Published on February 18, 2014.
Almost a hundred days ago, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed President Aquino in the aftermath of Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” It was not a winning moment. Annoying speech tics, factual slip-ups, outright exaggerations—and I’m just talking about Amanpour.
Mr. Aquino did not do very well; he tried to describe a national government that was, to use the familiar phrase, on top of the situation, but five days after the supertyphoon devastated parts of Central Visayas, especially the unfortunate city of Tacloban, the government was in fact still looking for its bearings. Was he covering up for the chaotic reality on the ground, or was he determined to not play the helpless leader of a helpless country? Or was he just talking through his storm-soaked hat? The feedback on social media that I followed was overwhelmingly negative.
He made two significant mistakes. He sought to minimize the projected number of deaths—“Ten thousand is I think too much”—by psychologizing the motives of the police officer and the local government official who had predicted 10,000 casualties. “There was emotional trauma involved with that particular estimate,” he told CNN’s chief international correspondent. The effect of his remarks was to demean the experience of the two sources who were, in fact, and in Mr. Aquino’s words, at “the center” of the calamity. (Regional police chief Elmer Soria was later removed from his post.) Reality very quickly caught up with the President; the death toll as it stands today is triple his estimate of 2,000.
The President also made the mistake of sharpening the distinction between the national government and the local governments which (“in our system”) serve as first responders during disasters; he was especially concerned about the fecklessness of the Tacloban city government, while at the same time acknowledging that the scale of the calamity had overwhelmed Tacloban and a few other places. The effect was to heighten the distance between the national capital and the disaster areas, and to subtly shift the burden of blame to the city.
His performance was immediately discussed and has since been heavily criticized. To his most fervent critics, Mr. Aquino’s 12 minutes on CNN were disqualifying. A column by colleague Nono Montalvan that went viral (over 33,000 shares) concluded thus: “He does not matter now. He has begun to reveal his irrelevance. He no longer is our leader.” A column in another newspaper by Kit Tatad called for his ouster. “I am now convinced that Aquino’s immediate departure from the presidency is a conditio sine qua non for the country’s recovery from the recent disasters, and for the building of a much better Philippines.”
For the record, I think they are fundamentally mistaken. At the same time, I also agree with the widespread perception that the government’s initial response to Yolanda was shamefully inadequate, a true scandal. But there is one important aspect of the Amanpour interview which, as far as I know, has not been touched upon; it has been nagging at me since November.
I do not mean the speech tics, slip-ups and exaggerations I mentioned at the start. I brought them up only as a reaction to the more intemperate criticism directed at Mr. Aquino, which painted Amanpour as this accomplished veteran confronting a hapless amateur. To be entirely candid, I thought some of the feedback I read could be described as a triumphant embrace of that old taboo, colonial mentality.
But in fact Amanpour made mistakes. She referred to the climate change conference in Warsaw, Poland as “Copenhagen 19.” (She meant the 19th meeting of the Conference of Parties, or COP.) She kept using qualifiers like “obviously” or “clearly” or their equivalents (“we know”), an overcompensating tic that doesn’t appear when she is actually reporting from the field. And she made sweeping statements: “What do you say to those negotiators who are sitting there in a world capital while your country is practically submerged?” The entire country? Just how little does she know about the Philippines? No one would make the same mistake asking a similar kind of question to George W. Bush or even the governor of Louisiana (a state much smaller, in size, than the Philippines) after Hurricane “Katrina.”
But these errors are only to be expected from a live telecast; outside of the context, they are of no moment. Amanpour, however, asked a question which seems to have struck a chord with some Filipinos. “Let me ask you about your responsibility as president. Clearly, I don’t know if you agree, but the way you respond, your government responds, to this terrible devastation, will probably define your presidency …. What do you say to that?”
It is possible that some of us may have thought then, three months ago, that the national government’s calamitous early response was legacy-defining, but those of us who did would have found no support from Philippine history. When I heard Amanpour state her premise, I tried to think of a Philippine president who had been defined by his or her response to a national catastrophe. I could not think of any; not Marcos after the Central Luzon floods, not Cory after Pinatubo, not Gloria after “Ondoy.”
The reason may lie in our terrible over-familiarity with natural disasters, or in our consuming obsession with politics, or in the many contradictions of our society. But why did Amanpour ask that question? It was certainly a legitimate thing to ask, because she was attempting to understand Mr. Aquino, to place him in the right frame. But here’s my argument: She was asking it as an outsider. Even more to the point, she was asking it as an outsider with Bush’s Katrina as context. Those of us who agreed with her premise had the wrong history in mind.