Pondering a president’s tears

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Pondering a president’s tears

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President Park Geun-hye shed tears while reading out names of the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster in a statement at the Blue House. [JoongAng Ilbo]

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Lee Chul-ho

There is a common trait in the most memorable speeches by U.S. presidents following major disasters: they are short and to the point. One of the most famous was delivered by President Ronald Reagan following the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 26, 1986. His speech following the explosion that occurred only 73 seconds into its flight and which killed all seven crew members on board didn’t last more than four minutes. President Bill Clinton, another eloquent orator, kept his speech at a memorial service following the Oklahoma City bombing on April 23, 1995 to nine minutes.

Another key trait in those difficult addresses was a focus on the victims of the tragedies. Both of those long-held traditions were broken when President Barack Obama traveled to Tucson for a service on the University of Arizona campus on Jan. 12, 2011 to remember and honor the victims of a shooting rampage at a supermarket parking lot four days earlier. The speech “Together We Thrive” took more than half an hour to finish. Obama stopped while paying tribute to the youngest victim, nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green. Biting his lips, he sighed deeply as if to contain his emotions and looked to his left and to his right. After a 51-second silence, Obama opened his mouth and said, “I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it.” Commentators called it one of the most dramatic moments of his presidency, some even saying it was a Dr. Martin Luther King moment.

President Park Geun-hye’s teary address on the April 16 sinking of the Sewol ferry that killed more than 300 didn’t get rave reviews from her domestic audience. The main opposition party found “the apology too short and tears too long.” Some called the countermeasures she announced - the dismantling of the Coast Guard and reorganization of ministries to create one agency in charge of all public safety issues - recycled ideas. Her address ran about 25 minutes. The highlight of the televised speech came when she named the victims one by one with tears running down her face. She looked straight into the camera without flinching or wiping the tears away.

Her critics called it a pretentious political show. Harsh criticism from the opposition camp is both predictable and understandable given the power the president has over the conservative population. She stepped in to rescue the conservative Grand National Party - which is now the ruling Saenuri Party - when it was hit by a heavy backlash from its impeachment attempt against liberal president Roh Moo-hyun. She pleaded to the public to give the party another chance in another teary television address.

We will have to wait to see if her most recent tears have the same effect on the public. But a disillusioned society won’t be ready to believe anyone until it sees palpable results. Voters are quietly watching as the Blue House tries to deliver on the president’s words. She has now fired her prime minister, head of the National Intelligence Service and chief presidential secretary for national security. The people won’t be convinced with a few new faces as they await bigger changes.

President Park put on a one-woman show since she took office in February last year. Her cabinet members merely took orders from her. Her unimaginative and passive administration was fully exposed as the Sewol crisis panned out and it responded in a shamefully botched manner. What this society needs is a good leader, not a dominant one. Power, when shared, can grow and spread. The more humble a politician is, the more he or she will connect with the people. The president would have received a different public response if she had gone to the front gate of the Blue House and invited in the crowd of victims’ families who demanded to meet her. She would have drawn a different reaction from the opposition if she met with Ahn Cheol-soo, co-head of the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, when he waited in a Blue House reception room after making an unannounced visit to request a talk with the president.

Obama’s pause stood out during the Tucson address because it interrupted his usual flowing eloquence. A good orator knows the power of a pause. That is why our president’s tears came across as less than genuine. To move the hearts of the people, one sometimes has to break one’s own mold. We want the president to shake off her usual stoic and aloof self, share power with her government and ruling party members, and engage the opposition. It won’t matter if that’s a kind of performance as long as the deed is good and meaningful.

The late Ronald Reagan was a born actor. As president, he willingly put on a show for the national interest. The conservative president and his liberal House of Representatives speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill bickered through the years but worked together to pass landmark legislation.

Reagan once threw a party for O’Neill’s birthday and in a toast said “Tip, if I had a ticket to heaven and you didn’t have one too, well I’d give my ticket back and go to hell with you.” Reagan is remembered as one of the best world leaders because he knew how to employ wit and the art of engagement in politics.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 26, Page 30

*The author is senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho




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