[August 19, 2015]
[Note the Update, below]
In 1992 I was the Vice President for Communications of the Vote Know Coalition. This organization had been formed to coordinate a referendum campaign against a new Maryland law, one that had repealed a handful of consumer-protection laws related to abortion. (For example, this new law repealed the prohibition against paying kickbacks for abortion referrals, and another statute requiring abortion customers to be given a pamphlet listing alternatives-to-abortion resources.) We gained a record-breaking number of signatures and brought this law to referendum; we urged voters to “Vote No on Question 6.”
Election Day that year was November 3. In September we asked Dr. Ben Carson, then a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins, if he would tape a commercial for us. At that point he was becoming a familiar figure in Christian circles, but had not taken a public stand on abortion. He agreed to do the ad, and we faxed the script back and forth (in those pre-email days) until it said what he wanted to say.
On the evening of September 17, I met Dr. Carson at Flite 3 studios in Baltimore. He sat on a stool in front of a white backdrop and did take after take, about 30 in all.
A few days later the 30-second spot went live. It ran for10 days, as scheduled, was then replaced by a different ad.
On the eleventh day, October 1, we gathered around the office TV, stunned to see Dr. Carson speaking at a press conference called by our opponents. He stood behind a podium that displayed their name, “Maryland for Choice.” He was there to repudiate the ad. He claimed that he didn’t know that it would be a political ad. He said that he didn’t know that it would end, “Vote against Question 6.”
That made no sense. Every version of the script we worked on included the line at the end. Our very name, “Vote Know,” stated our political purpose. Nothing had been concealed.
We were also bewildered that he had not made any attempt to contact us before taking this dramatic step. The ad had been running for 10 days, but he had not phoned or contacted us in any way. We didn’t know anything was wrong was until we saw him standing behind a sign that read “Maryland for Choice.”
We immediately tried to reach him, but he avoided our calls. We never did succeed in making contact with him again. A pro-life doctor who was helping with the campaign, a friend of Dr. Carson, said he had tried to talk with him about it, but had just hit a stone wall.
This doctor had a theory, though. It was that Dr. Carson was still pretty new to talking about his pro-life beliefs, and had been caught wholly off guard by the flood of anger he received from pro-choice colleagues. This doctor told me he’d urged Dr. Carson to stand strong, and accept that such attacks just come with the territory. Dr. Carson had made a different choice.
All of this is a long time ago now. I bring it up only because I’m told the incident has come up in interviews, and that Dr. Carson is still saying that we deceived him. Well, it’s not surprising that he remembers things the way he stated them at the time. That’s not how we who were involved remember it, though. The only evidence I can offer is that I wrote up the story just a couple of months after it happened, in an essay for the journal Human Life Review. You’ll find the link here, and can scroll down to # 4 to read the account. I’ll also paste in the relevant passage here, below.
It’s not surprising that someone unused to defending the pro-life position could be knocked sideways by the fury of friends and colleagues, and that any exit from the situation could seem inviting. I’ll never forget how it looked, to see him standing behind a “Maryland for Choice” sign. But, as I said, that’s a long time ago. In the following decades Dr. Carson has become skilled and courageous in presenting his pro-life views. Everyone needs time to grow.
I would like to be able to be really enthusiastic about his candidacy, and am waiting only to hear him formulate a stand on legal protection for the unborn. It is one thing to feel a sincere revulsion toward abortion; but someone who steps from private life into the realm of public governance steps necessarily into the realm of lawmaking—of justice. The minimum purpose of any government is to protect the weak from violence at the hands of the strong. I look forward to hearing Dr. Carson’s stand on securing protection for children from the moment of conception, and I hope to become an enthusiastic supporter of his campaign.
[Below—here is how I wrote up the story a couple of months after it happened, in an essay for Human Life Review]
From “The Question of Question 6,” published in the Human Life Review, Spring 1993
… 4. You never know who your friends aren’t.
Our first TV commercial was going to be a humdinger: Dr. Ben Carson, the internationally famous pediatric neurosurgeon, had agreed to appear. Dr. Carson, besides being Johns Hopkins Hospital’s favorite son, was well known in evangelical circles for his inspirational/autobiographical books, and guested on the 700 Club. Was he pro-life? Well, apparently sort of a new pro-lifer. But that didn’t matter. We’d always said, you don’t have to be pro-life to hate this law.
After Dr. Carson agreed to do the spot, the faxes were busy with copies of the law, draft scripts, and revisions. We went over the points we wanted to make about this complex law in that short 30-second span, and rewrote the ad several times till it matched the doctor’s gentle, laid-back manner. After a week of such exchanges, we met at a cavernous soundstage to tape the spot. For some thirty takes, this soft-spoken black doctor sat on a stool on the simple set and repeated the words he had helped compose.
For ten days his ad ran, and we prayed for him, aware that he must be taking plenty of heat from his generally-liberal colleagues. Then, on the day the ad was due to be replaced with our second spot, we heard that Dr. Carson was appearing at a press conference.
The conference was being held by our opponents, Maryland for Choice. There Dr. Carson stood up and explained that we had misled and pressured him. He hadn’t realized that it would be a political ad. He didn’t know that the tag line, “Vote against Question 6” would be part of the spot (though it had appeared on every version of the script). The statements we had him make about the law needed further explanation to be made fully accurate.
The hurts here are too many to number. If Dr. Carson had concerns after taping the spot, he never phoned us. Though we could have helped him prepare responses against the criticism that no doubt assailed him, we were never given the chance. It was not just that he had second thoughts about the ad, but that he stood at Maryland for Choice’s podium to say so. We were bewildered and greatly saddened. And of course, “Even Dr. Carson says you lied” became the inaccurate epithet thrown at us till the end of the campaign.
Dr. Carson never contacted us again. We heard that in October he addressed a citywide revival crowd of 40,000 to reiterate that we had misled him and they should vote for the referendum. Last week I attended a play at my sons’ Christian school to mark Black History Month; one of the skits was a admiring presentation of Dr. Carson’s work. There are no words for how this feels, except the ancient ones: “If it were an enemy who taunts me, then I could bear it; but it is you, my familiar friend…”(Psalm 55:12). …
UPDATE: On the day I posted this to my website, I received a phone call from someone connected with the Carson campaign, and later on I had a half-hour conversation with Dr. Carson himself.
Dr Carson is very low key and gentle, which comes across so obviously in his voice and manner. He explained that he really wasn’t pro-life in 1992; he became convinced on the issue only in 1998 or so, after hearing a comparison made to the slavery question: What would have happened if the abolitionists said, “I am personally opposed to slavery, but others should decide for themselves whether to keep slaves”? It also seemed to me that Dr Carson is a strongly commited Christian; he referred several times to God being in charge, and trusting the Lord. I’m very glad we had that conversation and cleared the air.
Initially they asked me to keep the phone call confidential, but after I received a phone call from a reporter researching the story, I asked for and received permission to tell it now.