Back on the Chang gang

>> Monday, April 13, 2015

This is too good to not share: over at Esquire, Charles Pierce draws attention to Marco Rubio's magic sword, in turn leading us to Steve M., Timothy Noah, and Brad DeLong quoting the Gainesville Sun:

After more than an hour of solemn ceremony naming Rep. Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, as the 2007-08 House speaker, Gov. Jeb Bush stepped to the podium in the House chamber last week and told a short story about "unleashing Chang," his "mystical warrior" friend. Here are Bush's words, spoken before hundreds of lawmakers and politicians: "Chang is a mystical warrior. Chang is somebody who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society. I rely on Chang with great regularity in my public life. He has been by my side and sometimes I let him down. But Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down."

Bush then unsheathed a golden sword and gave it to Rubio as a gift. "I'm going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior," he said, as the crowd roared. The crowd, however, could be excused for not understanding Bush's enigmatic foray into the realm of Eastern mysticism. We're here to help. In a 1989 Washington Post article on the politics of tennis, former President George Bush was quoted as threatening to "unleash Chang" as a means of intimidating other players. The saying was apparently quite popular with Gov. Bush's father, and referred to a legendary warrior named Chang who was called upon to settle political disputes in Chinese dynasties of yore. The phrase has evolved, under Gov. Jeb Bush's use, to mean the need to fix conflicts or disagreements over an issue. Faced with a stalemate, the governor apparently "unleashes Chang" as a rhetorical device, signaling it's time to stop arguing and start agreeing. No word on if Rubio will unleash Chang, or the sword, as he faces squabbles in the future.

The reason this is wonderful, however, isn't the prospect of Rubio (who is expected to announce a Presidential campaign sometime today) going all Connor MacLeod on Congress, shrieking "There can be only one!" and embarking on an arguably overdue and much-needed decapitation spree.  No, what's wonderful about it is that Rubio may be an even bigger ignoramus than previously suspected, while George H.W. Bush once again offers evidence he spent much of his career hiding his light under... (sigh)... under an archaic word for some kind of basket or bucket container used to measure volumes of dry goods, okay?  Take it away, Mr. Noah:

"Unleash Chang," or the more historically precise "unleash Chiang," is something Jeb Bush's father, the 41st president of the United States, liked to say when he was about to smash a tennis ball over the net. It meant "give you the best that I've got," and it was partly an expression of sincere competitive spirit and partly a self-mocking acknowledgment that he had what his daughter Doro Bush Koch, in a memoir, lovingly describes as "a bit of a weak serve." (I use the past tense because, at 87, former President Bush has, I assume, given up tennis, but with these old Wasps you never know. According to Doro, Poppy was still unleashing Chiang on the tennis court in 2006.)

Doro explains in her book that "Unleash Chiang!" is a reference to the nationalist Chinese exile leader, Chiang Kai Shek. Specifically it was a battle cry of the American right during the Korean War. It meant that the U.S. should remove the Seventh Fleet from the Taiwan Strait (there to keep the peace between the mainland and Taiwan) so that Chiang could re-invade communist China and whup Mao. One of the principal reasons Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the great postwar right-wing hero, was relieved of his duties by President Truman was that he bypassed the White House and publicly urged Congress to allow him to unleash Chiang. Unleashing Chiang would not have been a good idea because Chiang could not win (he'd already been whupped once by Mao's army) without the U.S. dropping a few atom bombs on mainland China, and perhaps not even then. (You'll recall we had a hard enough time with the Chinese in Korea.) [internal links omitted]

I was not a fan of the elder Bush when I was a younger man, and I can't say I've changed my mind about his Presidency.  Still, I have to give the man grudging credit for having a sardonic sense of humor that appears to be lost on his sons' generation of conservatives and an independence of thought that doesn't appear to have been widely inherited within the modern GOP (unless you're counting awkwardly misplaced libertarians like Rand Paul).  Using "Unleash Chiang!" as a battle cry for your lousy tennis serve isn't just a reference to Asian history, it's grade-A, high yield snark of startling purity.

