[Book Review] Mr. President: Putting on a Show for Moon Jae-in

[Book Review] Mr. President: Putting on a Show for Moon Jae-in

Credit: Medici Media.

Despite their power and influence, presidential staff members tend to be anonymous bureaucrats. But former Blue House Secretary of Protocol Tak Hyeon-min 탁현민 전 청와대 의전비서관 has been a lightning rod for conservative criticism. The criticism came largely because he was good at his job: making his boss - former president Moon Jae-in 문재인 전 대통령 - look good in public. In his recent book Mr. President 미스터 프레지던트, Tak discusses the process of coordinating a presidential function, while giving an intimate look at Moon as a politician and leader.

Beginning his career as a stage director for pop musicians, Tak entered the political scene in 2008 as the producer for the liberal pundit Kim Eo-jun 김어준’s hit podcast Naneun Kkomsuda 나는 꼼수다, which was the world’s most listened-to podcast at the time. (See previous coverage, “Kim Eo-jun: Korea’s Most Important Pundit.”) Tak joined Moon Jae-in’s orbit by producing the book tour for Moon’s 2011 autobiography, then followed Moon into the Blue House 청와대 after his victory in the 2017 presidential election.

Tak revolutionized his position as the Secretary of Protocol. Rather than being a dour rule-keeper working his way through a checklist of proper etiquette, Tak brought a superstar touch to all of the 1,195 public appearances Moon made during his five-year term. Noting the absence of designated entrance music for the South Korean president like Hail to the Chief for the US president, Tak commissioned the K-pop composer Kim Hyeong-seok 김형석 to write a piece. (The product was Mr. President, the title of Tak’s book.) By carefully choreographing the president’s every movement, the placement of lighting and the creation of video and photos, Tak played no small role in cultivating Moon’s pop star-like fandom.

Conservatives viciously attacked Tak during his time at the Blue House, accusing him of simply putting on a show for the president. In interviews following the publication of his book, Tak said the criticism never bothered him: “Politics is about showing things, through words and deeds. I believe good politics show truth and sincerity, and bad politics show greed and base desires. Speeches, debates, policies, and sometimes, public appearances, are all parts of the show. So to me, the idea of putting on a show is not much of a criticism.”

Tak said that for each presidential appearance, he considered deeply “the essence of the ceremony, and how it related to the president’s philosophy” and tried to insert details reflecting that philosophy. When asked for the most memorable event, Tak picked the return of the remains of General Hong Beom-do 홍범도, a famed independence fighter. (See previous coverage, “Legendary General’s Remains Return Home.”) To celebrate the general’s return to a liberated Korea, Tak debated the selection of music before eventually picking Aegukga 애국가, South Korea’s national anthem, set to the tune of Auld Lang Syne - the version of the anthem that Hong himself would have sung in the early 20th century.

Tak said he “couldn’t give a grade” to the production values of the current Yoon Suk-yeol 윤석열 administration: “Government is like a relay race. You have to take the baton from the previous administration and keep running. But the Yoon administration is just not willing to take the baton, so I can’t really comment when I know the comment will not be welcome.” Noting that the Yoon administration is still hosting events at the State Guesthouse 영빈관 of the Blue House despite having moved the Office of the President to the former Defense Ministry compound in Yongsan, Tak said the Yoon administration “just goes out and does things without any plan or thought.”

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