Ben Carson's West Point, youth recollections come under question

WASHINGTONRepublican presidential candidate Ben Carson's recollection of being offered a scholarship to the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point was questioned on Friday, potentially damaging the credibility of the 64-year-old retired neurosurgeon.Also on Friday, Carson's account of how he attempted to stab a friend in his troubled youth came under renewed scrutiny.Carson, a favorite of conservative activists, who is tied with Donald Trump at the top of Republican primary polls a year before the November 2016 presidential election, has often recounted both tales from his 1990 autobiography on the campaign trail, as he trumpets his rise from poverty in inner-city Detroit to the highest echelons of medicine.Questions about Carson's account of the West Point scholarship came to the fore after a report by political news website Politico on differing accounts of the scholarship.On Friday, Carson's campaign said he never sought admission to West Point, and Carson himself angrily denied suggestions that he had misrepresented the facts surrounding the West Point overture.At a news conference in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, Carson said he rejected the offer and never filed an application to the school."It didn't go to that extent," Carson said. "It was an offer to me. It was specifically made." The normally mild-mannered Carson showed flashes of anger and sarcasm during the news conference. He accused the media of targeting him and said his supporters would see through the "subterfuge.""They understand that this is a witch hunt," Carson said.Carson, separately, also gave a slightly different account of the stabbing incident, describing the boy he lunged at as a close relative instead of a friend. “These are little things that get at his credibility," said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who is not working for any of the 2016 presidential candidates. "He’s coming in there as an outsider who is honest and a breath of fresh air. If his whole life story is undermined by these little inaccuracies it could have a negative effect.” Carson's supporters seemed unperturbed, and doubted whether their candidate had been inaccurate.“If I had a general come up to me when I was 17 years old and try to convince me to go to West Point and he told me my expenses would be paid, I don’t think it would be so far-fetched to think he offered me a scholarship,” said Warren Galkin, 86, of Warwick, Rhode Island, who has given money to a political action committee supporting Carson's campaign. Laura Stoker, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said: "Voters care about candidate integrity. But people - especially those who already favor Carson - will resist allegations until information is definitive."WEST POINT SCHOLARSHIP In his autobiography, "Gifted Hands," Carson wrote that as a high school student he dined with General William Westmoreland in 1969. "Later I was offered a full scholarship to West Point," he wrote, saying that he turned it down. "As overjoyed as I felt to be offered such a scholarship, I wasn't really tempted." Carson's campaign said on Friday that his grades and conversations with officials of the ROTC, which provides preliminary military training for students interested in becoming officers, constituted a de facto acceptance to the academy, which provides full scholarships to all of its students. But it said Carson never actually applied. "His Senior Commander was in touch with West Point and told Dr. Carson he could get in, Dr. Carson did not seek admission," Carson's campaign spokesman Doug Watts told Reuters in an email."He never said he was admitted or even applied," Watts said.West Point on Friday said there was no record of Carson completing an application for admission. It is possible someone nominated him for the academy, but that would only have been an early step in the admission process. West Point spokeswoman Theresa Brinkerhoff, in an email to Reuters, said that files of candidates who did not seek admission are kept for only three years. "Therefore we cannot confirm whether anyone during that time period was nominated to West Point if they chose not to pursue completion of the application process," she said.Watts called the story in Politico, which was headlined "Ben Carson admits fabricating West Point scholarship, "an outright lie." "The campaign never 'admitted to anything,'" Watts said in an email to Reuters.CARSON HITS BACK The fracas over West Point came only hours after Carson attacked the media for questioning his accounts of a violent past.“This is a bunch of lies,” Carson told CNN on Friday. “This is what it is, it’s a bunch of lies attempting, you know, to say that I’m lying about my history. I think it’s pathetic."Carson, who is popular with evangelical voters, often speaks on the campaign trail about flashes of violence during his youth, casting the lessons he learned from that period as evidence he has the strength of character to be president.In his autobiography, the renowned brain surgeon wrote that as a teen, he tried to stab a friend named Bob in the stomach with a knife, but the boy's belt buckle blocked the knife.On Thursday on the campaign trail, when pressed by reporters about the incident and also in an interview with Fox News, Carson said that Bob's name, along with some others in the autobiography, were pseudonyms used to protect the privacy of the people he wrote about.He described Bob in the book as a friend and classmate. In a Fox News interview and on CNN, Carson said the boy was a "close relative." (Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Palm Beach, Florida, Grant Smith in New York, and Doina Chiacu and Bill Trott in Washington; Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Howard Goller and Leslie Adler)