Do you wish to come with me to Taipei? We started this journal yesterday, here. And we’ll simply wade back in . . .
Every tourist — and every reporting journalist, I suppose — sees the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Chiang is a big, complicated subject, of course. Was he a dictator and brute? Or was he what you might call a necessary and helpful authoritarian, on the way to democracy?
We will not get into this question here and now. Entire books have been written about it, and yet more will. But let me just say that I talk to liberal democrats, here in Taiwan, who have warm things to say about Chiang. This surprises me a bit. They are under no illusion, of course, about the oppressive elements of the man’s government. They know better than most.
Some years ago, I attended a reception for Václav Havel at the Czech embassy in Washington. In attendance were many ex-political prisoners, like Havel. They came from Eastern Europe, again like Havel. They also came from Cuba and many other parts of the globe, including Taiwan.
The stories the ex-political prisoners from Taiwan told? They were just like those of the Czechs, Cubans, Russians, and so on — horrific.
At the Memorial Hall, there are many photos and other remembrances of Chiang. I see Ike, visiting Taiwan in 1960. I didn’t know he came here, at that late date — the last year of his presidency. He was about 70.
I see Reagan visiting in 1971. Looks like a movie star, I swear — never more movie-starrish.
Chiang and his Madame were glamorous people, whatever we think of them — highly photogenic. Their son, CCK, who succeeded the old man? Unfavored by nature, to use an expression I learned from my British colleague (and friend and hero), David Pryce-Jones.
I turn into a particular room, and have a bit of a start: There’s Chiang, sitting at his desk. A model of him, rather — a big, life-size, lifelike doll. Creepy. His office is just the way he left it. The clock is stopped at the moment he died.
As I said, could give you the creeps.
His shrine is like the Lincoln Memorial, and seems consciously modeled on it. A guide informs me that the marble was donated by the United States.
Here’s something that makes the Chiang shrine different from the Lincoln one: There’s an honor guard, and, of course, changings of that guard. The changing of the guard is rather impressive, in its solemnity, mixed with theater. What I mean is: mixed with choreography and flair.
Out on Liberty Square, a band is rehearsing — an American-style marching band, as at halftime. They are doing . . . “Tonight,” from West Side Story.
“Oh, Bernstein!” I think. “That’s fame.”
Many years ago, Paul Johnson was in Perth, and heard a car salesman recite a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough (“Say not the struggle naught availeth”). Johnson thought, “That’s fame.”
After I read this — Johnson’s anecdote — I was in a little Indian village, a dot in Gujarat. In the stillness of the evening, a man’s cellphone went off. It played the theme to Love Story, by Francis Lai. I thought — following Johnson — “That’s fame.”
Many lovely people in Taipei bow to me, and I bow back — in kind of a sloppy, awkward, half-assed way. Remember how Clinton would give a salute, ridiculously?
Yeah, he’d get off Air Force One or Marine One or something, and there’d be a serviceman at the bottom of the stairs, saluting him, and Clinton would give this desultory, perfunctory salute-wave back. Many people laughed at him for it.
Well, my bows in Taipei are the equivalent of Clinton’s salutes. Pathetic.