Lynne Cheney's new book, James Madison: A Life Reconsidered, which is being published by Viking today, is a 564-page exploration of the life and impact of America's fourth president. Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution, was the architect of the Bill of Rights, a founder of the young nation's first political party — and the inspiration for some current activists. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why write this book?
A: I've been thinking about this book since 1987. So finally, let's see, can I do the math? All these years later, a quarter-century and more, I finally got around to writing a book about a man who has fascinated me since then. I think he's been underrated by historians, and I'm not the only one. John Kennedy said he was our most underrated president.
Q: You conclude Madison had epilepsy. Did his experience with the disease affect his political point of view?
A: I think it made him an advocate of freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. Of all the founders, he was most fierce about that. And it was partly because epilepsy in his day was demonized. It was said to be the result of evil in your soul or even being possessed by a devil. Madison heard that, saw his own experience, knew that wasn't right and really began to think that one of the most important elements of human liberty is to be in charge of your own conscience. You don't have to believe what other people tell you to believe.
Q: Madison helped establish Congress, and he was a master legislative tactician. What would he think of how Congress works now?
A: We all say, 'Oh my gosh, this partisan gridlock, we have to get over that.' Madison founded partisan gridlock, in a sense. The Washington administration was underway. Alexander Hamilton was really in charge of policy, and he was taking it beyond the Constitution, Madison thought. There was no way to combat this, he finally concluded, Madison did, without setting up an opposition party. And that was a very unusual thing to do. Parties had not such a good reputation then, just as they don't know. But it was a way to have a legitimate opposition and to combat the idea that the Constitution could mean whatever Alexander Hamilton wanted it to mean.
The founding of this party ushered in an era of partisan politics that's easily as combative, cruel, mean and nasty as today. There was the politics of personal destruction. ... Dolley Madison was attacked. It was easily as nasty now.
Q: Your husband, former vice president Dick Cheney, has a transplanted heart and a new lease on life. Does he want to play a role in Republican politics in, say, 2016?
A: Well, he's right now playing a role in 2014, helping the Republican National Committee raise money and advising people behind the scenes. I'm sure in 2016, he would be happy to provide advice and guidance, and I kind of suspect he might speak out, too. ... He does think that national security is a very important issue going forward and that some of the things that have happened over the 6½ years reducing the size of the military, in taking missile defense out of Poland — some of the things that have happened have made us weaker, and he is interested in a strong military and strong national defense.
Q: Your daughter Liz had run for the Senate nomination in Wyoming. Do you think she will run for office again?
A: I sure hope so. She is a great candidate and, you know, the family was going through some crises. It's now evened out. She did exactly the right thing to turn her attention to some difficult situations, and she'll do exactly the right thing, in my opinion, if she runs for office again. She'd be a terrific candidate and a terrific representative or senator for us.
Q: Would she run from Wyoming or Virginia?
A: She's in Wyoming. That's where the kids are riding horses and skiing and going to proms.
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