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Ben Carson Pushes Back On Questions About His West Point Story

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson campaigning in Colorado last month.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson campaigning in Colorado last month.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson says he never applied to West Point, even though in his 1990s autobiography, Gifted Hands, he wrote that he had been offered a "full scholarship" to the prestigious military academy.

Here's a key passage from Carson's book:

"Later I was offered a full scholarship to West Point. I didn't refuse the scholarship outright, but I let them know that a military career wasn't where I saw myself going. As overjoyed as I felt to be offered such a scholarship, I wasn't really tempted. The scholarship would have obligated me to spend four years in military service after I finished college. ..."

Politico first reported the apparent inconsistency. But the Carson campaign disagrees with Politico's framing, going so far as to call the report "an outright lie." The Carson campaign suggested the discrepancy is a matter of semantics.

Carson "never said he was admitted or even applied" to West Point, according to Carson campaign spokesman Doug Watts.

The campaign said Carson was the top ROTC student in Detroit in 1969 and was invited to a banquet, where, he wrote in his book, he met with Gen. William Westmoreland, who had commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam and other military officials.

Here's part of the official campaign statement:

"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. There are 'Service Connected' nominations for stellar High School ROTC appointments. Again he was the top ROTC student in Detroit. I would argue strongly that an Appointment is indeed an amazing full scholarship."

Politico also put into question the timing of the meeting with Westmoreland — whether it was in May or February of that year. Carson, in his book, claims to have met Westmoreland on Memorial Day after being chosen to march in a Detroit parade. But, Politico notes:

"[A]ccording to records of Westmoreland's schedule that were provided by the U.S. Army, the general did not visit Detroit around Memorial Day in 1969 or have dinner with Carson. In fact, the general's records suggest he was in Washington that day and played tennis at 6:45 p.m. There are, however, several reports of an event in February of that year, similar to the one Carson described."

Watts, the campaign spokesman, said Carson was told "he could get in" to West Point, but that he never officially applied.

This version of the story is similar to a Facebook post from the former neurosurgeon turned presidential candidate in August, in which he wrote, "I knew medicine is what I wanted to do. So I applied to only one school (it was all the money I had). I applied to Yale and thank God they accepted me."

Carson's West Point story is the the latest episode in a string of seemingly shifting inspirational stories Carson often tells about his personal life.

CNN recently raised questions about what Carson claimed as a violent past. It interviewed nine of Carson's childhood neighbors and friends, who had no recollection of the angry man Carson often describes himself as on the campaign trail.

NPR's Brakkton Booker reported on Carson's early life and wrote, "He grew up poor in Detroit. His mother had a third-grade education and could not read. Carson initially didn't do especially well in school. His poor grades led some of his classmates to refer to him as 'dummy.' "

He was also teased for how he looked. "He was an easy mark because he wore these big glasses," former classmate Timothy McDaniel remembered. "He wasn't considered a very sharp dresser — mostly plain clothes, thick-soled shoes. His hair wasn't really stylish."

McDaniel also noted that Carson soon learned to give as good as he got. "Towards the end of the school year, he had become amazing at capping," McDaniel said. "To the point where all the people who used to cap on him stopped doing it; they didn't want to say a word about him."

Carson called the CNN story a "smear campaign" and said questions about his past are a "bunch of lies."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Domenico Montanaro
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.