Column: Is Ninoy, today, even relevant?

Published on August 21, 2007

This version corrects minor mistakes in the printed edition.

Cabinet Secretary Ricardo Saludo’s essay on the making of this year’s State of the Nation Address (Sona), which appeared on these pages a week ago, is worth a closer look.

“Churning out 4,648 words with video footage and PowerPoint graphics took about two months, from the first meeting with the Cabinet on overall Sona themes to the final fine-tuning of the text and four rehearsals with the TV team,” he wrote.

The striking thing about this year’s Sona, however, for me at any rate, was how it almost immediately became irrelevant, when news about the drought and the looming water and power crises hogged the headlines within the same week.

I asked Saludo: Did the drought ever come up in the two months of preparation? He replied, by SMS: “Dry spell is addressed by irrigation and rural roads projects, so there was no need to give it special attention.”

Reasonable enough, but also intriguing. If things were in hand, why did Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita even suggest emergency powers?

* * *

I have not seen Lorenzo Tañada III (“Erin” to his friends) in maybe 20 years, but I was glad when he finally made it to Congress three years ago. My memory of Aug. 21, 1983 and its immediate terrifying aftermath includes an image of him standing outside a room in Colayco Hall the day after the assassination, distraught, angry, gesturing wildly, and saying over and over again: We must draw a line. If Marcos steps across that line, we must fight back. We must draw a line.

* * *

Forty years ago, Ninoy Aquino was elected to the Senate, the lone Liberal survivor in a Nacionalista Party landslide. The revived rivalry of the two traditional parties in the run-up to the 2010 presidential election should mean Ninoy the consummate politician is relevant again (together with other leading Liberal lights like the late Gerardo Roxas and the durable Jovito Salonga), even if only to political strategists.

There really is much to be learned from Ninoy’s political practice: from his famous three-phase Senate campaign, a study in political salesmanship; to his avid consultation and close collaboration with elders in both party and chamber (with the natural cunning of a favored son, Ninoy was able to win the absolute trust of men much older than him); to his canny use of the solidly researched privilege speech to project himself as the true leader of the opposition.

But if this alone were the source of his relevance, then he died — 24 years ago today — in vain.

Ninoy’s true relevance, to both the political class and the nation, is his death-by-installment: the seven years and seven months in prison that changed him irrevocably, the three years in exile and then the voluntary return to almost certain death. “In the loneliness of my solitary confinement in Laur, in the depths of my solitude and desolation, during those long hours of meditations, I found my inner peace.”

“Unequivocally and so clearly,” he also wrote in that famous letter, “Rizal said that we can only win freedom by deserving it and that to earn it we must improve the mind and enhance the dignity of the individual, ‘love what is just, what is good, what is great, to the point of dying for it.’”

How many of our politicians today speak this language?

* * *

As fate would have it, Ninoy’s son and namesake is now a senator of the Republic, too. Unlike other Senate first-timers, Benigno Aquino III (“Noynoy” to everyone) entered the Senate hall burdened with a sense of history. His first speech, on the first day of session, alluded to his father’s own election 40 years ago.

But he has a darker take on his father’s continuing relevance. “All I’m saying is,” he told me the other day, “there’s a real need to emulate what he’s done.” The need is there, he said, because the things his father and thousands fought against are back, “because they’re happening again.”

He lists them, trippingly off the tongue: the extrajudicial killings, the “curtailment” of press freedom, the “weakening” of democratic institutions, a culture of fear being spread by a government “which is really guided by the principle of survival.”

We hope the son is equal to the father’s task.

* * *

It was Rep. Roilo Golez’s idea, but the 28 members of the opposition caucus in the House have welcomed the “shadow Cabinet” plan as though it were their own. According to Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, the criteria for “Cabinet members” consist of “expertise” in a related field, “interest in that department” and (not least) the “willingness to study.”

The principle behind the idea will be applied to the budget, too. Rodriguez said “each [opposition] congressman will take three [Executive] departments [during] the budget process” — a system of adoption that will allow them, or so the minority hopes, to vet the budget more thoroughly.

* * *

It has been a year since the great Fr. Jose Blanco died.

Ernie Ordoñez’s commentary and Dan Mariano’s eloquent column moved me to write then, in my Newsstand blog: “Non-violence as a way of proceeding; the political responsibility of the religiously committed; the ‘truth of the situation’ — seeing [Father Blanco] up close and at work taught many of us, even those who [like me] never studied under him or worked directly under him, a slew of lessons, both as ideals (which I always fell short of) and as methods.”

Dan quoted “Derps” on the miracle of the Edsa highway: “The world is best reconstructed by valuing the people and human lives, by reaching out in joy and dialogue. That is Filipino people power. This will be our contribution to human progress and peace.”

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