Ben Carson and the comedic farce of Iotagate

     Republican presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson speaks at a news conference, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, in Henderson, Nev.  (AP Photo/John Locher)

    Republican presidential candidate, Dr. Ben Carson speaks at a news conference, Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, in Henderson, Nev. (AP Photo/John Locher)

    The revelation this week that Ben Carson knows squat about foreign policy was about as shocking as the news that Charlie Sheen is HIV positive. Still, let’s have some fun with the latest Carson farce, because, if nothing else, it’s a welcome comic break from contemplating ISIS.

    Let’s call it Iotagate. It’s a mini-scandal that ranks high in the annals of ignorance. It should also – but probably won’t – prompt the Republican electorate to strip this guy of his co-frontrunner status. Even at a time when so many GOP voters seem willing to dwell in a post-fact dream world, there surely can be no excuse for this particular spectacle. After all, we’re talking about our national security.

    When a presidential candidate repeatedly stumbles on the trail, it’s not unusual for one of his advisers to second-guess him in the press; the criticism is typically diplomatic, and the adviser typically insists on remaining anonymous. But that’s not what happened Tuesday night in The New York Times. I’ve covered national politics since 1988, and never saw anything like this before:

    “Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,” said Duane R. Clarridge, a top adviser to Mr. Carson on terrorism and national security. He also said Mr. Carson needed weekly conference calls briefing him on foreign policy so “we can make him smart.”

    A top adviser – a retired CIA spy – goes on the record, by name, to fault his own candidate for failing to process one iota of intelligent information….hence my term, Iotagate. Clarridge’s frustration is certainly understandable – Carson, in a Sunday appearance on Fox News, couldn’t name a single country that he’d call on to fight ISIS – but to out the boss as an empty vessel? Wow. And Carson’s top top adviser, Armstrong Williams, was only a tad kinder. Here’s what he said about Carson’s deer-in-headlights moment on Fox News: “He’s been briefed on it so many times. I guess he just froze.”

    But here comes the fun part. Let’s just say that these folks are ill-skilled in the art of damage control.

    Team Carson has reacted to Clarridge’s remark by trashing Clarridge. A flak now insists that Clarridge “is clearly not one of Dr. Carson’s top advisers.” Carson says that Clarridge is merely “a person who has come in on a couple of sessions to offer his opinion on what was going on. To call himself my adviser would be a great stretch.” And the team put out this priceless spin: “For the New York Times to take advantage of an elderly gentleman and use him as their foil in this story is an affront to good journalistic practices.”

    Why did The Times talk to Clarridge in the first place? Because Team Carson told the paper that Clarridge was worth talking to. The campaign gave the paper Clarridge’s name and phone number.

    Before Iotagate happened, Armstrong Williams described Clarridge as “a mentor for Dr. Carson.” And earlier this week, in the wake of the Fox News fiasco, the campaign felt that Carson could recoup by speedily devising a plan to fight ISIS. To make the candidate look smart, it began to craft a guest column for The Washington Post. Care to guess who the campaign tapped for major input? Duane Clarridge.

    But after Iotagate happened, suddenly Clarridge was just an “elderly gentleman” whose implicit senility was being exploited by Duh Liberal Media.

    Actually, Team Carson can’t even spin without mixing its message. Williams told a reporter on Tuesday, “I know that (the campaign) mentioned in that press release ‘elderly,’ but that man is sharp as a tack.”

    I took a look at Carson’s Post column – “My Plan to Defeat the Islamic State” – and at least he no longer says that the Chinese are in Syria. (His advisors had recently pumped that falsehood into his head, and he had dutifully disgorged it.) I would serve you the details of his plan, but why bother? Would you eat at a restaurant if one of its key chefs had just panned the place on Yelp?

    At last glance, Carson still commands roughly one-fourth of the Republican electorate, with disproportionate support from the religious right. Maybe his stock will drop when the voting finally gets serious, but for now, I still have to wonder how it’s possible that the party that has long fancied itself wise on national security can continue to so fulsomely indulge someone who knows nothing.

    Here’s the thing: If you had an abcessed tooth, would you trust the extraction to some random guy you’d pull off the street? If a copper pipe bursts in your basement, would you trust the soldering job to someone who has no clue how to wield a propane torch? Of course not. So why would supposedly rational Republicans trust a font of ignorance with our nuclear codes?

    Emphasis on supposedly.

    ——-

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.