Controversial address vaults Hopkins' Carson into political arena

Dr. Ben Carson says he didn't anticipate the reaction to what he considered his common-sense remarks as keynote speaker this month at the National Prayer Breakfast.

But after video went viral of the trailblazing black neurosurgeon taking jabs at Barack Obama's health care overhaul a few feet from the president himself, some want the famed doctor at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to parlay the attention into a new career: politics.

"Here you have this guy who has been a celebrity minority for 30 years coming out and making the conservative case better than a lot of conservatives can," said Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for National Review Online. "Emotionally, that had a really big impact for a lot of people."

While some objected to Carson raising health care and tax policy at the traditionally nonpolitical Washington breakfast, conservative heavyweights Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter all cheered his address.

The Wall Street Journal published an editorial with the headline "Ben Carson for President."

Fame isn't new to Carson. The 61-year-old Detroit native, who rose from a childhood of inner-city deprivation to become the youngest person to lead a major division at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the first surgeon anywhere to separate conjoined twins, has written bestselling books about his life, his faith and success.

His memoir, "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story," was made into a television movie starring the Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. President George W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 2008.

But with his address at the annual breakfast, he has drawn a new level of attention to himself — and one he intends to use to reach a larger audience.

Carson, who plans to retire from surgery in June, says he has no interest in running for office. But he says he will use the new exposure to urge common sense, bipartisanship and a reversal of the "moral decay" that he says is eating away at the country.

"I have this feeling that as time goes on, we're not getting any more civilized, and we should be," he said in an interview. "We're still running around like the days of Genghis Khan. There are so many important, better things to do and we need to encourage people to reach into the brighter side of humanity and not encourage people to continue to glorify the darker side."

He won plaudits from the political right for his prayer breakfast call for the creation of health savings accounts at birth in place of what he considers the bureaucracy of Obama's health reform, and for the imposition of a flat tax that he likened to a biblical tithe to supplant a complex tax code that he said asks too much of the rich.

He also lambasted Washington for the $16.5 trillion national debt — evidence, he said, of hubris to rival that of ancient Rome.

Though he didn't mention it in his remarks, Carson adds same-sex marriage to his litany of the nation's problems.

Much of his address focused on a biblical argument for bipartisan cooperation.

Carson has been better known for his accomplishments than for his ideology. Speaking at the prayer breakfast in 1997, he described being raised by a poor, single mother who had been one of 24 children. He said he felt as if he was "the dumbest person in the world" before he gained confidence in his intellectual abilities.

He studied his way to Yale, and then to medical school at the University of Michigan, where he considered going into psychiatry before he realized his hand-eye coordination and spatial skills would make him an apt surgeon.

At the age of 33, he was named director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, where he led the team that performed the milestone conjoined twin surgery in 1987.

Along with this experience, he said, his Christian faith drives the practices that he preaches. Carson is a devout Seventh-day Adventist.

"I've had experiences in my life that leave no doubt in my mind about the fact that God exists," Carson said. "I'm quite willing to debate people who don't think so because I want them to explain to me how did our solar system get so organized and how is the universe so complex and yet well-organized that we can predict 70 years hence when a comet is coming?"

Carson is known for sharing his views plainly, said Carol James, a physician assistant at Hopkins who has worked alongside him for more than three decades and is godmother to his three sons.