A few months back, I reviewed Ben Carson’s latest book, One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future—and before reading that, I pored over a pretty good chunk of his prior work, America the Beautiful: Remembering What Made This Nation Great. But I confess that I was looking for bread crumbs that would lead me to a better understanding of Carson’s political philosophy—not scrutinizing his sources. So, for the moment, dear readers, I’ll leave it to you to judge the gravity of Carson’s alleged plagiarism, which was reported Wednesday by BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, Ilan Ben-Meir and Megan Apper.
My take, after one pass, is that a few of the examples they cite do appear to be somewhat egregious. Other examples, less so. And as Kaczynski, Bein-Meir and Apper point out, some authors have already made allowances for Carson’s borrowing a few of their words. But it seems clear, at least, that in a few instances, Carson extracted language from other writers without providing complete attribution.
Not a good look for him, at all, whether or not you’re sympathetic to his politics.
If you want to ponder the broader implications of plagiarism, I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s meditation on “Something Borrowed,” or this concise primer from the Columbia Journalism Review. Better journalistic minds than I can render a verdict on the severity of what BuzzFeed uncovered.
And if you want to ruminate on the comprehensiveness of BuzzFeed’s reporting, I’ll only remind you that Kaczynski, in particular, excels at the deep dive. It was he who first brought to light evidence of serial inconsistencies between Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign rhetoric and his policy positions as a sitting governor.
All I can add is that this story only further convinces me that if Carson embarks on a 2016 presidential bid—which he says he’ll decide on by May of this year—he may wind up proving to be unprepared for the scrutiny that comes with that territory.
He’s a brilliant surgeon—the first to successfully separate twins conjoined at the head. And he became an instant sensation among movement conservatives after ripping the Affordable Care Act at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast—while President Barack Obama sat just a few feet away.
But as I wrote last May, Carson is “more pundit than politician,” and he’s taken some verbal missteps—his comments on Obamacare and slavery, his inartful response to the Ray Rice case and chalking up societal ills to “women’s lib”—and now he’s treading into uncharted territory: generally getting something like 8 percent against the field in various Republican polls, but seriously entertaining a White House run, even though he’s never tackled the challenges of standing for elected office of any kind—local, state or national.
Challenges like having every inch of your record, personal and professional, combed over by reporters, whose job it is to suss out candidates’ viability—and credibility.
My guess is that if no other explanation is forthcoming, and if there are no further allegations, then once the dust settles, Carson will offer mea culpas, add some footnotes to the next edition of his book—which, BuzzFeed notes, is what Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) did after he faced accusations of plagiarism—and then put it behind him.
This, though, isn't good news for a guy who’s getting set to launch a national campaign on the general premise that he’s an outsider who’s driven by patriotism, common sense and individual achievement.
Be assured that if he throws his hat in the ring, he’ll be an engaging presence on the debate stage in the GOP primaries. But his appeal isn’t based on public-policy accomplishments or practical experience. It’s based on the narrative that he’s an American icon, untainted by the political process. And the idea that he may have been blasé about attribution while penning one of his books doesn’t bode too well.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.