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Our politics have become so polarized and corrupted that a president of the United States cannot even attend an event devoted to drawing people closer to God and bridge partisan and cultural divides without being lectured about his policies.
Last Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., Dr. Ben Carson, director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and a 2008 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, broke with a 61-year-old tradition and publicly disagreed with some of the president's policies, such as "Obamacare," taxation and the national debt. Disclosure: I have attended this event since 1971 and host a dinner the night before for media members.
Several in the audience of 3,000 applauded Carson's remarks, which must have made the president feel even more uncomfortable.
I am no fan of the president's policies, but the National Prayer Breakfast is billed as one of the few nonpolitical events in a very political city. Each year, the co-chairs, one Democrat and one Republican from either the House or Senate, put aside their political differences, as they do in weekly gatherings, to pray for the nation's leaders.
Carson, who spoke at the same event several years ago, has a compelling and inspirational personal story. He and his brother grew up in Detroit. His parents divorced when he was three. His mother kept an eye on her children and made them turn off the TV and read books. Carson said he did poorly in school and was mocked by classmates until he later caught the learning bug. He retold part of that story, but it was overwhelmed by his criticism of the president's policies.
Carson is a great example of what perseverance can accomplish and his success is a rebuke to the entitlement-envy-greed mentality. By lowering himself to mention policies with which he disagrees, he diluted the power of a superior message.
His remarks were inappropriate for the occasion. It would have been just as inappropriate had he praised the president's policies. The president had a right to expect a different message about another Kingdom. I'm wondering if the president felt drawn closer to God, or bludgeoned by the Republican Party and the applauding conservatives in the audience (there were many liberals there, too, as well as people from what organizers said were more than 100 nations and all 50 states).
In 1996, radio personality Don Imus was the main speaker at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association annual banquet in Washington where he made sexually suggestive comments in front of President Clinton and the first lady. I asked White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers at the time if I was being too puritanical or did she also think Imus' remarks were inappropriate. She agreed they were. Whatever happened to propriety?
If Carson wanted to voice his opinion about the president's policies, he could have done so backstage. Even better, he might have asked for a private meeting with the man. As a fellow African-American who faced personal challenges and overcame them, the president might have welcomed Dr. Carson to the White House. Instead, Carson ambushed him.
Carson should publicly apologize and stop going on TV doing "victory laps" and proclaiming that reaction to his speech was overwhelmingly positive. That's not the point. While many might agree with his positions (and many others don't as shown by the recent election), voicing them at the National Prayer Breakfast was the wrong venue.
Organizers for this event tell speakers ahead of time to steer clear of politics, but Carson apparently "went rogue." I'm told organizers were astonished and disapproving of the critical parts of Carson's keynote address. The breakfast is supposed to bring together people from different political viewpoints and cultures. It is supposed to bridge divides, not widen them.
If this and future presidents think their policies will be prey for political opponents at the prayer breakfast, they might decide not to come. That would be too bad for them and too bad for the country.