president. Smart isn’t enough, either. I’m an anthropologist and interested in people and what makes them tick. Also, over the years I’ve held a variety of jobs where I have met lots of smart people, and in my experience smart people come from all walks of life.

{mosads}I’ve been a university professor, a journalist, a carpenter, a bartender, a car salesman, a writer and a taxi driver. I’ve been on the same panels as Nobel Prize winners and members of the National Academy of Sciences. I’ve also interviewed and known National Book Award winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, poet laureates, NASA flight directors and musicians who have played Carnegie Hall and others who have led the charts for weeks on end. Toss in Olympic gold medalists, Cy Young Award winners, innumerable doctors, authors, scientists, engineers, bankers, financial advisers, successful businessmen and women, and more, and I can say that I have had the privilege of meeting a great many smart individuals. Are they all presidential material? Of course not.

Smart, in itself, isn’t enough. I know taxi drivers who are smarter than some of my former university professor colleagues. One of the smartest people I’ve ever met was a 20-something middle-school teacher with an advanced degree in Russian literature who was a stripper on weekends. She stripped because she could make more money stripping in a weekend than she could during the week teaching.

I’ve also met smart prostitutes, drug dealers and a variety of other criminals. Undoubtedly some of them are smarter than me, and probably you, too, dear reader.

Smart isn’t enough.

Sure, hard work, determination, taking advantage of opportunities, obeying the rules and making the best that life offers, might have made the drug dealer a neurosurgeon, or the cab driver the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Then again, lots of times life throws people a curve, and an alcoholic or sick parent, a failing school, or lack of economic opportunity, or a variety of other factors in the vicissitudes of life, get in the way of us being all we can be. People also make some very dumb decisions.

Smart isn’t enough. You also have to have been wired to sit in a seat all day and study. Not everyone is. You also have to be a scholar. In every one of the professions I’ve mentioned above that society approves of, values and rewards, one has to be a scholar to succeed.

To succeed in politics, one must be a scholar as well. Looking like a scholar isn’t enough — just ask former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) how those new glasses worked out. A good politician at the national level should be scholar of foreign and domestic relations, history, law, diplomacy — and the list goes on and on. When one considers the remaining Republican candidates for president who have held elective office, all are scholars to one degree or another. You can disagree with them, argue that they are wrong, but all are either up to speed on most of the issues, or are working at it. They have to. Not being a scholar can get one in trouble. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) campaign post-mortem says he wasn’t enough of a scholar to succeed, given that he wasn’t knowledgeable about immigration, foreign affairs or even the 14th Amendment. Some flip-flops come when people change their minds in a real way. Others come before people have fully learned about the issues and are making up their minds. Walker’s looked like the latter to me. He was learning — just not fast enough. And he was in the public eye.

How about our nontraditional candidates — those who have not held elective office? Their record is mixed. Sure, they’re all smart, but are they taking the time and effort to learn the issues? A president may have the best advisers possible, but if he doesn’t understand the issues so that he can interact with advisers, other world leaders and the public in an intelligent way, he is a mere figurehead, not a president.

Let’s begin with Donald Trump. Unfortunately, few expect him to study the issues. As I’ve written elsewhere, Trump serves the role of the mythological trickster in American politics. The trickster Trump has the intellect, or esoteric knowledge that others lack, to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behavior. The Republican Party has, to its great benefit or detriment, two tricksters. Trump and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. They revel in playing tricks, disobeying rules and conventional behavior. Trump doesn’t have to study. He plays by different rules. As does Palin. Which is sad.

Carly Fiorina owes her rise in the polls after the CNN debate in part to the fact that she did her homework; that she could study and learn — or at least she appeared to have done so by having lots of specific answers and recommendations. While others are saying she is prone to exaggeration — a video that she said exists doesn’t; she really doesn’t come from humble beginnings as she says; her “success” at Hewlett-Packard is less than she makes it out to be; and that she doesn’t really know what the Sixth Fleet is — she fooled me. For now, she appears to be smart and knowledgeable. A scholar. We’ll see what the future holds.

Carson is different. Smart, yes. A proven talent in his field, and a scholar. While he clearly prepared for his career, he appears to have done little or no preparation in his run for president, and the media are giving him a pass on it. During debates, he reminds me of the kid who sits in the back of the class who’s happy that he hasn’t been called on by the teacher. The less time he is allowed in the debates, the better he looks. And when he is called upon, his answers are invariably vague and general.

Furthermore, when he strays from his field, his “knowledge” is questionable — no, let me rephrase that: It’s plain wrong. His comments on the timing of vaccinations resulted in an immediate smackdown by the American Academy of Pediatrics. His perspectives on the human-related causes of climate change and the evolution of life on earth are far out of line with mainstream science. He’s an expert in his field — neuroscience — yet he presumes to doubt the conclusions of scientists in other fields in which he has no expertise. I doubt if he would appreciate a climate scientist casting doubt on his neurological expertise. Yet he has no hesitation in dismissing the work of others, despite his lack of training.

Carson is smart, and he’s shown that he knows how to study, but for some reason in his run for the presidency, he’s chosen not to. That should make Republican voters wary. While he has more than adequately demonstrated that he knows where to find a patient’s superior temporal gyrus in his or her cerebrum, he’s given us no indication that he has any idea even of the location of Iran on a map, let alone how best to deal with the Iranians.

And given his recent statement on Muslims and the presidency, he’s also shown us that he hasn’t put his reading glasses on and spent much time studying the most important of all American documents — the Constitution.

Leonard is an anthropologist who covers politics for KNIA/KRLS Radio in Knoxville and Pella, Iowa. He is the author of Yellow Cab.

Tags 2016 presidential campaign 2016 Republican primary Ben Carson Carly Fiorina Donald Trump outsider Scott Walker

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