Jeb and Rubio Agree: Chiang Kai-Shek Was an Imaginary Mystical Warrior
[There was a video here]
When Marco Rubio became Florida’s Speaker of the House in 2005, Governor Jeb Bush welcomed him by bestowing upon him the sword of “Chang,” who Bush described as “a mythical conservative warrior.” It’s odd how mythology develops: Bush was almost certainly, if unwittingly, talking about Chiang Kai-Shek, the Chinese nationalist leader best known for losing a civil war to the Chinese Communist Party and retreating to Taiwan. Chiang was, notably, not democracy’s number-one fan.
Here’s what Gov. Bush had to say about the legend of Chang, as he was handing Rubio an object that was both a historically unsound metaphor and an actual goddamn sword:
“I told you that we were going to ‘unleash Chang’ on the election. And Marco, being a relatively young guy, didn’t know who Chang was. Chang was a mystical warrior. Chang is someone 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 ... Chang, this mystical warrior, has never let me down.”
“I’m going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior. I know that Chang won’t let you down, and you won’t let him down either.”
But where did Jeb Bush, Floridian, come to learn the legend of this Far Eastern mystic and his anachronistic political values?
As economist and blogger Brad DeLong pointed out in 2005, it appears he may have just misinterpreted something his father, George H.W. Bush, was fond of saying when Jeb! was younger.
The Washington Post reported in 1989 that Bush 41 was fond of threatening to “unleash Chang” on his tennis opponents, but DeLong astutely concluded that the elder Bush wasn’t talking about a mystical warrior—he was talking about the president of the Republic of China.
“Republican wingnuts” of the Cold War, DeLong wrote, believed that the U.S. military was protecting the People’s Republic of China from Chiang, who had fled to Taiwan in 1949 but had never abandoned his goal of retaking the mainland. Thus, they called for the U.S. to “unleash Chiang” so he could realize those ambitions.
“When George H. W. Bush, playing tennis (and losing) in the 1970s and 1980s, would threaten to ‘unleash Chiang,’” DeLong wrote, “he was mocking the right-wing nuts of his generation.”
Doro Bush Koch, George H.W.’s daughter, basically confirmed this interpretation in her memoir, My Father, My President, writing, “By the way, he still uses a phrase in his tennis games that he picked up in China: ‘unleash Chiang’—a reference to Chiang Kai Shek, the nationalist leader exiled on Taiwan—as slang for Let’s start the game and serve the big one. He had a bit of a weak serve, and it was his way of making fun of it: Time to unleash Chiang!”
But this context doesn’t appear to have been passed down to Jeb, who seemed in 2005 to view “Chang” as a fictional superhero.
The real Chiang may have fought communists, but he was no friend to capitalists, either. After unifying China in the ‘20s, he was basically a nationalist dictator. He was heavily into anti-capitalist propaganda, although some scholars assert that was a means of social control, not reflective of his government’s actual policy.
And as for Bush’s claim that “Chang... believes in the moral principles that underpin a free society,” well, Chiang Kai-Shek established martial law when his government took over Taiwan in 1950, and it didn’t end until 1987, 12 years after his death.
Here’s the New York Times’ subtle way of describing Chiang’s repressive dictatorship upon his passing in 1975:
With the years, Chiang’s hold on the political structure of Taiwan tightened. Part of this owed to the deference that Chinese customarily pay to age and part to the vigilance of his secret police and the repressions of the regime. Below the surface, however, there was a discreet restiveness among the younger sons and daughters of the mainland refugees who wanted a freer political and cultural life than Chiang’s regime was willing to accord them. This yearning was joined by many Taiwanese, who never ceased to resent Chiang’s intrusion in 1949 and who were still bitter over the massacre of thousands of them by Nationalist troops.
Not an especially excellent role model to “rely upon with great regularity” in one’s public life, by many measures, but to each his own.
Could Jeb actually have understood the historical context of “unleashing Chang,” and turned it into a weird joke of his own, in some condescending old-money deadpan mode? Uhh, maybe? Probably not?
A New Republic piece from 2012, delightfully called “Marco Rubio Flunks History,” suggests that Jeb must have known who Chiang was, just because his sister Doro did.
“Jeb’s whimsical reworking of ‘Chang’ from a real-life quixotic obsession of the 1950s American right into a ‘mythical conservative warrior’ was his way to perpetuate a cherished family tradition without re-litigating the question of who lost China,” writes Timothy Noah. This seems like a generous reading, from the era when people still gave Jeb credit for being “the smart one,” before he’d had the chance to test that premise on the national stage.
But Noah was willing to presume that Rubio did not know who Chiang was, or at least pretended not to.
“Chang is a mythical conservative warrior,” Rubio told the New York Times Magazine in early 2012, “From time to time, if there’s a big issue going on, you’d see Jeb say, ‘I’m going to unleash Chang.’ He gave me the sword of Chang.”
“From which mythology does this conservative warrior hail?” the Times Magazine asked.
Rubio: “I think it’s a Jeb Bush creation.”
“With (a different variety of) quixotic conservatism once again ascendant, Rubio would be wise to put that sword into storage,” Noah suggests, adding, “It would be nothing but a liability in 2012. Jeb, who reportedly still harbors presidential ambitions of his own, does not help his prospects by stirring up this history, however indirectly.”
Three years later, Jeb continues to reportedly harbor presidential ambitions. Unfortunately for him, so does Rubio. And only one of them has the Sword of Chang on his side.
“I have it somewhere at home,” Rubio told reporters earlier this year, “I have young kids. I don’t want them to run around with a sword.”
Update: Eric Gelman tweets “Pretty sure the first time I saw the phrase ‘Unleash Chiang Kai-shek’ was in Mad Magazine.”
I looked into that, and according to Brian Downing, writing at agonist.org, “MAD had a mock essay contest with the theme ‘Why the US should unleash Chiang Kai-shek,’ with the winner getting a vacation on ‘the island paradises of Quemoy and Matsu.’ Puzzled by the references, I asked my father. After laughing heartily, he explained that Sec. of State John Foster Dulles periodically bellowed the ‘unleash Chiang’ line in the hope of frightening Mao, and that Quemoy and Matsu were islands held by Chiang, which Mao shelled on a daily basis.”
Seems George H.W. wasn’t alone in making the “unleash Chiang” joke.