Something has gone wrong with Jeb Bush. You've seen it: The uncertain posture. The way he seems to want to just die in this Vine where he is made, by off-screen tormentors, to don a hoodie. And the look in his eyes! An uncanny combination of longing, fear and resignation -- it's the look you imagine Oedipus had when he realized that Tiresias was right and that he'd screwed the pooch (a pooch that was his mom). Only Oedipus, he got to rip out those jellies and just get on with it. Bush's downcast visage is now permanently locked in place as each dreary day passes, seemingly without end.
You noticed this a while back, and you don't quite remember when. You remember Donald Trump taking credit for being the first to notice it and term it "low energy," but really, you were there first. You saw it right away. And you saw it at this week's debate in Colorado, where Jeb's tendency toward diffident, enervated public performance was once again on display. Only this time, it really cost him. On an occasion where it was generally deemed a necessity for Bush to rise up and smack Marco Rubio -- the whelp mentee-turned-master tormentor -- back down into his place, things didn't go as planned.
The next morning, Bush was out in New Hampshire, smiling wanly and making the best of it under a somewhat unfortunately worded banner that read, "Jeb Can Fix It." But can he really, if he doesn't know what's broken? Because it seems that the former Florida governor isn't merely lacking in policy acumen or pointed argument. Rather, it's like he's been disconnected from his font of courage and conviction. It's like his mojo itself has been lost.
But what if it's not lost? What if Jeb's warrior essence in fact came to the erstwhile governor by magic, through a powerful weapon, handed down through the ages, known as the "Sword of Chang"? And what if Jeb -- thoughtful, sensitive Jeb -- foolishly, impulsively gave it away?
If memory serves, my first encounter with the Sword of Chang came in the form of this Marin Cogan piece in The New Republic, in which Cogan -- perhaps significantly! -- suggested that Rubio would be the one to "end Jeb Bush's electoral career."
When Rubio was named speaker of the Florida House, Bush presented him with the “sword of Chang” -- a reappropriation of former President George H. W. Bush’s teasing tennis-court threat to “unleash Chiang” Kai-shek, the Chinese dictator. Chang, Bush told Rubio, “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.” Rubio adored the sword and kept it on the wall in the speaker’s office.
From what I gather, this moment gained wider attention when Rubio discussed it in a 2012 interview with Andrew Goldman in The New York Times.
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 also caught the attention of Dave Weigel, then at Slate, who helpfully reproduced the original reporting of The Gainesville Sun, in which Bush expounded further on the sword's legendary properties:
''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.''
Bush then unsheathed a golden sword and gave it to Rubio as a gift.
''I'm going to bestow to you the sword of a great conservative warrior,'' he said, as the crowd roared.
As you may already suspect, Jeb's version of "history" here is part apocrypha, part political street-talk. The historical truth behind this bespoke bit of lore has been exhaustively explicated by The New Republic's Tim Noah and Gawker's Jay Hathaway, from whom you might enjoy a video of the Sword of Chang's passing from Jeb to young Marco. Definitely follow those links for the edification, but for now, I'd like to focus on three significant things.
Bush surrendered the sword to Rubio at what was clearly a happier moment in both men's lives and a bright time for their personal relationship. Bush had no reason at the time to think that handing over this powerful weapon would come back to haunt him -- he couldn't have imagined that Rubio's political ambitions might one day overlap with his own. But in hindsight, it's clear that any generosity Bush showed Rubio was misplaced. Sword or no, they were always on something of a collision course. And let's face it, mentor and mentee, torn apart by ambition -- that's the stuff of legend, right there. There's something almost Lear-like in Bush's naive, giving nature, and something downright Greek about how that fatal flaw in his character could ultimately be his undoing.
The second thing worth noting here is one particular phrase that keeps popping up, again and again: "Unleash Chang." Whenever a Bush family member is in a jam, just unleash Chang. When the forces of conservatism are facing their darkest hour, unleash that Chang. Chang is meant to be unleashed, unsheathed, hefted and wielded, and finally plunged into an enemy's body in a series of thrusts. Lots and lots of thrusts.
Look, do I need to spell this out for you? Handing the sword of Chang over to Rubio deprived Jeb of all this phallic, pelvic action. Rhymes with "tree-masculated," in other words. You guys, come on, I didn't want this to turn into a Camille Paglia column.
Finally, and most importantly -- the sword of Chang and its accompanying legend are not really Jeb Bush's creation. As Hathaway points out, "unleash Chang" was a phrase that Jeb's father deployed frequently, mostly during tennis. (Northeastern Republicans, am I right?) Most of the sleuths of Bush family history who've explored this matter assume that Jeb took one of his old man's sayings (or a saying that H.W. pulled from Mad magazine) and grafted it onto a cheap sword.
