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Elaine Chao: Livin' the American Dream

First Daughter for the First Son

by LAURA FLANDERS

The following is an excerpt from the book, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species, by LAURA FLANDERS (Verso.)

When it comes to one’s personal history, it sometimes suits a politician for the public to know very little. Better yet for the public, the media, and fellow politicians to know little, but assume much. Such has been the happy fate of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

”Elaine Chao believes deeply in the American dream because she has lived it,” effused George W. Bush when he announced her nomination to his cabinet in 2001. ”Her successful life gives eloquent testimony to the virtues of hard work and perseverance and to the unending promise of this great country.”

The Organization of Chinese Americans welcomed the first Asian American to hold a cabinet position. Chao, they said, would help the Bush administration ”represent the diversity of the nation.” Union leaders John Sweeney and Morton Bahr supported Chao because they’d worked with her when she ran the charity United Way. Conservatives in the Bush administration were reassured because Chao stood a good chance of getting an easy ride from labor. And Chao’s colleagues in the right-wing Heritage Foundation were delighted, for reasons they kept all to themselves.

As far as the members of the Senate health, education, labor, and pensions committee were concerned, one of the best things about Elaine Chao was that she was relatively unknown. Chao is married to a powerful GOP fundraiser, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Decorum would rule out any tough questioning of this nominee in the Senate chamber-and outside it, Chao had a powerful personal story, and that’s about all the public would hear.

Ironically, while the Bush administration opposes affirmative action, and claims that every appointee is named on his or her merits alone, Chao’s merits, as laid out by Bush, and then by senator after senator at her confirmation hearing, had very little to do with her experience as a banker, a GOP fundraiser, and corporate bureaucrat, and everything to do with her gender and race. What qualified Chao to oversee 125 million workers, 10 million employers and the enforcement of 180 federal laws? The Senate’s confirmation committee never asked. It was enough that Chao had, as one senator put it, this ”compelling” and ”poignant” personal story. Even if no one knew what it was.

But it’s not strictly true that nothing has been written by or about Chao; it is rather that the same thing has been said and written about her, again and again and again.

”Elaine Chao began her life in this country with nothing,” wrote the Christian Science Monitor in 1997. Her family came to America with ”little more than the clothes on their backs,” declared the Heritage Foundation in 1999. ”The rigors of assimilation still seem fresh in Chao’s mind,” wrote the Los Angeles Times in a 1992 piece; ”her hard-driven father. . . helped her get by.” With her mother, father, and two sisters sitting behind her in the Dirksen Office Building, Chao beamed a loving look her family’s way, thanked the committee for their welcome, and noted the auspiciousness of the occasion. It was Chinese New Year, she pointed out.

It was indeed: the beginning of the year of the snake.

Elaine Chao was born in Taiwan in 1953, to a family who fled from Shanghai after the Chinese revolution in 1949. These were difficult years for Chinese anti-communists, but Elaine’s father, James, had had the luck not only to attend one of his country’s finest universities with Jiang Zemin, the future leader of the People’s Republic, but also to fall in with the immensely powerful Shanghai-born family the Tungs, who shifted their
operations to Taiwan for a time. The Tung dynasty is powerful in Chinese politics and business to this day. Hong Kong’s first chief executive after reunification with mainland China was Tung Chee Hwa, the first child of the magnate Tung Chao Yung, in whose Maritime Trust company James Chao got his start. James Chao married into another powerful family: the Hsus (pronounced ”shoe”). His wife’s family would later operate a shipping empire in Hong Kong.

Did James Chao arrive in the US with nothing? Quite possibly, but Chao had, as one who knows his history put it, ”access to plenty.” Chao was connected to powerful families in Taiwan-the center of US­Sino relations during the embargo against mainland China-and in trade, connections translate into freight. James Chao came to the United States in 1958, an assistant in one of the Tungs’ merchant-shipping outfits. At a time when immigration to the US by Chinese from anywhere in the world was strictly limited to 102 people a year (the quota for Britons was 65,000), and the FBI was aggressively pursuing potentially disloyal ”Red Chinese,” James Chao was somehow able to navigate the system and, within three years, send for his wife and daughters.

In 1964, James Chao founded his own shipping company, called Foremost, to carry goods between the US and Taiwan. It was a turbulent decade for traders. After years of isolation from post-revolution Beijing, the most ambitious men in Washington had their sights set on opening up US relations with mainland China, and Chao, with his personal and professional connections already established, was in a perfect place to take advantage. In 1971, Congress lifted the trade embargo on the People’s Republic of China. A year later, President Nixon made his famous trip to Beijing, arranged by then foreign policy advisor Henry Kissinger. Former Congressman George Bush Sr. of Texas became the chief US liaison officer in the Chinese capital from 1974­75. Full diplomatic relations were established in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. The value of US trade with China grew, from some $95 million in 1972 to $120 billion in 2002, and the vast majority of all imports came by sea.

