Column: Presidential English and other forms of flattery

Published on July 28, 2009.

THE ADDRESS. Here, outside the Batasan’s Session Hall, listening to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s ninth State of the Nation Address, I realize something about the character of the Arroyo SONA: It is, essentially, a stump speech, full of symbolic head-patting: “For standing with me and doing the right thing, thank you Congress.” And righteous chest-thumping: “The state of our nation is a strong economy.” And political cheap shot-making: “If you really want to be president,” she said in obvious reference to Sen. Mar Roxas, “don’t say bad words in public!”

This choice of rhetoric is no mere defense mechanism, conditioned by the crisis of 2005. This, for better or worse, is how the President thinks the political class is governed.

* * *

THE SPEECH. Of the President’s speeches we have seen or heard or read, the best, by far, was her speech during the traditional Vin d’Honneur on Jan. 9, 2003—10 days after she had announced her surprise decision not to contest the 2004 presidential election.

“Let me be direct and to the point,” she began. “I have faith in our country. I have hope for the future. I am optimistic the Philippines will yet emerge as a prosperous, modern nation within our lifetimes.”

The speech (still available, despite her much-maligned decision to run in 2004, on the press secretary’s website) reads very well, no doubt because of the short, well-tempered sentences. But I think it was the moral clarity of her position that made the speech almost luminous. It may have been the last time she had uncontested possession of the moral high ground.

She made a distinction between two powers. “There is a power that commands fear. This kind of power only invites constant challenge. And then there is the greater power that invites respect. This is the power that convinces, and grows with the cooperation it inspires by spreading the circle of its benefits. This is the power I seek.”

* * *

THE INTRODUCTION. Introducing a guest speaker or a resource person seems like a no-brainer, which is why most introductions come across as, well, brainless. Often, the person assigned the task simply reads the speaker’s curriculum vitae; almost as often, the introducer merely ad libs or, worse, excuses his lack of preparation by saying the honoree “requires no introduction.”

Every now and then, however, an introducer does the job so well, prepares the introduction in such depth, that even the introducee learns something new, or finds himself gazing down a new perspective. This happy experience happened to me once. The second time I spoke before the Rotary Club of Manila, I was wittily, substantively and briefly introduced by Howard Belton, now of the Philippine Business for the Environment. He had done me the honor of reading my work in print and online, and offered his fellow Rotarians an original take on what he had read.

Last week, I saw it happen again, this time to my friend Jose Carillo, the usage columnist from the Manila Times. Ed Maranan, Palanca Hall of Famer, read an elegant, witty introduction.

He began by noting the occasion: the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap.” “Today, we mark a milestone in the history of man, or should I say mankind.”

The allusion, of course, is to the missing “a” in Armstrong’s famous statement. “What was at that time considered the height of human achievement would later be marred by controversy.”

Maranan said: “Early on, young as I was, I had thought that there was something strange in that soon-to-be immortal statement. And I had thought, mistakenly as it turned out, that the world was going to ignore blithely that grammatical glitch. . .Was ‘a’ lost in the radio transmission, or was Armstrong guilty of an astronomical omission?”

He then skillfully pivots—with tongue playfully in cheek—to the occasion. “And so today, I stand here before you to deliver some remarks on yet another historic milestone, which means I will now talk about the book, or books, of Jose Carillo.”

Of the many passages I can quote, let me just content myself with the following, a clever, self-aware use of the usual forms of flattery, which Maranan made his own with transparent sincerity: “I could go on and on—that’s a rhetorical cliché—but I cannot praise enough Carillo’s latest book, or all three books of his, even if I spoke the whole afternoon. Suffice it to say—another cliché—that my fellow writers and myself—who were invited to write blurbs for Joe Carillo’s three books—unreservedly, enthusiastically, and even desperately recommend them to Filipinos from all walks of life: teachers and students of English, writers in every possible genre, bloggers, politicians and public relations officers, call center agents, editors, reporters and columnists (and some columnists especially, who “mold public opinion” with ghastly grammar and cringe-worthy malapropisms), bumbling barristers and befuddled beauty contestants, and just about everybody else who needs to be competent in English.”

* * *

THE BLURB. It took me almost a couple of hours to fashion the following blurb, after reading most of the e-version of Carillo’s book; quoting it in full seems like a forgivable form of flattery. “‘Our words define us,’ writes the preternaturally positive Jose Carillo. Yes, and our sentences reveal us for who we are. In ‘Give Your English the Winning Edge,’ Carillo offers 155 well-tempered essays on grammar, usage and style that we can read—that we must read—to help us in our own acts of revelation. His loving mastery of the English language is a source of hope—and a happy standard we can all aspire to.”

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