Jung Chang & Jon Halliday: Bush read their bio of Mao

Historians in the News

When President Bush met with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in the Oval Office this month, the talk turned to Ms. Merkel's childhood under Communism, then wandered to the subject of Mr. Bush's latest bedtime reading: "Mao: The Unknown Story," an 814-page biography that presents the Chinese dictator as another Hitler or Stalin.

Participants in the meeting say Mr. Bush spoke glowingly of the book, a 10-year project by Jung Chang, the author of the hugely successful memoir "Wild Swans," and her husband, Jon Halliday, a British historian. "Mao" has been at the top of best-seller lists in Britain and Germany, and was published to mixed reviews late last year in the United States.

The book might at first seem an odd choice for Mr. Bush, whose taste in biography, like that of other American 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 accused the authors of a moralistic, good-and-evil version of history. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said last week that Laura Bush gave the book to her husband as a gift, and that the president had just finished reading it.

Asked why Mr. Bush liked the book, Mr. McClellan said he would find out, then reported back on Friday that Mr. Bush had told him that "Mao" "really shows how brutal a tyrant he was" and that "he was much more brutal than people assumed."

Mr. Bush also said, Mr. 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 Zedong, 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 20th-century leader."

Ms. Chang and Mr. 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 Mr. Bush had read the book. Ms. Chang, whose "Wild Swans," about her family's oppression under Mao, sold 10 million copies worldwide, said she surmised that Mr. Bush was drawn to the book because "it's a very dramatic story about a roller-coaster life." She also said that since Mr. 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."...

(Over the past year Mr. Bush's reading has also included, Mr. McClellan said, "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women," by Geraldine Brooks; "When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House," by Patricia O'Toole; and "1776," by David McCullough.)

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