Column: Outrageous Duterte wants out

Published on January 5, 2016.

It’s been four months since Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte visited the Inquirer, and I see no reason to change my original view: He is deeply conflicted about running for the presidency. His increasingly scandalous conduct on the campaign trail—call it the politics of mutual outrage—confirms me in my view. He is looking for a way out.

I realize this reading runs against the grain. There is even a popular or at least trendy view that the famous mayor and his political brain trust masterminded the entire “Duterte-serye” of the last few months: The coyness of a now-on, now-off, now-maybe-perhaps-possibly-on-again campaign is thought to be deliberate, strategic.

“It keeps him in the news,” I have heard even news veterans say—as though being perpetually in the headlines and on TV newscasts in the last 18 months has been an unadulterated asset for, say, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano. We should all be wary of imposing the frameworks we are most familiar with on reality. It doesn’t seem to me the case that his newsworthiness explains Duterte’s undeniable mass appeal. In the exact same way that American media initially misread the ridiculous Donald Trump’s insurgent campaign as fed by the oxygen they freely provided, we may have some members of the Philippine media who look at Duterte, not as the vanguard of a kind of insurgency, but as a creation of the news cycle.

This, I think, is a mistake. The appeal is there, whether or not news organizations are paying attention. In “Duterte’s path to victory,” I identified three possible sources of this mass appeal: the “Visayan bloc” that is genuinely intrigued by the possibility of a son of Mindanao making Malacañang his home, “the peace and order vote” which sees the reputation of Davao City built in the last quarter-century as a true benchmark, and the X-factor of a larger-than-life celebrity.

“There is, lastly, the outsize personality: the ready embrace of a risk-taking reputation, the carefully cultivated image of a politically incorrect rabble-rouser, the strategic revelations of womanizing (coupled with a candid confession of having ‘only P4 million’ in his bank account). This is not so much the Donald Trump of the Philippines as the pre-impeachment Joseph Estrada of Mindanao.”

But in his sit-down with Inquirer editors and reporters, Duterte took great care with his words; he regaled us with his recollection of the first, widely publicized case of what we can call official vigilantism in Davao City, when he made sure a gang of kidnappers ended up dead—but he refused to say whether he had pulled the trigger. “Come on, I was a fiscal for a long time,” I remember him saying in so many words, as a way to defuse tricky questions. He explained his view of the Philippine presidency, that contrary to public opinion it was not powerful enough, before advocating constitutional dictatorship (the powers would be unlimited in scope, but limited in time, or so he said, promising to vacate the presidency after six years).

All that careful calibration has gone out the window. In the last two months or so, it has been one outrageous statement after another, none more scandalous than his gratuitous cussing of (not at) Pope Francis. (The video record makes clear that he did not use the standard cusswords as a stand-alone, an interjection, but as directed at a specific person: “Pope, p—– ina ka, umuwi ka na.” For many Filipinos, that makes all the difference.)

And then he says: If the Vatican (or the bishops’ conference, or some other offended party) calls for his disqualification, he will give up his campaign for the presidency, and retire.

I am reminded of his joking challenge to our late editor in chief, Letty Magsanoc, when he visited. Let the Inquirer staff vote on whether he should run, he said, magnanimously; if he gets a unanimous vote, he will contest the presidency.

It was an impossible, indeed absurd, condition; it made us all laugh, it flattered us fleetingly, but it bore no relation to a serious campaign for president. And he—the good lawyer that he is—knew it. That is my point: He knows it. He keeps raising the ante, piling one impossible condition after another, making ridiculous, Trump-like promises like ending decades-old insurgencies in mere months, even literally playing footsies with a scandalized media interviewer, all the while waiting for people to say, “Enough. You are better than this.”

* * *

To venture into unfamiliar territory: A piece on “moving on” by the popular Paulo Coelho is making the rounds on Facebook. It is sensible advice. “One always has to know when a stage comes to an end,” it begins. “Closing cycles, shutting doors, ending chapters—whatever name we give it, what matters is to leave in the past the moments of life that have finished.”

It makes sense, especially when read at the start of a new year, and yet I think it fails to capture the gifts of repetition, of the cyclical return, which the classics teach us. The idea that we can repeat ourselves, or indeed certain moments, is as old and as generous as time. We catch a glimpse of this when someone like Roger Federer repeats a particularly graceful stroke after winning a point; he is deepening the experience. Or when we read old letters again and again; we are reliving the moment.

The particular charm, even genius, of the movie “Groundhog Day” is that it captures this idea and translates it into an ideal: Even we the undeserving are given the incredible gift of returning to the past and repeating it—until we get it, and everything else, right.

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