The Kraken
You have to remember that throughout WWII and well into the postwar era there was a great deal of dissension in American political circles, and particularly within the American right, over the headaches caused by  Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek or whether he was really a headache at all.  America's "China Lobby" considered Chiang to be the world's great hope in the face of the International Communist Conspiracy's expansion into China.  This despite the fact that during WWII Chiang was not only helpless before Japanese invaders, but also proved himself incapable of uniting a country divided among a motley of local regional warlords and a surprisingly effective insurgency led by Mao Zedong.  Indeed, Chiang's ineptitude was so gross he was kidnapped and held hostage by his own generals in 1936.  Postwar, Chiang's Nationalist government haplessly gave ground to the communists until they literally had nothing left under their feet to give--in 1949, he withdrew with what remained of his forces to the island of Taiwan, where he pretended he was still governing China.

And yet, many on the American right nevertheless continued throughout the 1950s to insist that Chiang's Taiwanese government-in-undeclared-exile had some miraculous potential they'd simply never been able to muster when fighting the Japanese, the communist insurgents, and their own damn selves through the 1930s and '40s.  To say that "Unleashing Chiang would not have been a good idea," is one of those transcendent understatements that is so severe it's nearly false in its truth.  Those in the United States who clamored for the chance to unleash Chiang were at best fools and at worst disingenuous to a horrifying degree: the only way to "unleash Chiang" would be to use a Nationalist re-invasion of the mainland as cover for a full-scale invasion of China or an atomic bombardment, so the suggestion was either a nadir of foolhardiness or a thinly-veiled plea to begin a holocaust (there were people, like Air Force General Curtis LeMay, who plainly wanted to bomb somebody into the Stone Age and lobbied at every opportunity).

"'Unleashing Chiang'--watch this, I've got nothin'," is basically what H.W. Bush was saying, and the former Ambassador to China and WWII Pacific veteran knew it.  It's funny stuff.  I've got to give the old man credit, that's a good one.

But then what do we make of Jeb Bush picking this up?  Did he get the joke?  Not get the joke?  Did he tell Marco Rubio about "unleashing Chiang" and Rubio misheard him and didn't get the reference, or did Jeb really say "unleash Chang" and they're both really that gormless?  And they both apparently want to be President, eh?

I'm not quite sure just how educated and historically-literate a Presidential candidate needs to be.  Given that the collapse of China played directly into the fiascoes of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, I also can't say that not-knowing about the history of mid-Twentieth Century China is relatively harmless the way not-knowing some other historical subject might be; that is, you can learn something useful from almost any historical subject, however trivial, but in the specific case of Chinese-American relations in the Twentieth Century you have a trove of cautionary tales about backing bad horses, throwing good resources after bad, getting swept up in one's own fantasies, not repeating recent mistakes, the limits of American power and influence, keeping a line between domestic and foreign politics and the proper boundaries of party politics, etc..

Plus, there's this enormous irony in what Steve M. correctly observes: "Jeb took a joke about conservative zealotry and turned into a celebration of conservative zealotry."  Yes, this.  Even if Rubio had the right "mystical warrior" (and there's an ironical expression when you're referring to Chiang Kai-shek right there), you'd still have to grapple with H.W. Bush's snark being turned into some kind of triumphalism.  Chiang Kai-shek was never someone who you wanted by your side because he'd never let you down; he was the "buddy" who'd beg you to loan him money for the electric bill that he'd set aside for back-due rent he wasn't going to pay, either, and who'd eventually end up sleeping on your couch and double-parking his busted, oil-leaking, fume-spewing, can't-pass-inspection, expired-tag hoopty in the neighbors' assigned spots.

So what have we (re)-learned?  Marco Rubio is probably kind of dumb.  Jeb Bush is also probably kind of dumb.  And George Herbert Walker Bush was a lot funnier and smarter than some of us usually gave him credit for.  Unfortunately, only one of those men is ineligible for the Presidency.


