TIMOTHY NOAH JANUARY 30, 2012
From a Jan. 29 New York Times Magazine Q and A with Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), everybody's favorite choice for vice president (though he isn't endorsing anyone and tells the Times "I'm not going to be the vice-presidential nominee"):
After you became the first Cuban-American speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, in 2006, your mentor, Jeb Bush, presented you with a sword. What was that about?
Chang is a mythical conservative warrior. 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?
I think it’s a Jeb Bush creation.
This blog gives Rubio an F in post-World War II history (and, while we're at it, an F to the interviewer, Andrew Goldman, for not calling out Rubio's error).
"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.)
Doro writes that "unleash Chiang!" was something her father "picked up in China" when he was U.S. envoy to China. During that time Bush had to manage a balancing act between encouraging the establishment of formal diplomatic ties with communist China and maintaining pro forma recognition of the nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan. But Bush was there in 1975, long past time when anybody save perhaps the occasional stray Bircher was still urging that we unleash Chiang. Perhaps Mao and his government, who remained more than a little touchy about U.S. support for nationalist China, reminded Bush from time to time about America's "unleash Chiang" mania of two decades earlier. Chiang died in April 1975, and thenceforward was un-unleashable. (Mao followed Chiang into the grave the following year, thereby unleashing the Chinese economy. But that's another story.)
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. Since Doro knows its real provenance, I assume Jeb must, too. Rubio clearly does not. And with (a different variety of) quixotic conservatism once again ascendant, Rubio would be wise to put that sword into storage. It is an ironical, Ripon Society-ish sword, a memento of the moderate country-club Republicanism that once reigned in the northeast. 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.