[OUTLOOK]Knowing when to stop runningServing as a president is hard. But serving as a former president is hard as well. It must be even harder for Korea’s former presidents because the country has a short history of democracy and presidential system, so they have few role models to follow.
When former President Kim Dae-jung visited his hometown, Mokpo in South Jeolla province, he made some childish remarks including “No Honam [Jeolla], no country” and “I will live as a person from Jeolla and will die as one.”
Although he took a lifetime to become president, it seems that he had never thought about what he should do and how he should behave after he retired from the post. In these remarks, he marred his career and reputation as a former president, a Nobel Prize laureate and a world leader. He seems to be suffering a bad case of “post-power syndrome.”
Some people earn better marks as former presidents than they did as incumbent presidents.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter is a good example. In 1994, he flew to Pyongyang to negotiate with Kim Il Sung. He found a way to resolve a nuclear crisis that seemed on the verge of exploding.
Committed to the project Habitat for Humanity, he traveled in remote areas of the world and built houses for people who had none. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve conflicts in Asia, the Middle East and Central and South America.
People joked that it would have been better if Mr. Carter had skipped the presidency and become a former president from the beginning.
Bill Clinton and another former president, George H. W. Bush, also have set good examples. Leaving their resentments behind, they travel around the world where disasters hit and organize aid to the victims. They are admired and respected for that work.
Of course, not all foreign former presidents have done a great job after their retirement.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, served two terms as the youngest president in American history. In 1909, he retired from the presidency at 51, an age at which others would run for the office. In 1906, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation to end the Russo-Japanese War.
In 1912, however, he broke his promise to leave politics and ran for president with support from progressives in the Republican Party. His excuse for re-entering politics was that his successor, William Taft, was far too conservative.
Votes that would have gone to the Republican Party were divided between the Mr. Taft and Mr. Roosevelt running as a candidate of the Bull Moose Party, helping the Democrat Woodrow Wilson win the White House. After that unsuccessful attempt at a comeback, Mr. Roosevelt spent his time writing for newspapers or going on safari in Africa for the rest of his life.
Let’s go back in time. Otto von Bismarck, the creator of the German Empire, showed great patience in handling his post-power syndrome.
From 1862 until 1890, he served as the chancellor of Prussia under Kaiser Wilhelm I. During this period, he designed and implemented a legendary policy to balance the power among European nations and made Prussia a central power in Europe.
But when Wilhelm II became kaiser in 1888, he established direct rule by the royal family and fired the chancellor because Bismarck supported conservative social policies and thus opposed the Social Democratic Party.
After losing power, Bismarck frequented a restaurant in central Hamburg, the Coellnsche Austern und Hummerstuben on Brodschrangen Strasse. Drinking tea and dining, he tried to control his anger about his personal situation and about Wilhelm II, who was dismantling the policies that Bismarck himself had designed with such care.
Staying in that restaurant, he spent a lot of time formulating editorials to condemn Kaiser Wilhelm II’s foreign policy, which he believed was driving the German Empire to clash with other European powers, and allowing journalists from the Hamburgernachrichten newspaper write them down. He did not do much other than that. It was fortunate that he died before the fall of the German Empire after World War I so that he did not see that happen.
The prestige of a former president is a public asset. I hope that former presidents Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and the presidential hopefuls learn from former presidents of other countries who are engaged in constructive activities and serve not only their people but also all of mankind.
They can take Mr. Roosevelt, who is similar to Kim Dae-jung, and Rhee In-je, who lost his bid for his party’s nomination, split and ran as an independent and gave the election to the opposition, as bad role models. President Carter and the first President Bush are worthy of emulating.
I hope Korea’s former presidents will stop hanging around Seoul and peeking into the political arena.
They can return to their home towns, live there and set good examples, as President Roh Moo-hyun is reportedly planning to do.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie