WASHINGTON: Ben Carson soared to the top of the 2016 Republican presidential heap with a compelling personal narrative, but questions about his past and disputes about a military scholarship threaten to disrupt his high-flying campaign.
The retired doctor has riveted audiences for months with vivid descriptions of how he lived a violent adolescence — including trying to murder a classmate when he was a teenager — before overcoming his pathological anger to become a world renowned neurosurgeon.
His political outsider candidacy has gained momentum, and he finds himself essentially tied with brash billionaire Donald Trump in the race for the Republican nomination, besting establishment candidates like Jeb Bush.
But his campaign success has begun to draw closer scrutiny from observers and US media diving deeper into Carson’s claims about his volatile background growing up poor in Detroit.
The digging has found discrepancies, inconsistencies and, in the latest revelations on Friday, apparent falsifications.
Carson’s campaign acknowledged that the Republican co-frontrunner’s account of earning admission to the prestigious US Military Academy at West Point was wrong, Politico reported.
Carson has made West Point an inspirational part of his personal narrative, writing about it in his autobiography, “Gifted Hands.”
In that account, he said that as a prominent high school senior in the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in Detroit, he got to meet famed general William Westmoreland.
“I had dinner with him and the Congressional Medal winners. Later I was offered a full scholarship to West Point,” Carson wrote in his book.
But according to Politico, West Point said it had no record of Carson applying or being offered admission. An education at the US Army’s premier school for prospective officers is free for all its students, so there are no scholarships per se.
“If he chose to pursue (the application process) then we would have records indicating such,” academy spokeswoman Theresa Brinkerhoff told Politico.
Carson’s campaign manager, Barry Bennett, told the news outlet in an email that Carson “was introduced to folks from West Point by his ROTC supervisors.”
“They told him they could help him get an appointment based on his grades and performance in ROTC. He considered it but in the end did not seek admission.”
Politico wrote that Carson’s team admitted that the West Point element in Carson’s personal narrative had been “fabricated,” which drew a heated reaction from the campaign.
“He never said he was admitted or even applied,” Carson spokesman Doug Watts said in a statement published on The Daily Caller’s website.
Carson himself spoke of West Point on August 13 when, in response to a voter’s question, he posted on Facebook that he “was thrilled to get an offer from West Point. But I knew medicine is what I wanted to do.”
Carson has spoken often of his turbulent childhood, and overcoming his violent tendencies.
He has described trying to stab a classmate, only to learn that the boy’s belt buckle broke the blade before it entered his abdomen. He has mentioned numerous other violent episodes.
On Friday, after CNN reported it could not find any of the victims, he conceded to the cable broadcaster that “I changed the names” of several of the victims to respect their privacy.
But he insisted the incidents had occurred, and suggested US media was concocting “lies” about him.
“I think it’s pathetic and basically what the media does is they try to get you distracted with all of this stuff so that you don’t talk about the things that are important,” Carson said.
Presidential expert Peter Kastor, a professor of Washington University in St. Louis, offered a message for White House seekers: get used to it.
“They should expect scrutiny,” Kastor told Agence France-Presse.
“Presidential candidates since John F Kennedy have put their private lives on public display for public purpose,” and the media remains duty-bound to investigate them, he said.