[Viewpoint] Grace in retirement

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[Viewpoint] Grace in retirement

In the summer of 1953, a married couple hopped in a Chrysler New Yorker and hit the road from their home in Missouri for a trip to the East Coast. The couple stopped at a roadside diner and shared a fruit salad for lunch with glasses of iced tea. They checked into a motel that charged $5 per night and ordered 70-cent fried chicken for dinner.

Neither the diner owner nor the motel staff recognized that their guests had occupied the White House just six months earlier. For their first summer break out of the White House, Harry Truman and his wife Bess drove across America in a three-week road trip unaccompanied by bodyguards or attendants. They crashed at friends’ houses, playing piano, and spent a jolly night with locals when a cook at a diner threw an impromptu party after recognizing them. In Pennsylvania, Truman got pulled over for a ticket. He was driving too slowly on the highway.

After retiring from office in January 1953, Truman lived off his Army pension of $112 a month. He turned down high-paying jobs from corporations saying he did not want to commercialize the office of the presidency. He refused anything that would undermine the dignity of his former office. In 1958, he sold off his family’s farm to live less meagerly. That year, the Congress passed the Former Presidents Act to provide benefits to former presidents. Until then, the U.S. had no pension or other retirement benefits for former presidents.

Last week on Capitol Hill in Washington, President Lee Myung-bak made an excellent speech. He stopped in front of congressmen who served in the Korean War and saluted them. It was a touching gesture paying respect to American soldiers who risked their lives to defend a foreign land and people way off in the Far East. Congress returned the warmth in extended applause for Lee.

When he returned home, Lee received a much frostier reception. Here, whistle-blowers were accusing him of real estate speculation, property price rigging and inheritance tax evasion over a large plot of land in a posh area of southern Seoul that he bought in his son’s name to build a post-retirement residence.

It is a pity that the same man who won such respect from a U.S. president and Congress is so distrusted by his own people. His extravagant retirement plan contradicted his public declaration that he would donate all his personal wealth to Korean society. We envy Americans for their humble presidents like Truman, given the poor track record of our ex-presidents, whose retirements have been tainted with corruption scandals. Is it too much to ask for at least one president whom we can respect after he leaves the Blue House?

Public servants - especially at senior levels - should take pride in the dignity of their offices. Even if they are forced to relinquish personal happiness and riches, they should consider serving the people and country worth the sacrifice. If that is too much to ask, we at least ask them to maintain some decorum.

Candidates running for office in any election talk about the public interest. But in many cases, they abuse their offices for self-serving interests and mix business with pleasure and personal profit.

The conflict of ideologies has long been a plague in our society. Everything is weighed in the ideological scales. Nothing is appreciated for what it is: It has to fit into one ideology or the other. All issues are categorized as being either black or white.

The conservatives and liberals have a set of standard answers to all problems. They stand at opposite poles on every issue. But there is no disagreement on the idea of ethics in public office. Regardless of their ideological beliefs, once they swear the oath of public office, they must abide by the same ethics code. Otherwise the government will turn into a nest of thieves.

The commitment to building a strong and secure nation also goes beyond any ideology. Any Korean national, whether liberal or conservative, hopes for the best for the country. The country must, first of all, be wealthy to afford more benefits to the people and enable the strongest defense.

The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement can be debated between pro-American and anti-American Koreans. But when looked at practically, it cannot be denied that it broadens our economic opportunities. That’s pure fact, and we should strike similar trade deals with Japan and China.

The legislature should ratify the Korea-U.S. FTA and investigate the scandal over the president’s post-retirement residence. The ruling party and opposition should not wage a futile fight over such issues. If the president has nothing to hide, he should call an investigation himself. If he does not, the issue will likely haunt him even after he leaves the Blue House.

*The writer is senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Moon Chang-keuk
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