The Chao family moved from the city to the suburbs, and a series of larger, more expensive homes. From Queens, they moved to Syosset, Long Island, and from there to Harrison, in New York’s affluent Westchester County. Elaine, the eldest of six daughters, clearly had the coveted role of First Son. James Chao taught her plumbing, as well as house-painting. As she tells the story, one year the family painted their massive
Westchester house themselves, ”even though the family could afford to hire painters.” Another long summer project was to tar their long circular driveway.

It is here, as Elaine Chao’s up-by-the-bootstraps story turns to talk of circular driveways in Westchester, that one begins to get a sense of the quality of the bootstrap leather. There’s nothing wrong with Chao’s family’s success. There are plenty of immigrants from every land who arrive in the United States with the right stuff, in the right circumstances to get ahead. The problem arises when Chao generalizes from her
own experience to draw conclusions about the ”immigrant” experience.

Unlike many young Chinese immigrants, Chao had to beg her father to let her take a job after high school. In a 1996 interview, she said, ”I had to convince him that to be American I had to get a summer job.” Whether her father, who ruled the household, was innately enlightened, or influenced by changing women’s roles in the US, Elaine not only received permission to pursue a college education, but was permitted to leave home to study, put off marriage for decades, and was sent to one of America’s very best schools-a proudly feminist institution at that-Mount Holyoke in leafy South Hadley, Massachusetts.

Elaine Chao graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1975 with a BA in Economics and was immediately snapped up by Harvard Business School. From there, she worked for a spell at the Gulf Oil Corporation (which owned a Taiwan-based petrochemical subsidiary at the time), and at Citicorp, a massive international investment bank. Her area of expertise was shipping, her father’s business. At Citicorp she became a loan specialist, working in the ship-financing department in New York City. In 1983, she applied to be one of thirteen White House Fellows, and was accepted, working as special assistant in the Office of Policy Development in the first administration of Ronald Reagan.

George H.W. Bush named 150 Asians to positions in his administration, including Chao, whom he nominated to head the Peace Corps in 1991.

At the Peace Corps, Chao oversaw the dispatch of the first American volunteers to the former Soviet Union. Headlines like this one (in Money) appeared in US financial magazines: "Want a capitalist job? Try going to Russia.” The Corps offered American MBAs free language training, housing, healthcare, and a stipend to spend two years either teaching or ”developing small businesses” in the former Soviet republics. US taxpayers, in effect, paid for a horde of bankers, stockbrokers, and experts in advertising, marketing and finance to get their foot in the door in the postcommunist states. ”Memories of living in a developing nation are part of who I am today and give me a profound understanding of the challenges of economic development,” Chao told the press. What was needed in the former Soviet Union, she said, were ”managerial skills.”

What Russia really needed at the time were doctors and scientists and anyone who could have stopped an impending catastrophe. Life expectancy for men was plummeting (from 64 years in 1991 to 57 by ’95). Infant mortality was rising by 15 percent a year. Fifty percent of all schoolchildren suffered chronic illness, and those rates were going up. Russians needed experts in heart disease, alcoholism, cancer, radiation poisoning, and wife abuse; what they got, courtesy of the Peace Corps, was a state-funded capitalist vanguard.

The Corps was sending volunteers to China, too. In a controversial move, Bush’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft had pushed Beijing to accept Peace Corps volunteers when he met the head of the People’s Republic just three months after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The Peace Corps concession was a sop to Scowcroft’s critics-of whom there were many-who said he should never have gone to Beijing at all. Bush insisted it showed the power of what Reagan had once called ”positive engagement.” Americans were not convinced. They had been glued to their television sets in June 1989 when student poets and others inspired by the opening up of politics in the Soviet Union gathered in a festive encampment in Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square. The world watched, horrified, as army tanks rolled in and over the protestors, killing scores of nonviolent students and rounding up hundreds more for arrest. The public reaction to such scenes threw Washington politics into turmoil.

This was hardly a matter on which Elaine Chao had no views. Chao’s family’s interests were directly tied to US relations (and trade) with China. In 1988, making a bet on the likely turn of the tide, James Chao moved his business from nationalist Taiwan to Hong Kong (which was due to revert from British hands to Chinese, in 1997). He renewed his ties with Beijing and his college chum, Jiang Zemin. According to research by John Judis of the New Republic, Chao contracted to build two ships with China’s state-owned shipyard in Shanghai in these years, when Zemin was party secretary of Shanghai. After Zemin became the Chinese head of state, James Chao began visiting Beijing regularly-meeting with Zemin and the head of China Shipbuilding in August 1989, just three months after Tiananmen Square. In Sino­US relations, the Chaos straddled a critical world divide: father James took tea with the powerful in Beijing, and daughter Elaine went out for coffee with their Washington counterparts. It was around this time that Elaine met George W., or as she has referred to him, First Son.

LAURA FLANDERS is the host of "Your Call," heard weekdays on public radio, KALW 91.7 fm, in San Francisco and on the internet, and the author of "BUSHWOMEN; Tales of a Cynical Species" out now, from Verso Books. For information on Laura’s national book tour, please visit www.lauraflanders.com.