[Viewpoint] Remembering Reagan’s legacy

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[Viewpoint] Remembering Reagan’s legacy

The United States may be unrivalled in championing freedom of speech, but the downside is that political rhetoric there can be equally appalling. Debate ceases to exist in politics, replaced by ruthless slandering and an eternal blame game. Radio and television are so saturated with rants and negativity that it makes one wonder if this country can really be envied as a model democratic state.

Such division and polarization culminated in a deadly rampage against a Democratic congresswoman in Tucson, Ariz., early last month. After the shooting that killed six, liberals blamed conservatives for inciting violence with their extreme rhetoric while conservatives accused the liberals of politically exploiting a criminal tragedy.

The exchange of tasteless and relentless attacks between the left and right is not confined to the United States. It is a symptom of excess democracy that our country lives with as well. President Barack Obama, in an address following the shooting, emphasized the need for empathy and civility. Instead of casting blame on anyone or any party, he urged Americans “to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

Naming the victims one by one, he said, “Let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility that caused this tragedy .?.?. but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation in a way that would make them proud.”

The speech is considered one of the president’s best.

Obama underscored bipartisanship efforts in his State of Union address as well. He received applause from both Democrats and Republicans when he suggested reform in the tax code to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in 25 years. The media commented that Obama paved the way for a change in the country’s political rhetoric. Fred Greenstein, a renowned presidential scholar and professor emeritus at Princeton University, called this style of leadership “paradoxical tolerance,” where the late President Ronald Reagan excelled.

President Obama mimicked Reagan’s style in rhetoric and content in his State of Union address. Since his campaign days, President Obama has proclaimed his admiration for the 40th president, who “changed the trajectory of America” (in Obama’s words) by pleading for expression of the best interests in place of worst instincts and by reviving dynamism and vision in Americans.

Presidents Reagan and Eisenhower are two American presidents whose reputations escalated once they were out of office. The recipe for their success lay in how they responded to adversaries with tolerance and geniality and with a friendly smile. Reagan was very conservative and a proud Republican, but at the same time pragmatic, allowing conservatives to schmooze with liberals when necessary. He was considered a hard-core conservative in philosophy, but centrist-left in public policy.

Such a nature was best manifested on the foreign policy front. He started off with dogma - labeling Soviet Union as the “evil empire” - and rewrote his speech in 1983 to say he would do whatever he could for the purpose of peace.

He worked hard to get a genial rapport with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to seek new type of relationship with the communist state. He surrounded himself with experienced and skilled aides like Secretary of State George Shultz and Chief of Staff James Baker. If he only listened to hard conservatives, the communist bloc and Cold War era would never have ended so quickly.

Americans hungry for clarity and confidence amid economic hardship and bitter bipartisanship have fallen in love with Reagan all over again. Conservatives are busy capitalizing on the renewed fever for Reaganism. But if he were alive today, Reagan would be shaking his head. He would have never maliciously attacked opponents or pushed for a policy without the prospect of compromise. Obama is seeking to revive his legacy by appealing for compromise and tolerance.

We watch Obama’s political experiment with great interest because our public affairs have been paralyzed by a never-ending political divide. The Korean president hasn’t met with the opposition party leader for more than two and half years. The National Assembly cannot even convene for the new year.

It may be wishful thinking to expect decency in political rhetoric under such circumstances. But we cannot afford to leave things as they are. There are loads of crucial issues to be dealt with - measures on foot-and-mouth disease, inflation, the rent crisis and inter-Korean problems. If it is for the best, President Lee Myung-bak should also learn lessons from Reagan and take the path of tolerance.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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