Last winter, what 23-year-old Kansas University School of Music graduate Joshua Charles held in his hands was a bundle of papers nicely bound by Lawrence’s Copy Co.
By the summer, it was a New York Times Best Seller.
Many may be unaware that Lawrence is home to the author of one of the hot new political books of the year. Perhaps even more surprising: Its brand of politics isn’t what Lawrence is known for.
On the front cover of “The Original Argument,” you’ll see the name Glenn Beck in bold letters that proclaim his reputation as the biggest of names in the world of conservative commentators. But turn to the inside cover and you’ll see the book was co-authored by Johsua Charles, Lawrence resident and once aspiring concert pianist.
“It has been a roller-coaster ride,” Charles said.
It has been a ride that started innocently enough with a college pastime: a little TV watching. In March 2010, Charles was watching Glenn Beck’s program, when the host said somebody should rewrite the Federalist Papers — the iconic essays of the Founding Fathers — in a more modern language that would be more understandable.
Funny you should mention that, Glenn.
Charles had started on that very project a few months earlier.
“I had been working on that project and really had become very doubtful about whether I should continue,” Charles said recently. “It is a lot of work to rewrite those documents. But then, when I heard Glenn say that on his show, I thought I might actually be on to something.”
Maybe. Charles was intent on finding out. He saved up his money during the school’s semester so that he would not have to find a summer job. Instead, he undertook a month and a half of nearly nonstop writing to re-craft the 85 essays that make up the Federalist Papers.
Then he sent them off to Beck. And he received word back of … nothing.
“I tried for months to get it in his hands,” Charles said. “I sent the manuscript. I tried to call into the radio show, but I basically had given up ever getting it into his hands. By September or October, I just didn’t think it was in the cards anymore.”
But none of it stopped Charles from watching Beck’s show. On one show, Beck was talking about a small town in Ohio that had been ravaged by the economic recession. But community members and volunteers were coming together there to try to make a difference. Charles and fellow Lawrence resident and KU student Chandler Schmidt decided to go there over holiday break.
“We went there with zero thought about the book,” Charles said.
But when they got there, the leader of the faith-based organization they were volunteering at said a producer with Beck’s show had called. The show wanted to do a follow-up. She had told the producer that there was a good story possibility about a couple of college students from Kansas who were volunteering.
A few days later, Charles gets a call from Beck’s people.
“They asked me if I wanted to come out to New York for the show,” Charles recalls. “I tried to be nonchalant about it.”
Charles didn’t travel alone. He went to Lawrence’s Copy Co. and had his manuscript bound nicely to look like a book. Before the taping of Beck’s TV show began, Charles gave him a copy of the manuscript.
Beck looked surprised and then uttered some words that forever changed the 23-year-old’s life.
“If this is any good, I’m going to publish it,” Beck said.
The TV show aired on Thursday, and by the following Monday, a representative of Beck had called to strike a deal with Charles. The book hit bookshelves in June. By early July, the book topped The New York Times’ Best Seller List.
Schmidt, his college friend and traveling mate to Ohio, said it has been fun to watch.
“I was pretty impressed that he just wrote the book at all,” Schmidt said. “But getting the book into Glenn Beck’s hands and becoming a New York Times Best Seller, yeah, I didn’t see that coming.”
But Schmidt said he’s not surprised that Charles set out to do it.
“He is an absolute history nut, and he believes that the writing of the Constitution was one of the greatest things to ever happen on this planet,” Schmidt said.
Now, Charles has become a rising star on the speaking circuit, preaching the values of the Constitution, especially to Tea Party crowds.
“I hope people read the book and understand better where rights come from and that government is instituted to protect those rights,” Charles said. “That is its first and foremost duty. It is not to give us all goodies.”
Schmidt is traveling to California soon for a week’s worth of paid speaking engagements after signing on with the national talent firm Premiere Speakers Bureau, which represents everyone from Anderson Cooper to Ben Stein. Charles also recently received a personal letter from former President George W. Bush, who thanked him for a copy of the book. Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins has been distributing the book on his behalf to other members of Congress.
“The fact that I can say I’m Glenn’s co-author has opened a lot of doors for me,” Charles said.
And yes, he also can say that he does actually know Beck a bit. Although they didn’t lock themselves in a room together to write the book, Charles has been on the show four times, and he insisted on a personal meeting with Beck before he signed a deal.
“He has done everything he said he would do by contract, by word of mouth and then more,” Charles said. “I know some people have major issues with his politics, but the guy is a diamond in the rough in terms of being a good person.”
Charles — who grew up in California, went to the University of Idaho but then transferred when his piano instructor took a position at KU — plans to stay in Lawrence for at least the next year. He previously was admitted to a law school in Virginia, but has put that on hold while he promotes the book, speaks and works and reads a lot more about the Founding Fathers with another book perhaps in the making.
But Charles is quick to say that he doesn’t really know what comes next. Charles, who was active in many Christian organizations at KU, said this adventure has reinforced for him that someone large — even larger than Glenn Beck — controls what the future holds.
“I still try to plan and prepare, but I’ve really been humbled by this experience,” Charles said. “There were so many coincidences that were beyond my control that for me to ever look back and say ‘look at this great thing I did’ would be hubris. I’m definitely a little bit more hands-off right now when it comes to the future.”