VERSAILLES — J.D. Vance, author of the New York Times bestselling book “Hillbilly Elegy,” was the featured speaker during the Darke County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner, held Saturday at the Stillwater Valley Golf Club in Versailles.
Congressman Warren Davidson (R-Troy) introduced Vance to the gathering.
“He’s a very talented writer, but he’s been very talented at a lot of things,” he said, calling Vance’s rise to prominence “an amazing start to a young career.”
Vance is a native of Middletown, Ohio, with family roots in Kentucky. His memoir describes his rough upbringing, including his mother’s many marriages and her struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. His grandmother in particular was instrumental in raising him and setting him on a path for success. The book attracted media attention during the 2016 election, as many sought to understand the popularity enjoyed by then-Presidential Candidate Donald Trump among white, working-class voters.
Vance enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from Middletown High School, serving in Iraq. He graduated from Ohio State University, then went on to attend Yale Law School, where Yale Law Professor and author Amy Chua encouraged him to write his memoir. Director Ron Howard is planning to make “Hillbilly Elegy” into a film.
Vance, 33, spent time in California, working in a venture capital firm owned by entrepreneur Peter Thiel. He moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he has founded a non-profit organization, Our Ohio Renewal, which seeks to address the issue of opioid addiction.
“In a lot of ways, the story of my life is what can happen when two loving grandparents take control of a kid’s life,” he said. “I was really on the precipice as a young child, doing poorly in school, hanging around with with the kids that parents, grandparents really don’t like their kids to hang out with.”
“My grandma, who was a combination of colorful language and gun toting, and also a lot of love and discipline, found a way to reach me and made it possible for me to get my life back on track,” said Vance, recalling his grandmother threatened to “run over” with her car one of his friends who was a bad influence.
Vance said his time at Yale Law School was an eye opener.
“I looked around and recognized that none of my classmates had anything really in common with me,” he said. “I was one of the few kids who had come from this part of the country and made it to a place like that, and I recognized that those institutions can sometimes be a little unwelcoming to people who come from this part of the country.”
Vance touched upon a number of topics, such as the opioid addiction, the decline of industry and manufacturing, China’s “economic warfare” against America, and immigration, pointing to a failure of leadership.
“On every issue, from China to our immigration policy to the opioids that are destroying our communities and our families, we’ve had a large segment of the American leadership class that has not just been asleep at the wheel, it has failed to recognize the significant drivers of some of these problems, and it’s failed to do something about them,” he said.
Vance said the GOP is in a good position to address these problems, but it needs to present positive solutions, not negativity.
“We have to show that our ideas are better than [the Democrat’s] ideas, and if we don’t, we may very well lose this opportunity to govern and solve some of these problems,” he added.
Taking questions from the audience, Vance was asked his thoughts on the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Pointing out that school shootings are actually less common now than they were 15 to 20 years ago, he said. “I do think it’s important for us to keep some perspective when we’re trying to fix problems like this.”
Vance said he hoped there could be further ways for law enforcement to prevent guns from falling in the hands of dangerous individuals.
“We should make it easier to take those guns out of the hands of people who are about to use them to murder large numbers of people,” he said.
“I think it’s important we don’t get so caught up in this particular moment that we sacrifice the Second Amendment process, and that’s what I worry about,” he added. “We’ve got to have the right balance between protecting citizens, protecting our schools, and protecting the kids that go to them, but also protecting our really important and fundamental constitutional liberty.”
Asked his extended family’s reaction to being portrayed in “Hillbilly Elegy,” Vance called it “mixed,” to much laughter.
“My uncle said something to the effect, not too long ago, he was really open, and he didn’t care so much about me putting all these really private, sometimes gory, details about our family in the book — he didn’t think anybody would read it,” he said, noting he made his family part of the writing process.
Asked when the “Hillbilly Elegy” film would be coming out and what actor would play him in the movie, Vance said it would likely be a couple more years, and added, “The only request that I’ve made is that whoever plays me is good looking, but not so good looking that people are disappointed when the meet the real J.D.”
Vance said while he had been approached by Republicans to run for the U.S. Senate in 2018, he wasn’t yet ready to sacrifice time with his young family. However, he could be looking ahead to a possible run for office in the future.
“The classic politician answer is, ‘Never say never,’ so — never say never,” he said.