[Viewpoint] Memories of a jade necktie

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[Viewpoint] Memories of a jade necktie

Feb. 25, 2008, was a rather chilly winter day. It was the day when Korean citizens saw the jade-colored necktie President Lee Myung-bak was wearing as he stood at the podium in Yeouido Square.

And it was the day we heard him declare in his inauguration speech “a solemn beginning” to become an “advanced, first-class nation with consideration and dignity.”

His address created considerable anticipation for a rosy future. The citizens heard his pledge to overcome intense discord and ideological confrontation.

The jade color of his tie seemed to reflect his appeal and promise to restore the crumbling values of tolerance and dignity in Korean society. The speech was a prelude to his administration’s priorities of pragmatism and negotiation rather than ideology.

As we all know too well, Lee had been a successful businessman and CEO. He is the least politically charged president since democratization. He is always described as the leader who works hard, the president who focuses on the economy. Ethics, morals and justice may not be his best qualities, but his trademarks have been utilitarianism, logic and negotiation. Whenever I talked to the foreign press or diplomats, I used to say that Lee would make a pragmatic leader who pursues interests over ideology.

It is an accepted theory in political science that democratic politics become settled after five presidential elections, two regime changes and two proper elections after democratization. However, Korean politics have not deviated much despite a contest of ideologies.

Therefore, Lee’s inaugural address, which called for consideration and dignity, seemed to represent the hope of the people to get over political opportunism. We all hoped that democratic politics would finally get on the right track.

But look at Korea’s politics today. You will have a hard time finding traces of consideration and dignity. How many people still remember the jade-colored tie and the inauguration speech? The inaugural address is a president’s most important address, which outlines the administration’s blueprint for the next five years. It is an expression of an administration’s will, and at the same time, it is a promise and a prelude to a new era.

If you want to understand a president’s five years in office, you should look up his inauguration speech. However, Lee’s inauguration speech is long gone in our memories.

Of course, it is very rare that a president makes a lasting impression with the inauguration address. There are many examples of when a president makes a firm declaration in his inauguration and actually follows through. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” President John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

It may be strange, but we still remember their words clearly after more than half a century. We remember the president’s messages when they win the support of the people and are put into practice. Americans were supportive of efforts to overcome the Great Depression, to fight against Fascism and to rebuild underdeveloped countries.

Now it becomes clear why Lee’s inaugural address has left no trace in our memories. As Lee celebrated his third year in office, he emphasized “going back to the beginning.” Wearing the same jade-colored tie he wore three years ago at his inauguration, he said administration officials should be careful not to get involved in scandals. His word choices were reminiscent of the inaugural speech, in which he promised to “serve the people and build an advanced nation with consideration and dignity.”

It is inspiring that Lee is eager to go back to the beginning. However, he also needs to seriously contemplate the next two years. Citizens trusted his pledge to create a caring and dignified nation before he revealed his regional and academic favoritism.

We supported his pledge to make an advanced, first-class nation before we witnessed our country’s clumsy leaders in the aftermath of the Cheonan incident and the Yeonpyeong Island attack. We celebrated the president’s diligence before he struggled to control the real estate leasing market, the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and soaring consumer prices.

We have come a long way from that day three years ago. But the memories of the jade necktie have faded as we figured out that we needed to lower our expectations of the president’s pledge of “consideration and dignity.” We had high hopes for the president’s initial promises. But the level of anticipation has been adjusted. Koreans are closely watching how the president meets these expectations in the remaining two years.

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

By Chang Dal-joong
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