Long before Major Gen. Robert Dees (ret.) went to work for Ben Carson, he was studying the former neurosurgeon's spiritual lessons.
One of his grandsons, then 13, devoured Carson's inspirational 1996 book "Think Big." On a family vacation -- "on the beach, with flip flops and so forth" -- the teenager led the family's four-day morning study time, cycling through the chapters of the book. Honesty Shows. Nice Guys Finish. Caution: God at Work.
"I was amazed at how Dr. Carson had pulled out the best potential from my grandson," recalled Dees in an interview Thursday evening. "I started learning more and more about him. The more I did, the more I believed in him. A lot of politicians have fans, but Dr. Carson has believers. Every time I think I know the extent of what Dr. Carson knows, he surprises me."
On Thursday, Carson's presidential campaign officially promoted Dees from foreign policy adviser to campaign chairman. It was not just a reboot, but a return to the campaign Carson had always wanted, less driven by consultants than believers.
Dees, a vice president at Liberty University, had never worked for a campaign before. But he had spent most of his life in the military, from Israel to Europe to the DMZ between North and South Korea. He'd worked for Microsoft, sometimes "working directly with Bill Gates."
All of that made him perfect for this iteration of the Carson campaign, which would acknowledge the mistakes of the fall and focus on the essential greatness of its candidate. In November, New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel published a damaging front page story that quoted another Carson foreign policy adviser bemoaning that he wasn't taking enough meetings to "make him smart."
Dees was quoted far down in the story, disagreeing with that. Later, in an email to a national security listserv, he worried that "the high vis comments by former CIA operative Dewey Clarridge were very detrimental to a positive narrative about Dr. Carson's national security quotient," that Clarridge had only twice met with Carson, and that "having survived a phase of character assassination by MSM, et al; we are now in a phase I would call policy assassination."
He sounded like a campaign chairman. And a few weeks later, as of Thursday, he was.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson found a friendly audience at the Christian evangelical university, where students waited in long lines to gain entrance to the Vines Center and his remarks went unchallenged.
"There's been a false narrative that suggests Dr. Carson does not know anything about foreign policy," said Dees. "I've been working with him since February. I have been to every continent, I have dealt with plenty of leaders, and I will tell you, he is ready for this job. We've developed a lot of policy proposals, but we haven't been truly executing them, and that's going to change."
Dees's arrival in the Carson orbit was the sort of thing that used to happen often, before politics intervened. At the start of 2015, Carson and Dees both attended services at Second Baptist Church in Houston. Carson was the icon of "Gifted Hands," and Dees had assisted with projects like the Military Ministry of the Campus Crusade for Christ, working to "help troops and families have faith in the foxhole, and hope on their homefronts." The two of them were introduced, then sat together at a dinner hosted by Terry Giles, who would become Carson's campaign chairman. The neurosurgeon who worked all hours bonded quickly with the two-star general who took daily 6 a.m. swims.
"He's totally impressive," said Giles. "You don't go to West Point without being impressive. His work ethic is incredible. I found him to be available whenever we needed him."
The dinner went on -- two, three, four hours -- as Dees and Carson talked. "Even back then, who knew what were wrestling with and what the threats to this country were," said Dees. "Way back into the 1990s we've known we've had some enemy within working against us."
Giles and Dees both worked on developing policy papers for Carson. Both men describe the candidate as brilliant; Giles worried, in real time and in retrospect, that he was not being briefed properly despite the available material. "When your candidate is out giving speeches, three, four, five a day, it's hard for them to be preparing on the real policy issues," he said.
Dees intended to fix that. "I want to sustain the very successful things going on in the campaign," he said. "That includes fundraising, that includes field, and that includes social media. We'll be streamlining and integrating our messaging process so that we're much more agile, and a lot more media friendly."
He would come to that with the sort of experience that Carson had lacked -- defending social conservative ideas, and criticizing radical Islam, in the media. This year, when Carson first gained in public polls, Dees's long record as an evangelist was profiled by James Bamford in Foreign Policy magazine. Carson's musings about the threat of Islamic infiltration, surmised Bamford, might be "a reflection of the troubling worldview of the people he has turned to for advice." People like Dees.
If the criticism bothered Dees, he didn't show it. "You need to consider the source," he said. "Being a vice president at the largest Christian university in the world -- is there something wrong with that? That's part of the culture we live in. Aren't things reversed in so many ways?"
Dees referred to his trilogy of books about Resilience, and specifically to the 2014 conclusion "Resilient Nations." In it, Dees discussed the idea of Moral-Spiritual-Infrastructure, or MSI, and whether America's leaders and culture were weakening it. He'd spoken about that plenty.
"The moral readiness is degraded by social experimentation within our military," he once told conservative CNSNews. "In fact, social experimentation is improperly named, because it's not an experiment at all -- it's a top-driven mandate for social agendas."
In "Resilient Nations," Dees explored his worry that decisions like that were driving America to the brink by depriving it of morality and greatness. "Is our MSI solid and stable, or is it sadly weakened, on the brink of collapse and irreversible consequence?" Dees asked. "At the height of Roman decadence, good became evil and evil became good. One can rightly argue that the United States is frightfully close to a similar fate. Prayerfully, it is not too late."
In Carson, Dees saw another person who was fearless about saying the right thing. He just needed to navigate the media that pronounced it wrong.
"He'll say something, and maybe they'll be a big uproar, until people scratch their heads and they say - that's right," said Dees. "After they realize he's expressed their sentiments, there's outpouring of support. His stances on radical Islamic terrorism, on the downsides of potential sharia law -- they are legitimate, they are valid, they are true."
Just hours after taking over the campaign, Dees allowed himself to go a little further. Carson, he said, had "serious proposals" and "a very good knowledge of defense and national security," as embodied in his Seven Steps to a Safer America. He had touched on everything from the best legal way to make war on ISIS to the outline of a "war-time emergency visa and immigration policy" to the need to "fully investigate the Council on American-Islamic Relations." What was his competition?
"There are some candidates out there who don't know what the nuclear triad is," said Dees, referring obliquely to Donald Trump. "There are some who do not seem to know what 'carpet bombing' is." That was a reference to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, - who, with Trump, had leapfrogged Carson in the Iowa polls. Dees was on message. The press conference that would officially introduce him as chairman was a whole weekend away.