Visiting Twin Oaks
One of the perks of this job is occasionally being invited to a really excellent luncheon.
So it was on Tuesday when about half a dozen of us, led by Editor-in-Chief Wesley Pruden and Managing Editor Fran Coombs, trooped over to Twin Oaks — Taiwan’s magnificent estate in the Cleveland Park area of Washington — for an introductory meeting with Taiwan’s new representative, David Tawei Lee.
The 26-room mansion, home to Republic of China ambassadors from 1937 to 1978, comes with a long and rich history, which Mr. Lee was happy to recount for our benefit.
Sitting on a wooded 17-acre lot no more than a couple of miles from the White House, the rambling white frame structure was built in the late 1800s as a summer retreat for the family of Gardiner Green Hubbard, the founder and first president of the National Geographic Society.
A Chinese ambassador, Thomas C.T. Wang, rented the home in 1937, the day before presenting his credentials to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the embassy eventually purchased the property in 1947.
Panic set in, in the words of Mr. Lee, when President Jimmy Carter unexpectedly announced in 1978 that the United States was about to recognize the communist regime in Beijing, rather than the Nationalist regime in Taipei, as the legitimate government of China.
Fearing that Beijing would lay claim to all Chinese assets in the United States, Taiwan’s representatives quickly sold the estate for $2 to a foundation set up for the purpose under the co-chairmanship of then Sen. Barry Goldwater.
It was only a few months before Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act which, among other things, guaranteed that all property held by the Republic of China (Taiwan) government as of Dec. 31, 1978, would remain the property of Taiwan. Twin Oaks was subsequently returned to its previous owners.
Even so, several restrictions were placed on the use of the estate out of deference to mainland China, many of which remain to this day. Taiwan representatives are permitted to entertain in the home but may not live or even sleep in it, and State Department officials still are forbidden from visiting the property.
All that did nothing to detract from the luncheon, a multi-course extravaganza of Chinese delicacies crowned with a plate of thinly sliced filet mignon. And to our delight, Mr. Lee was equally generous with some news.
As could have been expected, we asked Mr. Lee about a pending U.S. arms sale to his country, approval of which is expected soon from the Taiwan legislature.
To our surprise, Mr. Lee told us that the crucial vote, which had been expected in October, had become an issue in Taiwan’s December legislative elections and might now be postponed until after that ballot.
Even more surprising, Mr. Lee told us that a three-year search for a shipyard to build eight diesel submarines for Taiwan appeared to have been concluded with a decision to build them in the United States.
The boats would be built “probably in Mississippi, in [former Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott’s state,” Mr. Lee said, according to notes taken at the time by our reporter Sharon Behn.
Back in our office, we conducted LexisNexis and Google searches to make sure we had not missed some previous announcement of such a decision. We hadn’t. The State Department said it was news to them and referred us to the Pentagon; the spokesman’s office there did not return our call before deadline.
Our page-one story became more fodder for the legislative debate in Taiwan, where some opposition legislators had been arguing that the submarines should be built in Taiwan. And within days the Taiwan media had Mr. Lee saying he had been misquoted and that he had presented the Mississippi plan as only one of several options.
But, so far, he has not complained to us.
David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.