Joe America: Lunch with President Aquino
What are the qualities of President Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III that are generally not recognized in a popular press busy leveraging conflict to sell papers or build audience?
Here’s the President I met last Friday: A hard, calculating, impeccibly reasonable man. Holding a fierce loyalty to friends or those who help. Resigned to accept that criticism is a part of the job. He is the gracious diplomat who represents the Philippines with integrity even as others look down on the nation or her people. A well-read man with deep perspectives and rich humor. A smoker who pays the price. A private man forced into public prominence. A fallibile man. A kind man, or unkind, depending on which side of right and wrong you find yourself. A powerful man. A principled man. An historic man.
President Aquino asked me and my family to join him for lunch on June 24, 2016. Originally, it was planned as an interview, but he wanted to make it more personal. So it was changed to a family affair, a conversation rather than an interview, a thank you rather than one more rummage though the incidents of his term in office. Along with the President, me, my wife and Junior America were Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima and his wife Carazon, and both Manolo Quezon III and Abigail Valte from the President’s communications group. (Secretary Purisma had received the distinguished Order of Lakandula award from President Aquino earlier in the day.) Edwin Lacierda had also hosted us in the morning, picking us up at the hotel and giving us insights into Manila and government during the drive to the Palace.
What a strange place, historical and rich but suffocating and intimidating, the windowless rooms heavy with wood-planked walls, the halls and rooms adorned with pictures and paintings of the history of the Philippines, told through the memories we dredge up of people who were powerful in their time. What kind of dictator is it who has the paintings of past presidents folded back around the edges so that they are smaller than his? Who has his desk elevated so all who approach are subservient? Who has large fans behind him in the public room to blow the germs of the guests away from him?
I took a picture of the balcony from which President Marcos railed before his supporters, near the end. It is so small and simple in real life now, but was so large and angry in real life then. Manolo Quezon led us along the path the Marcoses traveled as they left the Palace for the last time, to a waiting helicopter.
The Palace itself is a patchwork construction of different presidents, building up and out from a modest beginning. President Marcos added the most and he for sure had little appreciation of gardens or skies.
No wonder that President Aquino decided to reside at Bahay Pangarap across the river where there is light and no oppressive shadows from ghosts in the woodwork.
By the way, did you know that President Aquino, who has been the nation’s arch-diplomat, traveling here and there around the globe to build alliances and secure investments for the Philippines, dislikes traveling? Now you know.
But he did what he had to do, and he related a little story that serves as a nice statement of how the Philippines has grown during his term.
This is my adaption of the tale, as I did not record our conversations. But you will get the drift, I’m sure. The President’s little story:
Six years ago, when we would go to conferences, they would announce the arrivals. Malaysia would arrive and people would rise to welcome the delegates. “Malaysia! Good to have you here, good to see you!”
Singapore would arrive and people would rise to welcome the delegates. “Singapore! Thanks for coming! Great to have you here!”
The Philippines would arrive and people would look up. “Philippines? What are you doing here?”
Five years later it was different. The Philippines was welcomed enthusiastically. Other diplomats would ask, “My, you are growing well. How do you do it?”
In the back of my mind, I would say “Do you think I’m going to give you our secrets?”
But to them I would say “We just copied you!”
And so we laughed.
The progress of the Philippines is only deniable to those with special needs, the political, mainly. Or the bitter. Or the paid destructionists. As Secretary Purisima put it, they had arrived in 2010 to find a patient on life support, and they made him well. It would have been impossible to do in 2010 what can be done today.
Do you know why we get high evaluations from international observers? Because they look at the facts.
Isn’t in peculiar that the Philippine press failed to get those facts across to citizens of the Philippines? Rather, it buried them under mountains of concocted drama.
What else changed during the six years? President Aquino:
We grew in confidence.
The people who led the nation these past six years also grew proud of what they were getting done. There is a small edge about the press, but there is also awareness of the difficulty they had. Secretary Purisma:
We talked intangibles. The people were dealing with tangibles.
We talked briefly about the incoming administration, but that was not really a main topic of discussion. The general attitude, I suppose, reflects the same reservations others express, but with the understanding that what happens in the future, good or bad, is up to the incoming administration. The new administration is being presented with a nation on the rise economically and a government that is earnest, capable and productive. That’s all the outgoing executives can do. On July 1, they are out of the picture.
It is encouraging that staffs of crucial agencies like Finance and Foreign Affairs are working directly with incoming people to brief them on policies and progress. The new government will hit the ground running. Secretary Purisima explained that the new people are already being granted decision-making authority in some aspects of operations.
Little known point of interest. Mayor Duterte backed President Aquino in 2010, and the Mayor would extend the courtesy of personally greeting the President when he visited Davao. Does that form any kind of loyalty in either direction? I don’t know.
Another point of interest. When the president arrives anywhere, the place comes alive with attention. A part of it is security. A part is respect. A part is power. He is the center of the nation, in it’s human quality. It is undeniable that he is history on the move.
Why did the President choose to honor my family? Because my writing, and others writings for the blog, have consistently centered on what is best for the Philippines. We supported the Aquino administration because their work has been good for the Philippines, their efforts honest and earnest. We were not fair weather loyalists. We criticized from time to time, and we allowed critics their voice, but a bad incident did not turn us away. We had no axes to grind. No politics to play or agendas to push. No money to make.
President Aquino appreciated it, that when his job was especially difficult, we remained objective and for the well-being of the Philippines . . .
. . . come hell or high water . . .
So was he.
Thank you, Mr. President.