Published on July 29, 2008
I thought the President looked unusually haggard yesterday, at least at the start of her speech. It wasn’t until her mention of the jeepney driver whose daily income rose from P200 to P500 because of a crackdown on “kotong” (a protection money racket) that she started to beam.
It was a good choice, even an inspired one, from the perspective of the political arts, to present Federico Alvarez, the jeepney driver, as the first of her Reaganesque props. When he stood up, everything Malacanang officials said about a “no-frills” State of the Nation Address was proven a lie, but only those of us who were naïve enough to believe the obvious expectation-tempering statements emanating from the Palace would have been disappointed or outraged. But the [cultural] resonance of a jeepney driver, the calculated comprehensibility of money in hundreds of pesos (not in the billions)—I thought that this was politically artful. Devious, and manipulative, but effective.
The Sona is a speech, a concatenation of chosen words, but it is also an event, an act of political theater. (I must thank ANC anchor Pia Hontiveros for including something I had written two years ago in her on-the-spot Sona analysis.) It is, in fact, the logic of images that first defines, if not the national agenda, then at least the political moment.
The sense of disgust that burdened the climate of opinion after the 2006 Sona can be traced directly, albeit only partly, to the image of controversial general Jovito Palparan, the man who may have inspired the spree of politically motivated killings in the countryside, sitting in the Batasan gallery, basking in the President’s extraordinary praise.
Which image from yesterday’s speech will be remembered best, which one will weigh down on our collective consciousness like an unforgiving conscience?
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As expected, the President included an all-too-familiar sentence in her address about encouraging “couples, most of whom are Catholics,” to practice natural family planning. What came as a modest surprise was her quoting from Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical. Again, a calculated move. The bishops would have approved.
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“In GMA’s first two Sonas, Edsa 2 was still part of the national narrative the new President was describing. 2001: ‘… people rose up to restore morality as the first institution of society and as the animating principle of justice and the rule of law.’ 2002: ‘Legions of ordinary Filipinos, many of them students, came, stood and clamored [sic] at Edsa, for a better government. It is to them I look for validation.’
“But as the years wore on, GMA began to look for validation in other places, notably in the exigencies (and the metaphors) of war. In 2002 the language of war was already in use. But in 2003 (the State of the Nation rite that year came a day after the Magdalo mutiny), she all but declared herself a wartime president: ‘But we remain at war,’ she said, and rattled off the various fronts: terrorism, poverty, disease, drugs. (In 2003 too, Manny Pacquiao is first mentioned, as the epitome of the Filipino who, ‘given the chance to compete … will take it and win.’)
“The President’s post-election Sona in 2004 should have concentrated on a new overarching theme for her six-year term, and in fact there was an attempt to do so (‘isang bagong direksyon: mamamayan muna’ — a new direction: citizens first), but it was drowned in a sea of rationalizations, explanations to the world at large why it was necessary and in the national interest to ransom Angelo de la Cruz off by accelerating the planned pullout of Philippine troops from Iraq. (The paradox of the State of the Nation address: it is both an agenda-setting tool and eminently events-driven.)
“Last year’s Sona, of course, was remarkable for its brevity, its tale of two countries (a campaign leftover, as [TV reporter] Jove Francisco noted), and—not least—its politely phrased directive to let a hundred flowers of Charter change arguments bloom.
“Road maps, yes. But if they change from year to year, won’t we end up going around in circles?”
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Yesterday’s Sona was moving in parts; that is the point of all those individuals, many of them of real achievement, sharing in (or being exploited for) the moment. But the overwhelming impression I came away with is a sense of vertigo.
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Criticized, on her birthday, by administration Sen. Joker Arroyo for her unthinking threat to invoke executive privilege in one issue, the President’s deputy spokesperson Lorelei Fajardo promptly put her foot in her mouth with an amateurish apology for the appointment of ex-senator Ralph Recto as Neda secretary.
Essentially, her statement amounted to a defense of Recto as “an economist and politician” who had already proven himself. That made her conclusion all but incomprehensible: “Let us all give Secretary Recto the chance to prove himself.”
My own concern as a journalist is that Fajardo was hired to flummox the press with her unfeigned ignorance. Sadly, perhaps because she is easy on the eyes, she seems to be succeeding.
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Many thanks for those readers who wrote long, thoughtful responses to my column on “Humanae Vitae.” I am still trying to wrap my head around them, hence this detour to our lords temporal. But I would like at least to set my friend Deannie Bocobo straight. He characterized me in his blog, somewhat unfairly, as a “self-proclaimed devout Catholic.” I am, of course, no such thing. If anything, my position can be summed up, simply enough, as unholier-than-thou. I hope he appreciates the difference.