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Brad Meltzer's real-life presidential shadow

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July 20th, 2015
Brad Meltzer with Barbara Bush
Brad Meltzer with Barbara Bush

Rarely does a writer have the privilege of turning to a U.S. president to inform his fictional characters and the world that they inhabit. No one knows better than novelist Brad Meltzer how valuable this can be.

For several years, the best-selling author has enjoyed a friendship with former President George H.W. Bush, who happens to be one of Meltzer’s biggest fans and, perhaps more importantly, a trusted consultant on his last six novels, including his latest, The President’s Shadow (Grand Central, 2015). 

Recently, Meltzer spoke with the Tribune about this relationship and how it has influenced his work.

Tribune: How did your association with President Bush blossom?

Meltzer: It started with the coolest fan letter I’ve ever gotten. President Bush wrote me saying that he’d read my book The Millionaires (2002). He loved it and wanted to know if I’d sign a copy for him. 

Well, of course, at first I thought this was a friend playing a prank on me. I was so convinced that it was a joke that I called the President’s office.

I told them that I’d received this letter, and they responded, “Oh, good! You got the President’s letter.” And I thought to myself, “Whoa! This is real!” I was so struck by the fact that he had actually written to me. It’s not something that you expect. 

Tribune: That was your reaction as an American. What was your reaction as a writer?

Meltzer: This was after he was out of office, so that got me thinking about how he was the most powerful man in the world one day and the next, he had to stop at red lights like the rest of us. I became obsessed with this notion as a storyteller. I wanted to know what it was like to be both a president and a former president.

So, I sent him a signed book along with a letter asking him if I could visit, spend some time with him, and see what his life was like. And he said, “Sure, come to Houston for a week.”

Tribune: And why do you think he so readily extended this invitation?

Meltzer: Because I’m not Bob Woodward. I’m not there to quote him directly and pick apart his past. I’m there for the most fun reason of all. I want to entertain people and, at the same time, show them what that life is really like. 

I write fiction, so in a sense, I’m the harmless one. And that gets you unprecedented access.

We struck up a friendship, and on every book since, including The President’s Shadow, he’s helped me out with various details. I can make up whatever I want, but there’s something special about getting the facts from one of the few people who knows what it’s like to live in the White House. 

Tribune: What kind of help did Mr. Bush give you on The President’s Shadow?

Meltzer: Before I answer that I should say that the Secret Service has been a great help to me as well, all the way down to the smallest details—bits of little-known information like the fact that Reagan actually carried a gun while he was president.

He carried a .38 caliber revolver in his brief case. That detail is real. I found that quite striking. 

On just about every book, I ask Mr. Bush questions. Well, this was the first time that he asked me questions. He had no idea that Reagan carried a gun. 

But as far as his help to me goes, it’s always what I consider to be the most important and typically the most inaccessible part of the presidency—getting to the human side of things. As I said, it’s the little, everyday details that bring a story to life and make the reader feel as though he or she is standing in the White House.

Tribune: Give an example of a small but tangible detail that helps you accomplish this.

Meltzer: Okay, when you look around the Oval Office, you see pictures. Everyone knows that. But what’s less known is that the only picture that the different presidents have in common is a picture on the mantel of them with the other U.S. presidents.

In the last 200-odd years, not many people have held the job. There’s an amazing bond between these men.

When you discover little things like that, your mind begins to go deeper into the president as a person, which is very important when you’re developing a character. You need to know what he’s made of. That’s what makes fiction more like reality.

Tribune: Have you ever been inside the White House?

Meltzer: I’ve spent a lot of time there. I’ve even attended a private lunch in the residence when “W” was president. His parents were staying at the White House, and they invited me. 

Tribune: What was that like?

Meltzer: When you have lunch in the president’s dining room, you don’t just go in and grab whatever seat is free. Everything is planned. 

They tell you exactly where you’re going to sit. Outside the room, they have this little table-shaped paper with tabs that show where everyone will be. They don’t want any fumbling.

I was next to Barbara Bush. And at my place setting was a beautiful little card on White House stationery that said “Mr. Meltzer.” The first thing that shot through my brain was, “That’s going home with me.”

Well, later on, Mrs. Bush sits down and says to me, “The novices always want to take their cards home with them.” And I laughed and said, “Yeah, those novices.” 

Tribune: Did you take it with you?

Meltzer: Absolutely! [LAUGHS]

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