He was sure in his views, exercised power behind the scenes, helped lead the nation after it was attacked and suffered from a serious health condition. His accomplishments are also under-appreciated.
At least, that is how Lynne Cheney describes the subject of her latest book. And, no, she isn’t writing about her husband, former Vice President Dick Cheney. Her subject is the fourth president of the U.S. and her book, “James Madison: A Life Reconsidered,” is being published today.
“There is nobody who has contributed more to the civic life we live today,” said Cheney, 72, in an interview. “Madison created the Constitution, constitutional government. He was one of the most high ranking officials through some of the most perilous times in our history. He is not as well known or appreciated as Washington or Jefferson. I pondered that for a long time. There seemed to be disjunction in the idea we had of Madison and his actual accomplishments.”
Cheney said she became intrigued by Madison’s life and presidency when she served as chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts during the Reagan administration. She started pursuing her project in 2008, the final year of her husband’s second term as vice president, and spent the ensuing years digging through archives to build her 564-page portrait of the man who became known as the “Father of the Constitution.”
Her book has received positive reviews in trade publications, including one from Publishers Weekly that called it a “meticulously researched, richly detailed look at the life and times of Madison” that is “authoritative, conversational, certainly confident in its analysis.”
Madison, who was raised on a plantation in Virginia, was a leading political figure during the nation’s nascence. He is regarded as having played a key role in crafting what became the U.S. Constitution. As a member of Congress, he helped shape the Bill of Rights, and he later served as secretary of state for his friend Thomas Jefferson. He was elected president in 1808 and served two four-year terms fraught with international crises culminating in the War of 1812.
That conflict with Great Britain didn’t go all that well for the young United States. The British invaded and even torched the White House, a scene that came to Cheney’s mind as she and her husband evacuated Washington after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“When Dick and I left by helicopter from the South Lawn of the White House, and we could see smoke form the Pentagon, both of us thought about the War of 1812 and how it was the last time that this had happened,” she said.
One aspect of Madison’s personal life that particularly intrigued Cheney was his health. The fourth president was afflicted, particularly in his younger years, by sudden seizures that Cheney describes as being consistent with epilepsy. “I was interested in Madison’s health because I had seen Dick face health challenges during his political career,” she said.
Dick Cheney, 73, has suffered five heart attacks, the first at age 37 and the last in 2010; he received a heart transplant two years ago, and his health has been excellent, Cheney said.
She declined to discuss in detail how Madison’s political views might gel with her husbands. “They are both limited government fellows,” she said during a 45-minute interview in her spacious home’s living room, which has shelves stocked with books ranging from those about trout fishing, one of her husband’s favorite pastimes, to Winston Churchill’s volumes on World War II.
The Cheneys split time between a home in Wyoming and one just down the street in McLean, Virginia, from Hickory Hill, an estate owned by the families of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy.
Cheney also said she didn’t want to discuss controversies involving her daughters, Liz and Mary. Comments Liz Cheney made about opposing same-sex marriage set off a feud with her sister, Mary, a lesbian who married her partner in 2012.
When asked what Madison would have made of same-sex marriage, Cheney said the former president “would have said it was a matter for the states. That’s not such a radical thought.”
A scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, Cheney has a Ph.D. in English and is the author of 12 other books. She said she isn’t sure what her next project will be, but is interested in pursuing research on Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, the nation’s 6th president, and of William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union general during the Civil War.
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