Column: Thanks, Kris, but are you sure you want it?

The last of four reflections on the role of the Aquinos in the life of the nation. Published on August 25, 2009.  (Incidentally, in this version, I correct a “floating comma” that swam against the tide in the print and online editions. )

It has since become clear: Kris Aquino’s overwhelming celebrity helped the public rediscover her mother. In Cory Aquino’s last months, her health became a regular topic on Kris’ TV shows. For several Sundays in a row, an intensely curious national audience tuned in to find out the latest in a riveting drama, narrated (and, naturally, starred in) by the one Aquino heir who inherited Ninoy Aquino’s charisma and impeccable actor’s timing. (I understand much the same thing happened on weeknights, too, with Kris’ other gossip show, but I did not have an opportunity to see it for myself.)

The unremitting attention helped the public to come to final terms with Ninoy’s widow, the democratic icon who led the restoration of the democratic institutions savaged by Marcos. The new focus came at a time when the country’s second woman president was roundly seen as yet again devising another way to stay in power. The contrast with Cory, who used her last State of the Nation Address not to confound the critics and tempt the tacticians but to prepare for the transition, could not have been more stark.
It is important to realize that Kris played a role in emphasizing the contrast—perhaps not deliberately, but effectively just the same. Her stories about her mother’s simplicity and forbearance, despite great pain, reminded watching audiences about the alternative. Her revelation, in an interview conducted during the wake, that Malacañang had tried to reassign the security guards who had been protecting her mother since she was president, a threat in all but name aired when Cory was on her deathbed, deepened the damning contrast.

Kris has since vowed to speak in her mother’s voice. It is a role that seems only natural. In my view, however, it is counter-intuitive. It goes against the grain of Kris’ nature.

Kris Aquino’s entire career in entertainment can be seen as the exact opposite of her mother’s life in politics: chosen and planned for, rather than accidental and reluctantly accepted; a sustained act of self-indulgence, rather than self-effacement. To be sure, to succeed at Kris’ level, and to sustain it for two decades (to the chagrin, I am certain, of critics like Ninez Cacho Olivares, who infamously predicted that Kris’ popularity was co-terminous with that of her mother’s presidency), requires uncommon discipline and a robust sense of professionalism.

And yet, and I say this in the best possible way, Kris is fundamentally self-absorbed.

One of the most affecting interviews she gave (I happened to be on Facebook at the time, and all sorts of friends were reporting tears, lumps in the throat, choking up) included the absolutely unnecessary information that her first gift to her mother, from her first paycheck in the industry she was destined to join, was an expensive watch. The point of her story, that she was immeasurably moved when she saw her mother wear the watch, would have been made even without the characteristically gratuitous information she chose to provide. (Even the coffee she drank had to be Starbucks.)

Many people like Kris for exactly this kind of candor: She believes she lives an intensely interesting life, every single fact of which is (by definition, because it is part of her life) inherently interesting. She is fascinating to watch, that way. But her grief, her sincere spontaneity, “made sense” to the audiences watching her during a period of intense, nationwide mourning. She will need more, other, qualities, to truly inhabit the role of her mother’s voice.

Ninoy’s lasting legacy is the suffering he endured in the last 10 years of his life, a martyrdom that, we can say with “The Last Journey of Ninoy” still fresh in mind, not only changed his life but redeemed it. Cory’s own trials—as a political prisoner’s wife, as a young widow and accidental symbol of democracy, as a single parent, as a practicing and devout Catholic, as a valiant cancer patient—form a similar legacy of self-sacrifice too.

For her to truly speak in her mother’s voice, Kris needs to undergo a conversion. By conversion I mean the transmutation of negative into positive values—exactly like what took place in Edsa 1986.

I am reminded of the “psycho-pastoral” reflections of Ruben Tanseco, SJ, tendered in March 1986, or less than a month after the revolution. “There are certain qualities or traits which I had considered rather negative in the past—points of weaknesses in the culture which were taken advantage of during the last 20 years by Mr. Marcos and his system. The very traits that were taken advantage of in the collective psyche of the Filipino are some of the very same qualities that facilitated the revolution. So that from negatives they turned into positives as it were—a case of God using the foolish to confound the wise.”

Tanseco offers specifics: “From non-assertiveness to active non-violence—mahinahon, ayaw ng gulo, hindi basag-ulero, easy-easy lang, puedeng aregluhin, pag-usapan, pagdasalan ng rosaryo, mapagtiis, mapag-pasensiya, maka-Diyos, authority-centered. These were very evident not only on the part of the people in the streets but also on the part of the military . . .”

The basic principle is theological: grace builds on nature. In Tanseco’s view, God decided in 1986 to make do with what he found. The corollary, however, is self-evident. Over 20 years ago, Tanseco offered a prophetic reading: “The weaknesses of the Filipino which turned into strength during the February events may now turn again into weaknesses during the post-revolution period.”

I think the same thing applies to Kris. Like the nation she seeks to speak to, some growth, some transcending, is called for.

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