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Ben Carson's West Point, youth recollections come under question

Reuters logo Reuters 11/7/2015 Ginger Gibson

WASHINGTON, Nov 6 (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson's recollection of being offered a scholarship to the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point was questioned on Friday, potentially damaging the credibility of the 64-year-old retired neurosurgeon.

Also on Friday, Carson's account of how he attempted to stab a friend in his troubled youth came under renewed scrutiny.

Carson, a favorite of conservative activists, who is tied with Donald Trump at the top of Republican primary polls a year before the November 2016 presidential election, has often recounted both tales from his 1990 autobiography on the campaign trail, as he trumpets his rise from poverty in inner-city Detroit to the highest echelons of medicine.

On Friday, Carson's campaign said he never sought admission to West Point, while Carson himself gave a slightly different account of the stabbing incident, describing the boy he lunged at as a close relative instead of a friend.

"These are little things that get at his credibility," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who is not working for any of the 2016 presidential candidates. "He's coming in there as an outsider who is honest and a breath of fresh air. If his whole life story is undermined by these little inaccuracies it could have a negative effect."

Carson told Fox News his account of the West Point scholarship offer "could have been more clarified." He is planning to participate in a live interview on Sunday morning on CBS's "Face The Nation," where he will likely face tough questions.

"Voters care about candidate integrity," said Laura Stoker, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "But people - especially those who already favor Carson - will resist allegations until information is definitive."

Carson's supporters seemed unperturbed, and doubted whether the candidate had been inaccurate.

"If I had a general come up to me when I was 17 years old and try to convince me to go to West Point and he told me my expenses would be paid, I don't think it would be so far-fetched to think he offered me a scholarship," said Warren Galkin, 86, of Warwick, Rhode Island, who has given money to a political action committee supporting Carson's campaign.


In his autobiography, "Gifted Hands," Carson wrote that as a high school student he dined with General William Westmoreland in 1969. "Later I was offered a full scholarship to West Point," he wrote, saying that he turned it down. "As overjoyed as I felt to be offered such a scholarship, I wasn't really tempted."

Carson's campaign said on Friday that his grades and conversations with officials of the ROTC, which provides preliminary military training for students interested in becoming officers, constituted a de facto acceptance to the academy, which provides full scholarships to all of its students. But it said Carson never actually applied or was admitted to West Point.

(From left) Dr. Ben Carson, Greg Kinnear, Wen Yann Shih and Matt Damon pose for a photo at the Baltimore premiere of the movie ‘Stuck On You.’ Ben Carson: Life in photos "His Senior Commander was in touch with West Point and told Dr. Carson he could get in, Dr. Carson did not seek admission," Carson's campaign spokesman Doug Watts told Reuters in an email.

"Dr. Carson, as the leading ROTC student in Detroit, was told by his Commanders that he could get an Appointment to the Academy," Watts said. "He never said he was admitted or even applied."

West Point on Friday said there was no record of Carson completing an application for admission. It is possible someone nominated him for the academy, but that would only have been an early step in the multi-part process of admission.

"Candidate files where admission/acceptance was not sought are retained for three years; therefore we cannot confirm whether anyone during that time period was nominated to West Point if they chose not to pursue completion of the application process," West Point spokeswoman Theresa Brinkerhoff said in an email to Reuters.

"No one can enter the academy without completing the entire admission process," she added.

The differing accounts of Carson's West Point scholarship were first reported by political news website Politico, in a story headlined "Ben Carson admits fabricating West Point scholarship."

Carson's campaign contested that interpretation.

"The Politico story is an outright lie," Watts said in an email to Reuters. "The campaign never 'admitted to anything.'"


The fracas over West Point came only hours after Carson attacked the media for questioning his accounts of a violent past.

"This is a bunch of lies," Carson told CNN on Friday. "This is what it is, it's a bunch of lies attempting, you know, to say that I'm lying about my history. I think it's pathetic."

Dr. Ben Carson speaking in National Harbor, Maryland, March 8, 2014. © Susan Walsh/AP Photo Dr. Ben Carson speaking in National Harbor, Maryland, March 8, 2014. Carson, who is popular with evangelical voters, often speaks on the campaign trail about flashes of violence during his youth, casting the lessons he learned from that period as evidence he has the strength of character to be president.

In his autobiography, the renowned brain surgeon wrote that as a teen, he tried to stab a friend named Bob in the stomach with a knife, but the boy's belt buckle blocked the knife.

On Thursday on the campaign trail, when pressed by reporters about the incident and also in an interview with Fox News, Carson said that Bob's name, along with some other names in the autobiography, were pseudonyms that he used to protect the privacy of the people he was writing about.

He described Bob in the book as a friend and classmate. In the Fox News interview and on CNN, Carson said the boy was a "close relative."

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Additional reporting by Grant Smith in New York; Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Howard Goller and Leslie Adler)

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