Column: Lost boy, playboy, bad boy

Column No. 200. A second attempt to categorize the types of criticism leveled against the second President Aquino, published on July 12, 2011.

Last August, about six weeks after his inauguration, I tried to distinguish the “types of criticism [already] being leveled against President Benigno Aquino III and his administration” by identifying three patterns in the criticism. That attempt, under the column title “‘Politico’, ‘Inglisero’, ‘hacendero’,” drew a vigorous response from several readers. To the most lucid rejoinder, by Herbert Docena, I ceded my column space the following week.

I did not mean to suggest that the three types exhausted all possibilities, and said so then. “I’ve limited myself to only three types, but clearly there are others, some of them perhaps better objects of study than the ones I’ve chosen.” I would like to think, however, that the three patterns I outlined continue to hold a year after the inauguration. Criticism of the President—in the layman’s sense of a negative appraisal, not in the academic sense of a comprehensive evaluation or a scholarly test—remains very much an appeal to those related categories. He is just another politician, alienated from those who don’t speak and think in English, whose conduct in office is essentially determined by his economic class.

I think this is a stark, impoverished view (not shared by too many, if we use the surveys as a guide). But in the past year this view has bred other variations. To last year’s “preliminary field notes” then, I would now like to add a new set of notes, a little more than a year after Mr. Aquino took his oath.

Lost boy. The notion that President Aquino is out of his league, in over his head, or sinking under the weight of the presidency, primarily circulates among the members of the political class, those who see themselves, not necessarily as political operators, but as connoisseurs of power. Sometimes this notion is expressed in cantankerous but ultimately insidious ways, such as when Sen. Joker Arroyo likened the new administration to a student council. The image of political amateurs swamped by responsibility has proven to be a remarkably potent one, to Malacañang’s continuing grief.

Sometimes the notion that President Aquino is a little boy lost in the intricacies of policy-making and geopolitics is expressed in calculated prose. Columnist Alex Magno’s idea, for example, that Mr. Aquino had irresponsibly encouraged the diplomatic wrangling with China over the Spratlys to distract the public from the problems of the administration is bold and sweeping, but it attacks a false conclusion at the expense of a true premise. In other words, it completely misunderstands the controversy. It fails to proceed from the fundamental fact, that China had disturbed the diplomatic waters by asserting its “undisputed sovereignty” not only over the Spratlys but over the entire South China Sea. Magno’s idea prefers to see an administration lost at sea.

Playboy. This term refers to two related sub-types of criticism, involving different meanings of play. That President Aquino is a serial boyfriend, a man perpetually in search of female companionship but unable or unwilling to commit to a more permanent relationship, seems to have already become part of conventional wisdom. This is really neither here nor there. But some critics have seized on this psychological profile as though it were a template for the President’s approach to governance. In this view, the bachelor-President is entirely incapable of full attention, will always be a political dilettante, cannot be expected to see things through. We can perhaps classify retired Archbishop Oscar Cruz’s unkind judgment on the middle-aged President’s capacity for marriage under this first sub-type.

The second meaning of “playboy” is a less familiar but more damaging use: It refers to Mr. Aquino’s supposed addiction to video or computer games, a habit that allegedly cuts into his working hours. Commentators like columnist Ernie Maceda, once Joseph Estrada’s ambassador to Washington and today the deposed president’s close adviser, advert to this kind of presidential play repeatedly. I cannot plumb the depths of Maceda’s hypocrisy (where was he when Estrada was serving as history’s most work-averse president?), but at the same time I cannot dismiss the allegation outright. Like many others, however, I want proof. But Maceda et al don’t offer proof, only punchlines.

Bad boy. President Aquino as a vengeful man, out to “get” his enemies: This, in sum, is the view of the family of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her political supporters, a view which to their thinking has been confirmed by events in recent months. (It is also the view of some Catholic bishops, who seem to think that the administration has its knives out for them.)

We can expect this type of criticism to be used more often in the coming months, as the anti-corruption initiatives at the heart of the Aquino campaign platform gather steam. It is a type of criticism that is prone to manipulation; if the disclosures about Arroyo-era corruption remain only at the level of sensational publicity, we can expect the pushback that the Arroyos want—the sense that the Aquino administration is obsessed with the past, the argument that dwelling on the past in unhealthy for the country, the whispered insistence that the Aquinos only want to get back at the Arroyos—to suddenly enjoy a wider circulation, courtesy of a public relations offensive.

I have my own criticisms to make of the President I voted for, but that is another column, for another day.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Media, Readings in Politics

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