[Viewpoint] Without politics, leadership is sterileIt appears to be official: President Lee Myung-bak is no longer Koreans’ favorite political topic. In family gatherings over the Chuseok holiday, his name hardly came up. The first symptom of the “lame duck syndrome” is waning interest. It just came a little too early for a president who still has more than a year left in his term.
Many say he precipitated the phenomenon.
During a TV talk show before Chuseok, Lee nonchalantly commented on the hero worship of the software pioneer Ahn Cheol-soo, who despite an overwhelmingly high approval rating, bypassed the opportunity to run in the Seoul mayoral by-election in October. He said he thought politicians should regard Ahn’s sudden rise with scorn instead of awe. “The political circles had it coming. We are living a smart age, but politics remain analog,” he scoffed.
Of course he is right. The political air is stale with disgust and sarcasm. The former Grand National Party chairwoman and conservative favorite to be the next president, Park Geun-hye, and the main opposition Democratic Party chairman, Sohn Hak-kyu, are partly responsible. But the president is the core of ruling power. The office of the presidency is more of a political post than an administrative one. The explosive popularity of a nonpolitical figure like Ahn underscores the failure of mainstream politics - in other words, the failure of the president’s politics.
Lee has been consistent. He has tried to stay as far away as possible from politics. He sees mingling with politicians as a waste of time. He distrusts them and keeps to the sidelines. He may have thought that not associating with them could help his reputation. But, he clearly is wrong because, no matter how he tries, the public regards him and politics as one.
To rule is politicking and governance is a political act. Lee is credited with winning a multibillion-dollar power reactor project in the Middle East and accelerating the country’s recovery from a global financial crisis. But he failed to draw strong applause from the public because his accomplishments were detached from politics. Without a political function, the presidency lacks drama. In that respect, the president has done poorly.
Speech is an important part of governance. Lee has given numerous speeches in cabinet meetings and events. Yet, they are not memorable. At times of hardship and conflict, the people turn to their president for reassurance and hope. Determined words that can move the people come from political sensitivity.
But Lee’s rhetoric has been poor in content and relevance. We cannot remember his comments on contentious issues like the construction of a naval base in Gangjeong village, Jeju Island or college tuition or free school lunches. His memorable speeches have often been at his defeats. For instance, during the nationwide protest against U.S. beef imports prompted by a mad cow disease scare, he said he climbed up the mountain in the back of the Blue House and listened to “Morning Dew,” a popular student protest tune.”
The essence of governance is communication, or verbal politicking. The president often emphasizes the importance of communication. But there are few who believe he is sincere. He held his tongue amid political turmoil and chose to play safe. His language came across as arid, and the public looked in other directions to whet their thirst for comfort and inspiration.
Ahn Cheol-soo, dean of the Seoul National University Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology, tours universities across the nation with his doctor friend to preach hope to student audiences. In a way, his “Youth Concert” offers a political stage. Ahn said: “Intellectuals must speak out for society.” His stage provided a catalyst for a public hungry for communication and frustrated at mainstream politics. Ahn called the incumbent leaders people “riding against the historical tide.”
The president’s language defines the identity of the government. Originally, Lee stressed moderate pragmatism but later changed his battle cry to calls for a fair society and symbiotic prosperity. The words more befit the opposition camp and came out awkwardly.
The president should take a cue from the Peruvian writer and politician Mario Vargas Llosa. The 2010 Nobel laureate in literature, he ran for president in 1990 and, despite defeat, remained politically vocal. He said no matter how disgusting politics may be, our lives cannot be free of politics. His literary works are brimming with insight on the mechanisms of power and politics.
Disregard for politics can be costly. Governance loses vitality and communicative force weakens. Diligence alone cannot make a successful president. Leadership shines out when a leader takes on challenges and combats problems with political creativity. Such a performance can stir cheers from the audience.
Politics is also the art of imagination. Past presidents knew how to build and work with imagination. President Kim Young-sam was radical in using his imagination, Kim Dae-jung was intelligent and Roh Moo-hyun was revolutionary and transformative.
Lee has pledged to do his utmost until his last day in office. But he might be the only one working if he keeps his distance from politics. He must muster up all his political imagination to keep himself relevant.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Park Bo-gyoon