I Remember President Roh
By Oh Young-jin
Assistant Managing Editor
It was minutes before an interview with CNN that I was giving a briefing to President Roh Moo-hyun in the anteroom next to the presidential executive office at Cheong Wa Dae.
The room adjacent to the executive office was a beehive of activity, with a technical crew adjusting lighting and camera angles, the network's Seoul correspondent Sohn Jie-ae checking her memos and a group of senior presidential aides taking seats among the rows of chairs. Roh's feelings appeared to be mixed as the interview came less than two months after his inter-Korean summit, but a couple of weeks ahead of the presidential election.
At the beginning of my briefing, he pulled up the lower legs of his pants as if he was a farmer readying himself for a day of work in the rice paddies and threw me a couple of jokes I thought were more intended to loosen himself up before sitting before a TV camera.
I don't remember what jokes he made but I do remember his answer when he was asked about his biggest presidential achievement during the interview. Roh took his election as his No. 1 presidential legacy.
Not until he left office did I gain a fuller grasp of what he meant. It was not a rueful sigh of regret by a head of state who was leaving without a job well done. He referred to the gift of freedom his presidency gave to the nation and is perhaps taken for granted. It is a kind of freedom that makes one feel too tight living in this new political world as if wearing a t-shirt two sizes smaller than the right one.
I also remember one morning late in his presidency. I was called into a conference room in his quarters together with other secretaries. President Roh stepped in with a comfortable outfit ― a pair of slacks and a shirt without a tie and jacket.
In his hands were folded notes he had made overnight. He talked about this and that, explaining how he wanted to address issues of the day. When he was not sure, he asked around for second opinions. Occasionally, he smoked and sipped from a cup of instant coffee. It was an orderly but tolerant atmosphere that allowed the participants to speak their minds, being sure that that was what the President wanted to hear.
On the way out to our offices, we talked among ourselves to find the best angle to handle the presidential instructions, and sometimes compared our longhand notes with each other. His thoughts, through the hands of wordsmiths, were written and posted on his Web site, one of the few channels of communication he felt comfortable with. He often wrote himself.
Going back to Roh's maiden trip to the United States only a couple months after his election, I was in a pool of two reporters assigned to his summit meeting with President Bush. The two heads of state stood together for a brief statement. In the middle of his opening statement, Roh retracted a full sentence after he said it. He did it for a better translation, asking his host to pardon him with the grace and force unexpected from a president in his first months. I thought that he had the right stuff to lead, not being afraid of making a mistake and admitting it.
Then a year or two into his presidency, I was invited to a presidential luncheon for business editors. President Roh explained the nuts and bolts together with his big picture about the economy. He himself made a Powerpoint presentation. His passionate pitch for his administration's economic goals, combined with an intense follow-up Q&A session, lasted for nearly three hours. I don't remember what I ate but I remember a regret I had on my way out ― if only more people had a chance to see and listen firsthand to Roh.
Last spring, I went down as a member of a group of former aides to his hometown of Bongha for the second time. The first one was with him on his homecoming trip on the day he left office. We planted trees and flowers on the small rocky hills behind his house. Then, the President attired in his fieldwork clothing came by and shook hands with each of us. When it was my turn, he told me, ``Ask if there is anything I can help with.'' He didn't say it loud but those present knew his offer was intended for them all, because he knew that most of them were in a difficult position after he left office.
Flashing back to the day of his election. Going through ups and downs on a tumultuous campaign, he emerged as the winner. His victory signified one for have-nots, bringing hope to those who were disillusioned by reality and rejuvenating the young country that began to grow old. I felt as if his victory was mine and belonged to all others including those who didn't support him.
Last Saturday morning, my heart missed a beat or two, with my legs collapsing. I didn't try to explain to myself why he had to choose to do what he did, but I saw his action would end up helping boost the sanctity of the office of presidency, the sanctity that we have been so willing to destroy. Future former presidents could be the main beneficiaries.
For me, I miss him. I miss the comfort that the thought of his being in Bongha brought to me.
The content of this column doesn't reflect the editorial policy of The Korea Times. All thoughts and views expressed strictly belong to the writer. ― ED.