Column: At the end of the day: A President’s accountability

Published on September 7, 2010.

In his latest outburst, Sen. Joker Arroyo has given us yet another yardstick by which to measure the depths of corruption the country plumbed, under the Arroyo administration he supported and succored. Apparently, for the former human rights lawyer, President Benigno Aquino III’s Trumanesque statement that when all is said and done about the Aug. 23 hostage-taking tragedy, he was “responsible for everything” was absolutely the wrong thing to say.

“It’s good for listening and good for the image,” Arroyo said in a radio interview last Sunday. “But it amounts to nothing. It has no effect because he will not resign, according to his advisers. It is an unnecessary comment. If he said that, does it mean that everyone who is under investigation is absolved?”

Obviously, since President Aquino convened a fact-finding committee, precisely to find out what went wrong and what needs to be done to get it right the next time, the President’s statement does not mean that “everyone who is under investigation is absolved.” But it still needed to be said, because in fact as head of government President Aquino was ultimately accountable to the people for the government’s response (or lack of it).

This is as it should be, but under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s corrosive influence, Senator Arroyo has apparently learned to think differently. Especially during her last five years in office, President Arroyo sought to avoid accountability—not merely the legal kind, which seems to be Senator Arroyo’s only interpretation, but also of the more defining, moral variety. In other words, she wanted authority without accountability. That is what I mean when I say the good senator, a hero to many of us during the dictatorship’s darkest days, has been corrupted by the Arroyo years.

He thinks President Aquino’s statement “amounts to nothing.” Why? Because he thinks accepting accountability only means one thing: resignation (“It has no effect because he will not resign”). This is transparently absurd (if Arroyo accepts final responsibility for the laidback pace the Senate blue ribbon committee set when he chaired it, does that mean he has to resign from the Senate?)—but it is also deeply revealing, of the kind of thinking that must have animated President Arroyo and the lawyers who served as her enablers and co-dependents during her five-year-long crisis of legitimacy.

President Aquino’s statement, that “at the end of the day, I am responsible for everything that has transpired,” shows a recognition that the buck does ultimately stop with him—even if he were not directly involved in the resolution of the hostage-taking incident, an argument I tried to make in last week’s column; even if Manila Mayor Fred Lim (incidentally, the police ground commander at the time of the Mendiola massacre in January 1987) were in the end held liable for the inadequate response of the Manila police; even if it were eventually established that a combination of factors, including a live radio interview and the handcuffing of the hostage-taker’s brother on live TV, transformed incident into crisis.

After a week of serial bungling, I for one wanted to hear President Aquino say those very words. The “at the end of the day” statement is a statement of democratic principle; it is completely the opposite of President Arroyo’s “I am sorry” speech in July 2005, which was a statement of self-interest, phrased with lawyerly inexactitude.

* * *

In my view, President Aquino’s basic mistake was to let political considerations dictate part of the response to the hostage-taking incident. The interior department’s response followed the pattern he himself had set, with Secretary Jesse Robredo unburdened of any operational responsibility for the national police. (The same thing can be said for the communications response.) I understand his designation of Robredo as vice chair of the Incident Investigation and Review Committee investigating the hostage-taking incident, as well as his “at the end of the day” statement (as Reuters correctly pointed out, in its dispatch), to be his way of showing public support for the official. Say what we will about the President’s limited political experience, or his once-strained relationship with Robredo, but everything I know about him tells me he is bound (or liberated) by a sense of limits. He will not sanction someone criticized precisely for following his own marching orders.

The case can be made that the Aug. 23 incident betrayed a failure of leadership. At the end of the day, the statement Senator Arroyo found so objectionable may actually have been President Aquino’s way of finally, belatedly, imposing his own kind of leadership.

* * *

“At the end of the day” is a cliché that seems to serve President Aquino’s needs well; in his first months in office, he has already used it a number of times, and it may yet prove to be as evocative of these post-Arroyo years as “at this point in time” was, for certain of us, of the Edsa Revolution. But it is not uncontroversial. In 2004, the so-called Plain English campaign called it the worst cliché of the year; earlier this year, an Australian newspaper placed it at the top of the list of clichés to be avoided. But writing in the Telegraph last June, Philip Hensher defended the use of certain clichés, including “at the end of the day.” Among his proofs, the famous novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s fondness for certain clichés. Hensher wrote: “[Ishiguro] found many of them ‘poignant and beautiful’. He singled out ‘at the end of the day’ as ‘full of stoic ruefulness’.” Perhaps just the very note President Aquino now seeks to strike.


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