Politics & Policy

Ben Carson Plans to Get Paid at the Podium Long After His Presidential Campaign Kicks Off

The famed neurosurgeon's speaking schedule is highly unusual for a declared presidential candidate.

Though he’s promised to decide on a White House run in just a few weeks, Dr. Ben Carson will be picking up paychecks for speaking gigs well into next fall.

A spokesman for Carson’s presidential exploratory committee confirmed to National Review that the possible Republican candidate’s schedule includes paid speaking engagements running into the autumn of 2015 — many months after he’s expected to declare his official candidacy. By maintaining these commitments, the famous-neurosurgeon-turned-GOP-hopeful would break with long-standing practice discouraging presidential candidates from collecting cash at the podium.

Carson’s team is tight-lipped about how much he will earn from these scheduled engagements, and how much he’s earned from such engagements in the past. But the mere fact that Carson plans to continue giving paid speeches well into the fall could fuel speculation that his long-shot presidential run is primarily an attempt to raise his profile, with an eye toward attracting more highly paid speaking gigs in the future.

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Carson has flirted with a presidential run ever since the White House Prayer Breakfast in February 2013, when the doctor criticized liberal policies just feet from President Obama and instantly became a conservative folk hero. The very next day he told Fox News’s Sean Hannity he would run “if the Lord grabbed me by the collar and made me do it.”

Within a year and a half he’d written two books on U.S. politics, one a nationwide bestseller. In January he promised to decide on a White House run “before May 1.” By March, he’d launched an exploratory committee and expanded his ground game in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But despite all this, Carson seems hesitant to give up his proceeds as a public speaker. He attended at least two paid speaking engagements in the first week of April alone, interspersing these events with political appearances.

Carson spoke at Michigan’s Alma College on April 1, with the university charging $20 per person to fill out its 1,300-seat auditorium. A university spokesman said the talk focused on risk-taking and the doctor’s career in medicine — not politics — and would not disclose how much money Carson earned.

#related#On April 7, Carson spoke at the Right to Life of Southwest Indiana’s annual fundraiser in Evansville, Ind., billed as the largest pro-life banquet in the United States. The group’s director also would not disclose how much he was paid to speak. The event was flanked by two political appearances — an April 6 talk at a New Hampshire diversity forum on affordable health care, and an April 8 speech to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network convention in New York City.

Carson’s speaking career is run through the Washington Speakers Bureau, a D.C.-based agency that books the renowned African-American neurosurgeon for talks with titles such as “Gifted Hands,” “THINK BIG,” and “One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future.”

The Washington Speakers Bureau website no longer offers a price range for Dr. Carson’s time, and the agency ignored a phone request for comment. But a January report by NR’s Jim Geraghty said Carson was previously listed as a “level 6” speaker, charging over $40,000 per speech.

“If he’s booked through the Washington Speakers Bureau, he’s being paid,” says Armstrong Williams, Carson’s business manager. While confirming to NR that the doctor continues to give paid speeches, Williams says they were all booked far in advance. “It’s a contractual situation,” he explains, adding that those trying to schedule Carson’s political appearances “get the crumbs left over from scheduling — we have to work with the crumbs.”

Williams insists that no new paid speeches had been put on Carson’s schedule since July 2014. “Everything, with the exception of two or three [paid engagements], will be cleared off the calendar” by May, he says.

But Doug Watts, communications director for Carson’s exploratory committee, tells NR that Carson’s business office continued scheduling paid speaking engagements through January 2015. He also says Carson is set to give an unspecified number of paid speeches extending into next fall.

It’s unusual for presidential candidates to deliver paid speeches after officially declaring their intent to run. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee continued to give paid talks throughout his 2008 candidacy. But candidates in both parties almost always clear their paid speaking schedules in advance of a presidential announcement — both to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest and to safeguard the tax-exempt status of some of their hosts.

Watts says Carson will decide for certain on a presidential run by the first week of May. “If he decides to run, obviously he won’t continue any kind of booking for paid speeches,” he says.

He adds that Carson recently decided to give up prearranged speaking fees for the April 6 health-care forum in New Hampshire, which was hosted by the National Cultural Diversity Awareness Council. “That was an obligation he had for several months, and he decided not to charge at all,” Watts says.

But for other paid speaking engagements extending into the fall, Watts says Carson’s hands may be tied. “There is a third party involved, the Washington Speakers Bureau,” he says, “and I have no idea what those contracts allow and require, and what kind of flexibility there is in there or not.”

“I’m not sure how that is going to be treated,” Watts says. “I’m sure it will get another look, or two or three, if he were to make up his mind to run.”

Brendan Bordelon is a media reporter for National Review.

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