John the Scientist Tuesday, April 14, 2015 at 7:13:00 AM EDT  

"I'm not quite sure just how educated and historically-literate a Presidential candidate needs to be. "

I am.

He needs to know the history of the last 120 years like the back of his hand. Not only for the cautionary tales, but for the fact that we are still digesting WWI in the Middle East and WWII in Asia.

Not knowing any of that history will make you a tool - in more ways than one.

And it will doom a Presidency.

John the Scientist Tuesday, April 14, 2015 at 7:22:00 AM EDT  

Oh, Yes, and don't you find in vaguely racist that Jeb couldn't bother to differentiate "Chan" from "Chiang". I know all Asian look a like and sound alike to those paragons of 'Murrica, but the two names are quite different, and even *sound* different when properly pronounced - that's why the "i" differentiates them in the first place.

Aside from historical literacy for the last century or so, a President needs *some* eye for detail.

This is a fail on both counts.

And I'll be the sword wasn't Chinese, either...

Ahh, fuck, no it wasn't.

Three fails, they're out.

Eric Tuesday, April 14, 2015 at 10:06:00 AM EDT  

Oh, Yes, and don't you find in vaguely racist that Jeb couldn't bother to differentiate "Chan" from "Chiang". I know all Asian look a like and sound alike to those paragons of 'Murrica, but the two names are quite different, and even *sound* different when properly pronounced - that's why the "i" differentiates them in the first place.

This is one of the things I find interesting/amusing about the whole thing, though: it's not too difficult to imagine H.W. Bush pronouncing "Chiang" as something along the lines of "Chaang" with that unique Kennebunkport Texan accent he's kinda infamous for. And I'm reasonably sure H.W. (Pacific vet, PRC envoy, DCIA) knows his Chans, Changs and Chiangs, regardless of whatever comes out of his mouth when he's making brilliantly self-puncturing sarcastic comments about his tennis game. And this begs the question of whether Jeb got the joke, or got the right joke.

I mean, it's possible that Jeb heard his dad drawling "Chiang" as "Chang" and had no idea what Poppy was talking about and interpreted it as "Chang (whoever that is) is some mighty warrior you call upon in times of difficulty." Indeed, I fear that that's very likely what happened, and to think (as others have said) that Jeb is supposedly "the smart one." But in all fairness it's also (barely) possible that Jeb got the right joke--my next serve is going to be the tennis equivalent of a ROC re-invasion of the mainland, try not to hurt yourself laughing--and extended it a little bit too far to Rubio.

Which raises an even funnier and even less-likely possibility that's worth considering just for amusement's sake: it's (barely barely) possible that Jeb not only understood and got the right joke, but that giving Rubio a fake plastic sword and a line of bull about Chiang-misheard/misspoke-as-"Chang" was public mockery of a rapidly-rising rival with a way-inside joke that only a handful of people in Bush circles got. Understand, I'm running this up the flagpole but I'm not saluting: I don't actually think Jeb is smart enough for that prank, or brave enough to do something that could bite him in the ass if anyone ever figured it out; on the other hand, there's a mean streak in the Bush family--H.W. had a chip on his shoulder, and W.'s habit of assigning everybody derisive nicknames like "Turd Blossom" can be seen as a form of bullying--and the Bush sons have acquired a degree of sneakiness I don't think H.W. had (for all his career successes, most of them as a second banana to better politicians and dumber people, he was never the politician his boys are). I doubt Jeb is smart enough for some medieval-Venice-level political trolling, but I really don't doubt he has the cruel and cagey instincts for it. For all their "aw shucks" affability, the Bush brothers are kinda bastards when you take a closer look.

So, point is, I have to ask myself. Is the bad link here Jeb, or Marco? Coz' it really could be either when you think about it.

And meanwhile, the Elder Bush's original tennis/China joke is still cracking me up. Good one, Poppy.

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