Bush gushes over Chang-Halliday’s Mao

How odd; it seems like awfully serious reading for our preznit. A most unusual article on why Bush is so enamored of the controversial biography.

The book might at first seem an odd choice for Bush, whose taste in biography, like that of other U.S. presidents, runs to previous occupants of the Oval Office. But it is not so surprising given that “Mao: The Unknown Story” has been embraced by the right as a searing indictment of Communism.

Other reviewers have praised the book’s brutal portrait of Mao as a corrective to sunnier biographies, even as they have questioned some of its prodigious research and criticized the authors for a moralistic, good-and-evil version of history.

Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said last week that Laura Bush had given the book to her husband as a gift and that the president had just finished reading it. Asked why Bush liked the book, McClellan said he would find out, then reported back on Friday that Bush had told him that it “really shows how brutal a tyrant he was” and that “he was much more brutal than people assumed.”

Bush also said, McClellan recounted, that “millions upon millions were killed because of his policies.” On that score, the book is both sweeping and specific, with a first chapter that begins with this sentence: “Mao Tse-Tung, who for decades held absolute power over the lives of one-quarter of the world’s population, was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other twentieth-century leader.”

Chang and Halliday said in a telephone interview from Paris on Friday, during a long weekend away from their home in London, that they were “thrilled” that Bush had read the book. Chang, whose “Wild Swans,” a memoir of her family’s oppression under Mao, sold 10 million copies, said she surmised that Bush was drawn to the book because “it’s a very dramatic story about a roller-coaster life.” She also said that since Bush was dealing with the current Chinese leadership, “it’s not surprising that he should want to know from what roots this regime has grown.”

American scholars say that Bush was probably also drawn to the book because it is, in effect, an argument for the president’s second-term agenda of spreading democracy around the world.

One major disclosure in the book, for example, is Stalin’s powerful role in Mao’s rise.

“The book certainly makes an effective case for the wickedness of dictatorship,” said Andrew Nathan, a specialist in Chinese politics at Columbia University. “It doesn’t talk about democracy, but for a person who believes in democracy, this is a valuable brief.”

Nathan, who criticized what he called the authors’ vague and inaccessible sourcing last year in The London Review of Books, said the biography presented Mao as a “comic-book monster,” with little explanation of the psychological, sociological and historical forces that allowed him to rise.

He also said he was skeptical that the book would help in understanding China’s current leadership.

“Today’s Communist Party is a highly developed bureaucracy like IBM or General Motors,” Nathan said. “It’s not the Communist Party of Mao’s time.”

Considering how Bush sees things as pure black and white, I’d prefer to see him reading a more nuanced book on China. However, if his endorsement of the book helps bring Mao’s savagery and inhumanity into the limelight, I won’t complain.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

I am not surprised that Bush likes the book. He seems to be the kind of guy who likes things that are plausible.
I have read several book reviews of the Chang book and have decided not to buy it. It’s like, “is that it? tell me something new.”

January 22, 2006 @ 8:59 pm | Comment

I found the book mesmerising in a depressing kind of way.

Yes, some scholars have questioned some of the sources (Jonathan Spence had an interesting review of it in the New York Review of Books), but few — if any — have denied the central contention that Mao was a deeply unpleasant sociopath.

It’s not an impartial work, I admit. The best way to describe it is as a persuasive, damning and well-documented case for the prosecution.

January 22, 2006 @ 10:42 pm | Comment

No surprise that George Junior liked it. Like most things he’s given to read it’s based on faulty intelligence and selective choice of material.

January 23, 2006 @ 12:52 am | Comment

I’m impressed that he got beyond the contents page.

January 23, 2006 @ 2:57 am | Comment

I would expect Bush to make some hilarious remarks like, “Mao was a terrible communist who killed capitalists” or “Mao was a dictator who hates democracy”.

Classic Bushism ๐Ÿ™‚

January 23, 2006 @ 7:33 am | Comment

Yeah, sp, those statements really WOULD be stupid. Because, Mao didn’t kill many capitalists. He killed millions of Chinese peasants.

January 23, 2006 @ 9:02 am | Comment

Bush can read?

January 23, 2006 @ 11:27 am | Comment

I read Li’s _The private life of Chairman Mao_ and enjoyed it. How does Chang-Halliday’s book compare?

January 23, 2006 @ 9:45 pm | Comment

Patrick, as someone else said (I can’t remember who) – it’s a moving case for the prosecution.

January 24, 2006 @ 2:41 am | Comment

One of the things that troubles me about Mao, not the book, but Mao himself and especially the CPC leadership is what do foreigners think when they see Mao’s face on our money and his portrait and statues here in China?

I think foreigners must have a sick feeling, but they probably forget about it during their romantical journey here, just like they forget about the begging and the damaged lives.

I like how foreigners attempt to rationalize evil to feed their own selfish good motives.

January 25, 2006 @ 1:31 am | Comment

Liu S., I was a foreigner there and I never forgot it for a moment. I have written many times about the statues and Mao worship. And about the begging and the damaged lives. That’s mainly what this blog is about.

You can’t really blame foreigners who arrive there with very little context to have Mao’s sins and the suffering beggars top of mind all the time. We have to be compassionate, but we all have to live our lives, as well.

January 25, 2006 @ 1:59 am | Comment

Liu, richard’s right. We have to be practical – I mean what are we supposed to do? Spit on the money every time we pay with it?

I laugh about it as I think it shows how backward China is in some respects. Not the fault of ordinary people, of course, but you can’t help but find it amusing to pay with “Mao money”.

January 25, 2006 @ 9:43 am | Comment

Well, Raj, if we spit on the money, I think that possibly would help with vast pools of saliva on the streets, so I think Mao could definitely serve a better purpose in this way.

As you foreigners say, “Food for thought!:

January 25, 2006 @ 11:48 pm | Comment

An original idea. Like the chewing gum boards you see in the UK.

Hmm, I like the idea of using 1 Yuan notes as disposable tissues.

January 26, 2006 @ 8:27 am | Comment

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