Two weeks ago, over a 12-hour period, I found myself exploring the opposite poles of political discourse. On June 23, I was among several journalists who sat down for a freewheeling interview with quite possibly the most successful political operative since the Edsa restoration, Interior Secretary Ronaldo Puno. The following day, I was among many who heard the country’s leading moralist, Chief Justice Reynato Puno, thunder against the “epidemic of ignorance” threatening that same restored democracy.
I found the contrast most instructive, in large part because I happen to believe that public morality—the standards of conduct and performance we must expect from our public officials and from those who take part in public affairs—requires both competence and character. Good intentions are never enough.
Regardless of what I personally thought of Secretary Puno and his role in some of the political scandals of our time, I came away impressed by his political acumen, his strategic way of thinking about politics. And despite sharing many of Chief Justice Puno’s faith-based principles, I came away determined to measure him according to the lawyer’s standards—none of them faith-based—that he is sworn to uphold.
Between Puno the agent of pragmatism and Puno the prophet of the moral life, I found yet another confirmation that, in truth, morality is pragmatic.
* * *
I had not expected to make it to the dinner with Secretary Puno. I was not able to bring a notebook with which to take notes or a recorder with which to tape his answers. But much of the dinner-table conversation has already been reported in separate stories, first by Gil Cabacungan Jr., about the possibility of Joseph Estrada running again; then by Christian Esguerra, about the choice the new Lakas-Kampi-CMD faces, between Vice President Noli de Castro and Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro; lastly by Jocelyn Uy and Tarra Quismundo, about the question of Puno’s political loyalties. The last, in particular, caught the candid, conversational character of the evening.
I found his extended answer to naughty questions about the 1992 elections telling. Expectedly, he denied the existence of the so-called “Sulo Hotel operations” (a privilege he did not extend, incidentally, to the “Hello, Garci” scandal). But he also explained in clear terms and in convincing fashion the overarching strategy behind Fidel Ramos’ successful campaign for the presidency. He said he had helped the Ramos organization realize that, in a very tight contest, they could not take votes away from the Marcos bloc (Danding Cojuangco and Imelda Marcos) or from the youth/Left vote (Miriam Defensor Santiago and Jovito Salonga). They could take both votes and support only from Ramon Mitra, the LDP candidate also identified with the Cory Aquino administration. That is exactly what they proceeded to do. “Essentially, the Cory candidate won,” I remember Secretary Puno saying.
His explanation for his sudden decision to contest the Lakas-Kampi-CMD vice-presidential nomination was similarly persuasive. It began (I trust I got this right; I asked him a couple of times) as a political gambit: as head of Kampi, he wanted to signal that the merged party’s presidential nominee must come from the bigger Lakas. His vice-presidential plan, however, has since taken on a life of its own, among administration allies. He will wait until later this year, however, when about two cycles’ worth of surveys have been taken and processed, before deciding on an actual run.
* * *
As guest of honor at the Araw ng Maynila rites, Chief Justice Puno paid tribute to both the country’s first city and the city’s outstanding citizens. And then, seamlessly, he transitioned to his principal theme of the last several months: “We look up to our honorees today for inspiration, as guiding lights, as we face problems that threaten the existence of our democratic and republican character as a nation.”
The use of that phrase—there is a threat to the very existence of our democracy—cannot be understood lightly, as mere rhetoric. Indeed, the very next sentence can only be understood as an indictment of the same noxious political culture President Macapagal-Arroyo denounced on Rizal Day 2002—and later came to embody after the “Hello, Garci” scandal of 2005.
“Without doubt, a primary threat to our democracy is the lack of truth in a lot of the ongoing political, social and economic discourses. With the coming electoral exercise, our people need the truth and nothing but the truth from those who govern us and like to govern us; for the people cannot exercise their sovereign judgment at the polling places if what is foisted [on] them are half truths, if not falsified facts.”
He singled out for special mention those Outstanding Manilans from media and the academe (including the Inquirer’s own chair, Marixi R. Prieto), for it is “the media and the academe that have the highest intolerance to falsehood; more than the swine flu, we should dread the epidemic of ignorance for, as the Scripture reminds us, it is truth that will set us free.”
This biblical flourish is what disappoints some of the Chief Justice’s critics; it adds ammunition to the argument that Puno is imposing his faith, even his own moral code, on the Supreme Court and its decisions.
I do not see it that way; a justice’s legal reasoning, as reflected in the ponencia he writes, is the true test of influence. But we should be glad for the opportunity to know exactly how someone like Chief Justice Puno thinks. At the same time, we should remember the distinction the philosopher John Rawls makes, between “political conception” and “comprehensive doctrine.” We do not need to follow Puno’s all-embracing faith to accept his reading of political reality.