[Viewpoint] A highly naive ideaWe go back to American politics this week. Ahn Cheol-soo, dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology, said in his recently published book that he believed he had better advantages as a leader in an age that demands a divorce from the old ways of doing things because he didn’t have “bad experiences.” He was replying to critics who questioned his presidential potential due to his lack of political experience. Ahn cited two American Democratic Presidents - Bill Clinton and Barack Obama - as examples of successful leadership despite a lack of rich or profound experience.
Thanks to Ahn, those two American figures are suddenly stigmatized as political novices who basically leapfrogged their way into the office of the president. Ahn didn’t really do his research. The two may have lacked a presence in Washington at an early age, but their political trails were long enough.
At the age of 16, Clinton wanted to become an elected public servant. The law school student from Arkansas ran for the House of Representatives in 1974 and served as Arkansas Attorney General before becoming Governor of Arkansas.
President Obama, who worked as a civil rights attorney in Chicago, served three terms representing a district in the Illinois Senate and, prior to his presidential bid, he served three years in the U.S. Senate.
Ahn cited another American president - Franklin D. Roosevelt - as a role model of leadership considering “our times of difficulties and challenges.” The American president that shepherded America through the tumultuous period of the mid-20th century amidst a global depression and a world war was a veteran politician before entering the Oval Office, whose service included the New York Senate and the New York governorship. He also ran for vice president.
Roosevelt is credited for a prolific amount of legislation and executive orders that realigned America’s politics and economics for decades. He bluntly told Americans that their money and well-being all depended on the U.S. Congress. The bottom line, he said, is that Americans inevitably have to comply with congressional budgetary approval and law.
Ahn, who is now most talked about political figure in Korea, is wrong to cite American presidents in an attempt to deflect his lack of political experience. Ahn, who recently published a book and went on TV almost certainly to lead up to an announcement of a presidential bid, stresses “goodness” in leadership. He interprets Max Weber’s definition of a mature politician as a person who has “existentially linked an ethics of conviction with ethics of responsibility,” someone who should realize his convictions in life no matter how tough it may be.
But Weber also said goodness does not always prevail over bad in the complicated realm of public life. He said that anyone who denies this reality is politically immature. For example, a minimum wage system that is created to help the poor can be partly blamed for generating high school dropouts.
Ahn appears to be confident that he would be as successful in politics as he has been in past areas of his career. He aims to separate politics and governance. One is bad, the other is good. But he neglected the fact that an administration needs legislation and a budget to do its business, and they are in the jurisdiction of the legislature, which runs on politics last we checked.
When he was thought to be a formidable candidate for Seoul mayor last year, Ahn said, “To a competent swimmer, a 2-meter (6.5-foot) swimming pool and the Pacific Ocean do not differ much. I ran a company of more than 500 employees. I ran a university. I believe administrating a university and government can’t be that different. I was a CEO with public goal. I ran a business with both social responsibility and profitability.”
That comment was made on the 87th day Ahn served as dean of the SNU graduate school. Being so sure of his capabilities with just three-months under his belt in college administration is mind-boggling. Ahn could be right about city administration, but national governance is a completely different thing. Just look at President Lee Myung-bak. Ahn’s sentiments on the role of entrepreneurs and the separations of politics and administration have a strangely familiar sound. Isn’t that what Lee said five years ago?
Ahn is said to have enjoyed “The Fall of Politics” by Park Sung-min, a political consultant. In the book, Ahn is described as a capable CEO by former lawmaker and environment minister Yoon Yeo-joon. “He is similar to President Lee for prizing productivity and efficiency, which is somewhat worrisome,” Yoon said. He adds that Ahn could fall into the unfortunate track of President Lee if he adheres to the belief that his administration is above politics. Ahn, Yoon said, could turn out to be a nice version of Lee Myung-bak. That’s a scary thought.
* The author is deputy editor of political and international news at the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ko Jung-ae