[Outlook] A fork in the road

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[Outlook] A fork in the road

When Jimmy Carter was president of the United States in 1977?1981, his approval rating was quite low. He even failed to win re-election.

After he retired, however, his political standing improved. He started to show what he was capable of only after he left office. He earned fame as a peace mediator in international disputes. He won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in promoting democracy and human rights. He is one of the most successful former presidents in U.S. history.

People jokingly say it would have been better if he had been a former president from the beginning. Everyone knows that it is no compliment. A president must aim to become great while in office, not after he has stepped down.

Every president has dreams of greatness and being remembered positively in the history books, but the sad truth is that most of them end up failing at their job. If a president is evaluated as being just all right, that’s still regarded as being relatively good.

To succeed at becoming president is one thing - becoming great while in office is another entirely. A president’s qualifications do not make him great. It is the time he spends in the job, not his talent, that makes a president memorable.

The harder a president tries to become a great man, the more likely he is to fail.

The presidency is a tricky position indeed. If the president just avoids making mistakes, often that is success enough.

So what does President Lee Myung-bak need to do to have history look kindly on his time at the helm? He can simply avoid the path of failure followed by his predecessors. This, however, is easier said than done.

Heroes of Ancient Rome were ruined because of Cleopatra’s temptations. It was the Lorelei that lured countless navigators of the Rhine to their doom.

It isn’t easy to turn away. Former presidents succumbed to temptation after getting the job, and so failed to become either great presidents or even great former presidents. But they were all once great politicians who became president with their outstanding talents and skills.

A person needs one of four qualifications to become president. He needs to be a politician, a philosopher, a manager and an activist. In an ideal world, he is all four.

A politician’s weapon is his resoluteness; Kim Young-sam won election with his ability to make decisions. A philosopher has great insight, and Kim Dae-jung’s power came from his insight. A manager has an unrivaled driving force, and Park Chung Hee left a vivid image as the chief executive officer of Korea. An activist has the skill to persuade others, and Roh Moo-hyun succeeded with his ability to instigate.

They were all great in one way or another. What temptations, then, caused them to fail?

A politician sometimes forms coalitions all too easily. A philosopher can be lost in his ideals and make naive judgments. A manager is likely to become a dictator as he pursues efficiency. An activist can have the tendency to become self-righteous and arrogant and to act as an enlightened despot.

In order to become a great president, President Lee must learn from the qualities of the former presidents. He needs to have the insight to see where Korea stands right now, how it will be in the future and what we should prepare for. Resolute power is needed to make timely decisions and to set a goal of national policy and the tasks the state must achieve. The ability to persuade others is required when explaining to the people what needs to be done and for what purpose. A powerful driving force is needed to produce results within a short term of five years.

What President Lee needs to learn most is not to replicate the missteps of the former presidents.

As Lee has good qualifications as a manager, he must restrain himself from becoming a dictator. Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung fought for democracy their entire lives but after becoming president, they changed. They did not listen to others and oppressed opponents. Former President Roh was a good activist and he often proved to be arrogant and forcibly pushed forward what he believed was right.

The presidency changes a person. When the president is tempted by power, his administration becomes despotic. He must overcome temptation. President Lee has now arrived at a fork in the road, between success and failure.

*The writer is a political consultant and the chief executive officer of Minn Consulting. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Park Sung-min
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