Monday, December 19, 2011

The Philippine President and a lost moment of valor

I’m not a fan of Pnoy, as the occupant of the country’s highest political office is fond of styling himself. I haven’t been since the beginning, when he was a nobody in the Senate, who was suddenly thrust into the limelight because his mother died. Suddenly, overnight, under the steady rain of yellow confetti, Benigno Simeon Aquino, Jr. becomes almost something akin to a Messiah come to save his people, a role that he believes is his by divine right of the people, and which gives him the power and the audacity to work for reforms, hurling thunderbolts here and there.

Don’t mistake me, I’m not a fan of the previous administration either. Ganun ba yun—quipped a friend in that modern Aeropagus we more commonly call Facebook—Basta hindi ka sang-ayon kay PNoy, Pro-CGMA ka ka? (is this how things are right now, that just because you don’t agree with Pnoy, you’re for CGMA (Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal Arroyo)?). These words were no more than an observation of the ambiance of current opinion. You could see that where the action really is: in the comment boxes of news articles in the webpages of the more prestigious Philippine dailies. These com-boxes could be as dirty as the hidden alleys of Barcelona and as busy as a hive. Here you would see people who differed from Pnoy’s view of things being attacked by his lackeys for being CGMA cronies. Is reality that merely two sided? Are we going the way of another dictatorship? I’m inclined to see it that way, a rather silent one, a dictatorship of public opinion, I might say. Pnoy won’t be so audacious as to do a Marcos; he would rather be caught dead than do a Gloria, though I won’t be surprised if, after four years, the same charges be leveled against him, irrespective of whether they be truthful or not, Philippine traditional politics being as it is. But yes he is being tyrannical in a way, vindictively tyrannical. I am digressing.

As of the moment one thing that had people buzzing much like bees in a hive is his delay in visiting typhoon stricken northern Mindanao, first explained by his staff as due to careful planning and work in assessing the situation and how to best respond to it. Later on it came out that he was in a party with the PSG, laughing and having good time with his people, as a comedienne would later tweet. I don’t have much against him spending time having good time with people who work for him, but then for a lot of people this appeared to be exactly the opposite of the image that people would like him to have at the moment. His sisters and the rest of his office have come to his rescue (what would one expect? Were I to trip at least I would expect my own to do the same for me right?) but it seemed to boomerang instead. People would always have their reasons; I’m sure Pnoy would be having his (and I won’t be surprised if it were a really lame one).

Everybody has the right to party, especially during this season, but one thing that Pnoy might have grasped is that, if he were seeking to have that burnished image of a president that really cares for greater things that incidentally fall beyond his political agenda, he could have grabbed this opportunity that literally fell from the angry skies. A lightning visit would’ve given the image of a president who wanted to handle things firsthand, and to be one with the people. When the skies poured water in lethal abundance, and when tears of disconsolate grief rose up in return, the whole country was in Cagayan de Oro; the president was somewhere in the capital. He could have went there immediately. Just being there could have been enough. I could imagine that at certain moments words are superfluous; there are times when being there is more than enough. Disaster plans come minutes later. Just as his immediate presence could have said something, his delayed presence in those ravaged areas had aroused much comment and consternation.

It made me think of something a leader once did in a time like this. It was wartime, and the clouds of war loomed darkly above, even over a place as eternal as Rome. The morning of July 14, 1943 was promising to be just like any other, where it not for the arrival of 521 Allied planes who suddenly flew over Rome and dropped their lethal load of bombs over the district surrounding the basilica of San Lorenzo outside the walls. The walls shook, and the shock waves reached the windows of the papal study. Once it was established that everything was clear, it didn’t take an hour for Pius XII to be out in the papal automobile speeding towards the devastated area, unaccompanied by the usual escort, but with an aide, Msgr. Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) and the chauffeur. He went to the shattered basilica and stayed for two and a half hours. Peter Hebblethewaite, a distinguished expert on Vatican affairs, wrote about the scene in his biography of Paul VI:

“It was the first time the Pope had been outside the Vatican since the mobs had hooted him in 1940. He knelt among the ruins and recited the psalm De Profundis (Out of the depths O Lord). The crowd gathered to pray with him. He comforted the wounded and tried to console the bereaved. His white soutane was soon flecked with blood. The Pope failed to save Rome from the bombs but he was closer to the people of Rome than Mussolini had ever been”. (Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI, Paulist Press, New York 1993, p. 184)

By the time Rome was completely occupied by the Germans, the King, his ministers, and Mussolini with his, had all but abandoned Rome to her fate. Pius XII was the only figure of authority that the city had during those hard times, and the people never considered the figure of the Pope a distant one. He was immersed in trying to do the best in every situation, in trying to provide safety and shelter to everyone—either Jews or Christians—within the walls of churches and ecclesiastical domain, safe within the limits of Vatican neutrality. The daw the armistice was announced, the city filled the square of St. Peter’s to pay homage to Pius XII, Defensor civitatis (defender of the city of Rome).

What was the point of this flash back? Well, certainly Pnoy is no cleric, much less a saint, nor did Pius XII do it in order to earn pogi points among the Romans. But both offices hold within their bounds the obligation to be with their people most especially in times of adversity, in which the presence in its initial moments is enough balm to strengthen the ailing soul.

Perhaps Pnoy should’ve considered this, that in being at the scene in its first moments he wouldn’t only be fulfilling something that falls within his office, but he would also further his image which is important in any political career, and which is also helpful in allaying any further criticism from those who do not take kindly to him. But more importantly, he should’ve properly considered the fact that being with these people was of far more urgent importance, than being in a party. Well, he can have his party in the evening if he wants to, but would that keep him from going to the depressed areas the next day?

What is certain is that he hadn’t considered them, and that he had botched this opportunity, this moment of glory, unlike many other leaders whom history had enshrined in its memory because they had known to take charge of a situation that called for valor. How he would get out of this episode, and what pathetic reasons and excuses and even possibly —and dare I say it, lies—that he may have to concoct to save face is another story, one that does not capture my fancy at the moment to elaborate.

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