Beware of youth in the Blue House
By Jason Lim
Peggy Noonan, President Ronald Reagan’s former speechwriter and currently a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, recently wrote how the youth has outlived its usefulness in the Obama White House. She believes that Americans actually miss seeing an old and august presence when they look at Obama’s White House, staffed with relatively young people as key advisers. In fact, the New York Times recently profiled Denis McDonough, the 40-year old National Security Council’s chief of staff, as the most influential foreign policy voice in the White House.
Not that a 40-year old couldn’t be an insightful and thoughtful advisor on important matters, but Noonan’s stated longing for someone older in key positions of influence can best be described by her confession that she would feel better if Obama’s young aides ``had an arthritic ache or two … (that) they told old war stories because they’d been in old wars … that they knew what it looks like when an administration goes too far and strains the ties between itself and the bulk of the people.”
Which brings me back to Korea and President Lee’s recent choice to reshuffle his cabinet by appointing significantly young advisors to key positions. In fact, the Blue House highlighted the historical youth of its incoming Cabinet, pointing out that the average age of the eight newly-appointed ministers is 54, compared to 60.4 among the previous Cabinet members. All the astonished headlines read that the 48-year old former governor who was nominated as the new prime minister represents the first time a 40-something would hold that position in 39 years. And, of course, he is not just young, but extremely accomplished, with a rags-to-riches story that’s not dissimilar to President Lee’s own narrative.
But what really struck me was that the Blue House, by appointing a much younger set of key advisers, so excitedly expressed its expectations that the youthful Cabinet would bolster the administration’s communication with the young as well as with other political parties and social and religious groups. In effect, the Blue House is equating youth with an improved ability to communicate; and, by communication, it really means that the Blue House is hoping that the younger Cabinet would be able to better persuade different demographics and social groups to go along with the administration’s agenda for the second half of President Lee’s term.
The huge assumption here is that being young and successful equates to better ability to communicate, convince, and relate to different societal groups with wholly different and often conflicting agendas. And the fact Korea’s mainstream media has neglected to challenge the validity of this assumption speaks loudly to our society’s tendency to worship youth’s vigor and success at the expense of the old’s experience and wisdom. Prudence has become synonymous with timidity and patience with a lack of self-assurance.
That’s what makes this Cabinet reshuffling dangerous and possibly counterproductive to the Blue House. Political communication is not a matter of overpowering all other voices into submission or, at least, marginalization through overwhelming volume. To be effective, it must be an inclusive process that invites all viewpoints to the table to hash out an unsatisfactory but tenable compromise that most have a say and stake in.
In short, you can’t bulldoze your way to better communication, as much as you know that you are correct and doing it for all the right reasons. You have to embrace effective communication, even if you might be holding your nose and the back of your throat puckering from the unpleasant aftertaste of compromise.
But, unfortunately, this is not usually the way of the youth. The young and the successful didn’t usually get to where they are by embracing and compromising. They are there because they were unique and uncompromising. They were better, smarter, and quicker than anyone else. They did things and want to do bigger things. They want to leave their mark.
As Noonan points out for the Obama White House, a ``greater concern about President Obama’s staffers and appointees is that so many… are not only young and untried, but triumphant. They are on top of the world … Now nothing can stop them. ``Let’s do big things, let’s be consequential. But consequentialism has been the blight of American political life for a decade.”
There is nothing more triumphant but fraught with more danger than being a historically young and successful prime minister with the mandate to ``communicate” better with the people. If the former governor Kim Tae-ho approaches his job with a similar sense of consequentialism, then the only thing that will likely end up being consequential will be greater social discord and a lack of effective legislative leadership for the Blue House. If Kim places himself in front of the ranks of energetic new appointees with fresh vocal cords only to out-yell the opponents, then the resulting cacophony will drown them instead.
In short, Kim has to do the impossible; he is young but can’t afford to be youthful. Instead, to be truly successful, Kim needs to disown his youth. At 48, he needs to become an elder statesman, the old, tried, and true figure who brings people together by evincing a spirit of caring. Youth is supposed to bring vigor and vision. But as Henry Kissinger said, ``The statesman's duty is to bridge the gap between experience and vision."
Jason Lim is a non-resident fellow at The Peace Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank researching policy options for peace on the Korean Peninsula. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Facebook.