But what if that's not true? What if the sword of Chang really is an important Bush family artifact? What if, in fact, it's a token of great importance to their bloodline? We know that George H.W. Bush has been close to unrestrained in his anger about what he's seen, thus far, from the 2016 race. A recent New York Times story suggests that the elder Bush is especially incensed at the race's extremes, the involvement of Donald Trump and the GOP's general "embrace" of "outsiders."
However, there's another concern floating in the background. Per the Times:
More is at stake in this race than Jeb Bush’s political career, friends of the family say. The Bush name has been prominent in national politics for three decades, and a rejection of the younger son by the electorate, especially in the primary, could be deeply wounding to a family proud of its role in American history.
Could it be that Jeb's father is angry and concerned about what's been squandered here? A family legacy is at stake, and Jeb seems unable to summon its renown to fight off his antagonists. This is where unleashing Chang would obviously come in handy. The power of that sword is evidently great enough to have backstopped the Bush family's vaunted ambitions for generations. It is, perhaps, the great fiery quill with which they wrote their hearts' desires on the world.
And if you listen to the contemporary critique of Jeb's meek campaign, it becomes clear that there really is a heart missing. Writing at The Atlantic on Thursday, David Frum assayed Bush as someone who lacks spontaneous wit and pugilistic desire, someone for whom the slightest setback quickly turns into a full-scale Jenga collapse of cascading discouragement and self-pity.
Even worse, Jeb's proven himself to have all the tactical acumen of a stillborn possum. Not only did he fail, as Frum points out, to plan for Rubio's obvious response to criticism that he'd missed many votes as Florida's senator -- he foolishly telegraphed the attack ahead of time. And -- and! -- he did it through a vastly silly troll Twitter account, @IsMarcoWorking, that comes across as no less hip or Web-savvy than when brands say "bae." As if this problem needed further compounding, the people running this account only managed to squeeze off two tweets in the hours before the debate. What was the plan, here? Mock Rubio's work ethic by demonstrating it yourselves?
For some time now, Jeb's been lobbing this weird insult at Marco Rubio, calling him a Republican Obama. I get it, sort of. He's trying to paint Rubio as young, inexperienced and prone to mistakes. But as Brian Beutler points out, the barb also invites one to consider Rubio as "young, charismatic, ethnic, and insurgent." "That's why," Beutler writes, "the comparison to Obama helps [Rubio] with conservatives as much as it stings."
The quip also forces a focus on Bush himself: not young, not insurgent, lacking in vigor. And yet he keeps repeating it!
After the most recent debate, Bush's team hit the streets, aiming to summon a bit of pluck. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Bush touted himself in a post-debate appearance as a "doer" and not a "talker." His surrogates, meanwhile, complained of the race's "reality-show environment" not "play[ing] to his strengths," and did their best to remind reporters that "there are no presidents of the United States that are president because of how they did in an October debate the year before the election." One of Jeb's father's confidants put it like this:
“It’s too early to suggest it’s over,” said Ed Rogers, a veteran Republican strategist who experienced that campaign and went on to serve in the elder Bush's White House.
“A lot of what matters lies in front of us, not behind us,” Rogers said.
Indeed, what lies in front of Jeb Bush is a destiny, a hero's journey, a mission: He must reclaim the Sword of Chang by wresting it from his former apprentice's hands.
Maybe this is what all that money was for -- all those donors, all those millions collected by Bush's "Right To Rise" super PAC. Maybe it was all to fund a daunting quest and an impossible task. I mean, I kind of hope so, because all that cash is sure not showing up on the stump, so it better have been amassed for the purpose of unleashing Chang... from Marco Rubio's possession, that is.
Look -- a magic sword, a classic Joseph Campbell monomyth, the melodramatic tensions between teacher and scion -- I know this seems fanciful. I know it sounds ridiculous. But when you consider how hollowed-out Jeb Bush looks right now, after a lifetime of accomplishment, and how adrift he's been on the trail, failing to connect words and actions and strategy, his having relinquished the Sword of Chang all those years ago is the only plausible explanation.
Because, face it: If Bush's poor performance has nothing to do with the Sword of Chang, then the only possibility is that he's a mediocre, weak-livered candidate who's constantly being set up for failure by a staff of staggering incompetents and... OH HEY, WAIT -- wow, now that I'm typing those words I have to say that makes a lot more sense.
Yeah. Wow. Let's just forget I ever mentioned the Sword of Chang, OK? Sorry.
Jason Linkins edits "Eat The Press" for The Huffington Post, and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast, "So That Happened." Listen to the latest episode below: