Actually, I thought Mme. Chiang Kai-Shek had already died. At 106, she certainly was entitled to be dead.
So I was surprised when I heard of her demise on the radio. The archetypical Dragon Lady of the Cold War, perfectly dressed, beautiful and erect, holding her steely own with every diplomat or head of state she met. It was she who spoke English, not her military husband -- she spoke it with a southern accent -- and so it is likely that she was the most powerful first lady of her generation. Yes -- the other candidate would have been Eleanor Roosevelt, and the imperious Mme. Chiang leaves straightforward Eleanor in the dust. She was more than capable of contributing to or even inventing, whole cloth, the odd and uneasy architecture of Taiwan statehood, its increasingly quaint self-image, the symbolic daily exchange of missile fire across the tiny disputed islands of Kemoy and Matsu, located in the channel between Taiwan and China. Her tireless speechmaking on behalf of the Nationalist cause throughout the United States from the 1940s until well into the 1960s made her a permanent fixture on the Much Admired Women lists that still appear in women's magazines every year, and delayed -- for decades -- the recognition of the four billion mainland Chinese and their government by the United States for decades.
But admiration for her was always tinged with a little uneasiness, the tiniest suspicion that Taiwan was as important for Mme Chiang as a haven for the scions of China's powerful ancient families and all the money they could carry with them from the mainland as it was as a bastion against godless communism. I, for one, was not surprised when she proposed herself as a successor to her stepson as Taiwan's leader -- at the age of 90. Not that life among such strong personalities and formidable pedigrees was easy, but there were ways to see to it that one's desires were fulfilled, and I suspect she was not above many of them.
Much was made of her Christian faith -- by her and by her many American admirers. There was indeed something biblical about her, but she put one more in mind of Jezebel or Herodias than of, say, the Virgin Mary. The regime of her husband was a brutal one: not more brutal than the one on the mainland, but probably not much less. "What would you do at home about a coal miners' strike?" Mrs. Roosevelt asked her innocently, and was taken aback when Mme drew one long perfect nail across her own neck in silent answer. "She can talk beautifully about democracy," Mrs. Roosevelt observed later, ever the generous hostess.
The great figures of the Cold War are fewer and fewer in number. Chairman Mao is gone. Kruschev and Brezhnev are gone. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Nixon are gone. Konrad Adenaur. Charles de Gaulle. President Reagan is going. Mrs. Thatcher is retired. Listening, the other night, to the choral movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on the radio, we were shocked to realize that the glorious moment when Leonard Bernstein conducted it in the ruins of the Berlin Wall was almost fifteen years ago. Soon it will be twenty. Fifty in no time.
We thought, in those days, that the end of the Cold War meant the beginning of world peace. We were in Kuwait in no time. Ancient grudges in Yugoslavia burst shockingly into fresh flame. Somalia. Rwanda. Nothing in Israel improved in the least. Q and I sat on the couch at the end of 1989 and listened to the music. Our joy was premature. Humanity found more than enough ways to keep ourselves busy at the thing we do better than we do almost anything else: fighting.
We're at it again. Nobody in the world needs Chairman Mao or Mme Chiang to rally anybody to anything: we rally ourselves, find new enemies, fasten on this or that political figure, charismatic or not, and fall in resolutely behind his banner. We label the banners behind which we march religious, when they are really all the same skull-and-crossbones behind which humanity has always marched off to war. Many get rich from wars. None of those are the soldiers who fight them.
And yet it is the great figures of wars, the leaders, whom we remember, as if they did the fighting themselves. As if they did the dying. But it is not so.
They live to generous old ages. And die in bed.