It was a dreary day in Washington and, in the minds of the six people gathered in the Bullfinch room in the bowels of the Grand Hyatt hotel on H Street, it has been a dreary six years for the country. This week, they are making plans to change that.
They are the friends and associates of Ben Carson, the pediatric neurosurgeon with a Horatio Alger story that has captured the hearts of conservatives, and who now says he might run for president. That announcement would come in just six months, on May 1.
As Carson travels the country delivering speeches — in Kentucky on Tuesday, in Philadelphia on Wednesday — his confidants are interviewing a bevy of people, 35 in all, who in a matter of months may be staffing his presidential campaign, in every position from chief of staff to body man. They are here at the Hyatt for three days, before a two-day stint in New York City, and they are talking with security professionals, owners of airline charters, celebrity handlers, and, of course, political strategists.
“We believe in being prepared, and that requires a sophisticated and complex infrastructure if I decide to run,” Carson says in a phone interview. “It’s like the Boy Scouts: Be Prepared.” I ask him how much of a chance there is that he’ll run, and he ducks the question. But the midterm elections “pushed me closer,” he allows.
“People are starting to wake up,” he says.
Back at the Hyatt, Carson’s longtime friend, the Houston lawyer and businessman Terry Giles, is running the show. (I sat in on one of the interviews and talked with the team assembled there but agreed not to reveal the identities of the job candidates or to quote them.)
Giles and Carson met when they were inducted into the Horatio Alger Association in 1994. Like Carson, Giles grew up poor, and, as his family moved across St. Louis, he attended 21 schools in ten years. After founding a successful criminal-defense firm (he represented the notorious Hillside Stranglers), he moved into civil litigation and worked with a wide range of clients, including comedian Richard Pryor and Enron CEO Kenneth Lay. In 2010, he was appointed to mediate a dispute between Martin Luther King’s children. Oh, and he also runs a conglomerate that owns dozens of businesses.
A mention of the rapper cum actor LL Cool J, who is rumored to be a conservative, prompts the following from Giles: “They did an interview with him in Bon Appétit, and they asked him what’s the best meal he’s ever had, and he said it was at Château Eza. That’s a hotel my wife and I own. So, I don’t know him, but I like him.”
Giles is chairman of Carson’s super PAC, USA First, and should Carson decide to run, he will become the chairman of his campaign. He and his wife, Kalli O’Malley, are already planning a move to D.C. in April. “We fully expect him to run,” Giles tells one interviewee.
In the interview sessions, Giles sits on one side of a rectangular table, in the middle, flanked by his colleagues on each side. It’s a scene reminiscent of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice. To his left are Logan Delany, who would serve as CFO for a Carson presidential campaign, and Mike Murray, who would handle digital operations. To his right are Steve Rubino, the ad guy (“We hope to reinvent political ads,” Giles says); O’Malley, Giles’s wife and law partner; and Mike Nason, an advance man and former producer of the Reverend Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power, who traveled from California to be here (he met Carson when Carson appeared as a guest on the show).
At an interview that occurred over the lunch hour on Tuesday, Giles and the interviewee did most of the talking, including about Carson’s perceived weaknesses: They agree that Carson is quiet; he is measured; he doesn’t come across as a tough guy. “Maybe it’s because of what he’s done for a living his whole life, but he’s not given to tremendous emotional ups and downs,” Giles says. “He’s very steady, he’s very thoughtful, he’s very humble, and one of the things we’ve got to try to get across to the public, is — the thing I like about Ben is, first of all, I think he’s a great candidate in the general election for the Republicans.”
Right now, Carson is polling well. The latest CNN/ORC survey of Republican and independent voters has him in second place to Mitt Romney. That, of course, owes much to his visibility on Fox News and could change a lot as the primary takes shape, but Carson is the type of candidate who could pull off an upset in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina.
He is the un-Obama. If Obama was elected without having accomplished much of anything, Carson’s accomplishments — in 1987 he became the first physician to separate twins conjoined at the head — are undeniable. If Obama has lived a thoroughly political life, charting his path from community organizer to president in a matter of years, Carson made a name outside of politics and, until recently, inhabited a world apart from it. So thoroughly did he ignore the traditional rules of politics and decorum that he burst onto the national scene by delivering the president a verbal spanking as Obama sat just a few feet away at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013.
But, according to Giles, Carson may be the man to unite the country in 2016.
“Forget about Republicans and Democrats, we need a president of the United States who’s going to bring people together,” he says. “And the guy who’s going to do that is not going to be the fiery type, he’s not going to be the guy who [makes us] say, ‘Oh, wow, he’s full of passion up on that stage because he raises his voice or he’s angry.’ Ben is thoughtful, he’s inclusive, he’s a great listener. He has some skill sets that we as the public ought to be looking for in a president but so often don’t. So in our campaign, we’ve got to get that message across.”
Across town are the offices of Carson’s longtime business manager, the television and radio personality Armstrong Williams. He sits amid life-size cardboard cutouts of John McCain and Barack Obama. “I get to see the president every day,” he joked to me when I dropped by on Monday. Williams isn’t as excited as the rest of Carson’s associates about the prospect of a presidential bid. “I don’t think he should run for president — that’s not something that I would wish upon him or anybody else,” Williams says. “But I know that’s something that he’s contemplating.”
Williams is protective of his client and friend, whom he says he used to speak with every morning as Carson drove from his home to his office at Johns Hopkins. They have known each other for 25 years. I ask what he thinks of the criticism in conservative circles that, if Carson runs, he may be the Herman Cain of 2016, a political outsider with grassroots support who ultimately fumbles on the national stage. Williams jumps at the question.
“What’s a Herman Cain?” he asks, rhetorically. “Oh, no,” Williams says of Carson. “He’s different. He’s a surgeon.” It’s one of his favorite refrains, repeated often throughout our talk. Later, he is still miffed. Mike Nason arrives to meet him for lunch. Williams turns to him: “She asked me if he was going to be like Herman Cain. I said, ‘Herman who?’ 9-9-9? That sounds like an emergency call.”
“Now, tell her why you’re here so she knows I’m not pulling her leg,” Williams demands, referring to the interviews that are already under way at the Hyatt.
Cautious, Nason says, “I’m here to see Ben Carson,” even though he is also part of the interview process and has stepped away only momentarily.
“That’s not why you’re here,” Williams says. “You guys are interviewing!”
And so they are. At the Hyatt, Terry Giles talks about his ambition to build a campaign that is “completely out of the box.” It already is.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.