After Rubio officially became speaker [of the Florida House of Representatives], then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush presented him with a golden sword called “Chang” -- ”the sword of a great conservative warrior.” Bush elaborated on what the sword meant:That quote comes from a 2005 article in The Gainesville Sun.
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.
In 2012, The New York Times Magazine asked Rubio about this; here was the exchange:
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?But it's not a Jeb Bush creation. It's a Poppy Bush creation -- it's a preppy in-joke of his. As Timothy Noah explained in 2012, Bush the Elder used to say "unleash Chiang" while playing tennis, as "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.'"
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.
And note that the proper spelling of the name isn't Chang -- it's Chiang, as in Chiang Kai-shek, who was the exiled leader of the anticommunist Chinese in the Mao era. Poppy was mocking anti-communists in America who wanted to "unleash Chiang" in order to topple the mainland Chinese government. As Noah wrote:
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.)When Rubio discussed "Chang" with the Times interviewer, Noah chided him for not understanding the history behind the reference:
This blog gives Rubio an F in post-World War II history....But I'm with Brad DeLong, who thinks Jeb didn't get it:
Since Doro knows its real provenance, I assume Jeb must, too. Rubio clearly does not.
... George H. W. Bush’s sons -- even the smart one, Jeb -- never got the joke. They, you see, didn’t know enough about world history or even the history of the Republican Party to know who Chiang Kaishek was, or what “Unleash Chiang!” meant. Hence Jeb Bush’s explanation that twentieth-century Chinese nationalist, socialist, general, and dictator Chiang Kaishek was a “mystical warrior… who believes in conservative principles, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism, believes in moral values that underpin a free society.”Precisely -- Jeb took a joke about conservative zealotry and turned into a celebration of conservative zealotry.
And why did Jeb hand this sword to Rubio in the first place? He didn't do it at a gathering of party loyalists or conservative activists -- he did it, according to that Gainesville Sun story, in the chambers of the Florida House. Can you imagine Jerry Brown (or, say, Deval Patrick a few years ago) giving a ceremonial object to a fellow Democrat in a state legislative chamber while praising the Democrat as a "liberal warrior"? It would be regarded as completely out of bounds. But when Republicans do it, it's perfectly OK.
The passing on of a pseudo-sacred phallic object from an older man to a younger man has the weird, vaguely sexual reek of a secret-society ritual from an elite school. Rubio's going to announce his presidential run today, and he's probably going to talk about the fact that, as he says on his Senate site, his parents "earned their way to the middle class working humble jobs -- my father as a bartender in hotels and my mom as a maid, cashier and retail clerk." The passing of the sword strikes me as older, old-money Jeb granting membership in the inner circle to the scholarship boy. What started as Poppy Bush's clubby joke about purist true believers was turned by Jeb into an initiation into a club that's now a true believers' club. But however you look at it, it was a bizarre act.
UPDATE: Charlie Pierce identifies the perfect song to accompany this tale. Wait for the last verse.