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Explorer Marco Polo, and first President Bush

- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2008

Three years after returning home from his fabulous 24-year journey to the East, Marco Polo, a Venetian naval commander captured by the Genoese in 1298, found himself sharing a cell with a Tuscan romance writer, Rustichello of Pisa, who was looking for a way to while away the time in prison. Their only common language was French, and thus, suggests historian Laurence Bergreen, Marco Polo's famous "Travels" was originally composed in, essentially, fractured French.

In Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu (Knopf, $28.95,415 pages, illus.), Mr. Bergreen has managed make wonderful sense of what he describes in his endnotes as a disarray that reminded him "of a manuscript dropped on a flight of stairs, then gathered up, with many of the pages out of order."

Mr. Bergreen argues that the evidence "overwhelmingly shows" that Marco Polo went to China and that the most interesting question therefore concerns why the suspicion persists that he did not. The reason may rest with his "particular way of looking at the world. He went east at the age of seventeen, and he came of age in the Mongol Empire, speaking languages he acquired en route, and living in a vibrant ethos combining Mongol, Chinese, Buddhist, Nestorian Christian, and Indian influences . . . .His account reflects his Mongolian coming of age and sensibility."

In addition, in comparison with the accounts of earlier travelers, says the author, Marco Polo "freely mingled fact and fantasy, personal experience and legend, all of it buttressed by straightforward assessments of the people and places he encountered, and all of it energized by his braggadocio."

Mr. Bergreen begins with the first journey of the Polo merchant family — Marco's father and uncle — to the Mongol empire long before Marco was born. Kublai Khan liked the pair and commissioned them to serve as his ambassadors to the pope. When they made the return journey East, young Marco accompanied them, learning numerous languages, surviving a yearlong bout of tuberculosis, absorbing exotic cultures and developing diplomatic skills as they traveled.

When they finally reached Kublai Khan's court, the emperor took Marco Polo into his service and for the next 17 years they "participated in a most unusual partnership as master and servant, teacher and disciple, and even father an son." Marco's facility with languages made him especially useful to the khan as an emissary and observer throughout the empire.

For a time he was a tax assessor. He was amazed by the Chinese use of coal and by their use of paper, silk, and salt cakes as money. He was captivated by Buddhism and some other Eastern religions, and alternately intrigued and repelled by diverse sexual practices.

The Polos eventually proved so useful to Kublai Khan that they feared he would never allow them to return home, lest their departure appear to be a sign of his diminishing power. They solved this problem by proposing to escort a princess bride on her journey to King Argon's kingdom — "the only event described by Marco that is confirmed in detail by Chinese and Mongol sources," says the author.

The khan died two years after the Polos' departure. Sadly, the Polos were robbed of a significant part of the fortune they had earned in their decades abroad when they reached an outpost of the Byzantine Empire on the Black Sea. All that remained were the jewels they had bought with much of the gold the khan had given them, which they had sewn into their clothing.

Mr. Bergreen's book is a remarkably coherent and readable biography and travelogue.

•••

"For a period of two years, from 1989 until early 1991, George H. W. Bush made a series of very good decisions, some of which deserve to be considered great." So writes Los Angeles historian Timothy Naftati in the latest of the presidential mini-biographies being published by Times Books George H. W. Bush, ($22, 202 pages).

There are two Bushes — the ambitious politician from Texas with a finger to the wind, and the pragmatic, experienced president who handled extraordinary foreign policy challenges with sensitivity and skill.

Mr. Bush served with distinction as a Navy aviator in World War II, graduated from Yale, and then moved to Texas to make money in the oil business. He became active in Republican politics and ran for office with mixed results: he was defeated in a campaign for the U.S. Senate but subsequently served two terms in the House.

Then came a string of appointive offices: U.S. representative to the United Nations, Republican national chairman, our first de facto ambassador to China. But his political career appeared stalled. According to Mr. Naftali, when President Ford named Mr. Bush CIA director in 1976 both George and Barbara Bush cried, for the appointment "seemed . . . to mark the end of Bush's political career."

The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 made Mr. Bush's CIA period a brief one, and in 1979 he began his first run for the presidency. His positions tended to be centrist by Republican standards; he was pro-choice and supported the equal rights amendment. His resume was sufficiently impressive that he ended up as Ronald Reagan's running mate. This entailed supporting Reagan's prolife, antitax platform, but Mr. Bush reinvented himself and was sufficiently involved in policy matters to become tarred to a degree by the Iran-Contra scandal.

Mr. Bush, though a plodding campaigner, was a logical successor to Reagan, and in 1988 he defeated a Democratic ticket led by Michael Dukakis to reach the White House. There he dealt with a series of foreign policy crises: the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, the collapse of the Soviet Union and, finally, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Convinced that only U.S. engagement with Soviet reformers could assure the end of the Soviet threat, Bush supported Gorbachev in his failed attempts to reform the Soviet system. At the same time he helped persuade Moscow to accept the reunification of Germany and the concept of self-determination for Moscow's erstwhile satellites in Eastern Europe.

But the signature event of Mr. Bush's term was the first war against Iraq. Three days after Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, Mr. Bush announced that the Iraqi conquest would not be allowed to stand. His administration rallied an impressive international coalition against Saddam Hussein, and in 1991 Operation Desert Storm evicted the Iraqis from Kuwait and all but destroyed Saddam's army.

But Mr. Bush halted the U.S.-led offensive short of Baghdad, and Saddam remained in power. The president later remarked, "I was wrong, as was every other leader, in thinking that Saddam Hussein would be gone."

Just after Desert Storm, Mr. Bush's approval rating touched an unprecedented 89 percent. But he had neglected his domestic priorities, and this was to prove fatal. The economy was stagnant, unemployment hovered around 7 percent, and conservatives resented that Mr. Bush had reneged on his pledge of no new taxes. The Democrats nominated a ticket headed by Bill Clinton and campaigned on the slogan, "It's the economy, stupid." Never a charismatic campaigner, Mr. Bush fared poorly in a series of TV debates against the treacly Mr. Clinton.

Resoundingly defeated, Mr. Bush returned to Houston to plot his revenge. It would take the form of his son, George W.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.