WILL Eric L Motley become the second black President of the US? Will the Republicans bring on the Motley? These are only two of many questions I have for the 46-year-old, who grew up in a largely poor, freed slaves’ town in Alabama and rose to become a special assistant to George W Bush.

The youngest person to serve under Bush, in 2003 Motley walked through the famous Pennsylvania Avenue gates “a black man and came back through them a White House man”, a jubilant friend noted. Now Executive Vice President of the Aspen Institute think tank based in Washington DC, this somewhat controversial figure – a black conservative who has journeyed from privation in the racially-charged Deep South to the seat of global power – laughs loudly when I ask if he will stand for office.

“Will I enter politics? Oh God!” exclaims Motley, whose life story is told in an affecting memoir, Madison Park: A Place of Hope, which he’ll discuss at the Boswell Book Festival on May 12. “What I discovered after working in the White House is that there are many things you can do as a citizen to contribute towards good governance," he says. "So I don’t think that I am ready to run right now but I know I am ready to play a very active role.”

But he’s not ruling it out? To become only the second black President must surely be an ambition since his is the story of a driven man and boy determined to gain an education and better himself (his loving, adoptive grandparents could not read the books they bought for him from their meagre savings).Will he use the unique public platform provided by his book, which comes out in bitterly divisive times in America, to enter politics?

“It would be extraordinary to have a black Republican President but that is proposing, suggesting even, that whenever I run I will still be a Republican,” he replies. “One of the great gifts my grandparents gave to me was not political affiliation, it was the desire to understand the issues and to want the best people who have the best solutions.

“I am not a card-carrying Republican that is afraid to vote for a Democrat who has bright ideas that will enhance society. I am not afraid to push back when we have very bad leadership. Leadership calls us only to do what is right. If we don’t have the right person, I am unafraid to say so. We had a great President in Barack Obama, I had a great President in George W Bush. He spoke about the challenges that we have in leadership, that we need more and that we must ask for more.”

Clearly a politician in the making, Motley refers to Trump only once, although the subtext of the interview down the line from his Washington DC office, where he sits beneath portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Dr Johnson, alongside a statue of Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, is that he does not think the current occupant of the White House is the right person. “We know we do not need leaders who have no vision,” he says, sighing wearily when I raise the Charlottesville and Unite the Right rallies, and the violent rise in support for white supremacy groups and views.

“We are in a rough season right now," he adds. "I think we need to have some serious conversations about the political situation. We have become so partisan. It is about what Republicans want, what Democrats want, what Trump supporters want. You know that Trump supporters do not represent all Republicans?

"We have to ask what it means to be an American. We lack leadership now, a sense of direction. I agree with you that sometimes it seems that America has gone crazy. It’s not easy being a [US] citizen today.”

In Madison Park, the Samford University graduate, who earned a Master of Letters and a PhD at the University of St Andrews, describes his political journey, starting out as conservative enough not to be a Democrat, and progressive enough not to be a Republican, but admits that he “developed a political perspective that aligned mostly with the Republican Party’s emphasis on self-reliance, fiscal responsibility and the role that the community, rather than government, can play in addressing societal issues.”

Does he still believe this?

“I wrote my book in a time of tremendous polarisation and fragmentation so I wanted to remind people of the power of community and networks, and our responsibility to each other. Community is people working together. I think my book is really about that need for community, which is required more than ever now.”

Meanwhile, he’s concentrating on his work with the Aspen Institute. “We are not a partisan think tank,” he discloses. “We are not Republican. We are not Democrat. We are about bringing citizens together – thought leaders, elected officials, business leaders, philanthropists, community organisers, academicians, policy experts, individuals of different backgrounds, ideologies and political persuasions.

“We try to find common ground to address some of the most pressing national and international issues, from climate change and access to health care to education reform, economic development in rural communities and the revitalisation of cities. We work for the good of society. It is wonderful for me to come to work every day and know that there are not specifically Republican issues or Democrat issues but human, American, world issues. It’s about making a difference by finding the best solutions.”

Certainly some fine solutions were found in Madison Park, where he was raised by his God-fearing grandparents Mamie and George Washington Motley. Madison Park, near Montgomery, Alabama, is the eponymous place of hope in his autobiography, which has received praise from many, including former First Lady Laura Bush, who described it as "an odyssey of grace and gratitude".

Motley’s mother, Barbara, adopted by Mamie and George, was 17-years-old when she gave birth to him. She did not want to keep the baby, running away from the hospital. The elderly couple determined Eric would not be adopted or go into foster care, and that they would never take welfare. “So they raised me," he says. "I am speaking to you now thanks to the generosity, faith and values of my grandparents, their friends and neighbours, who nurtured my intellectual curiosity and confidence.

“It was a challenge for me to write this book as I come from a very stoic family that does not talk about personal matters in public. It took a lot of prayer, a lot of reflection,” he explains, adding that only a couple of days ago he stood in silence at his beloved grandparents’ graves. “It was hard while writing this book to revisit their last years and days, and to write about my relationship with my mother, which we are rebuilding. But writing it also reawakened my gratitude to the people of Madison Park, who embraced me with loving kindness.”

The book is filled with touching stories of the immense generosity of those who had little enough themselves but were determined that bright little Eric should get to college. He did, later making it to St Andrews, which he loves and returns to often. In his memoir, Motley, who lives alone in a Georgetown condominium surrounded by French and English antiques, orchids and rare first editions, many associated with Dr Johnson and James Boswell, collected decades before he could have imagined appearing at a book festival celebrating the latter's pioneering biographical art – writes of romantic heartbreak. (Mamie thought he’d never marry; she believed he was “too finicky for most women.”)

Is he still single and finicky? “I found someone last October," he smiles. "She is a remarkable person and I think she will definitely be the person I marry.”

Has he proposed? “She knows she is the apple of my eye, so I am well on my way to marriage and creating a family of my own. I was raised in a place of hope and I have always had personal hopes. Finally, I am about to realise them.”

Madison Park: A Place of Hope, by Eric L. Motley, is published by HarperCollins. Motley will be in conversation with James Naughtie at the Boswell Book Festival on Sunday May 12.