Column: Courage as statement: a newfound respect for Miriam

Published on July 5, 2016.

NOW THAT President Duterte has taken firm control of the reins of power, it is time to shift the focus from the epic of the 2016 elections and the melodrama of a tumultuous transition to the plain prose of governance. But allow me one more look back—this time at Miriam Defensor Santiago’s extraordinary presidential candidacy.

I have criticized the ex-senator in this column more than once, and through her office she has responded forcefully to some of the criticism. I was skeptical of her third presidential run; knowing that the historical record shows that a candidate wins the Philippine presidency on the first try or not at all, I was even suspicious of the motives behind her decision to run again. If she is ailing from cancer, and the surveys show her languishing at the bottom of the field, why even bother to run?

This is not to say that only candidates with a real shot at winning the main prize should throw their hats in the ring; I have voted for candidates who needed Biblical-scale miracles to win, including Jovito Salonga in 1992 and Raul Roco in both 1998 and 2004. But these candidates—Salonga with his running mate Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Roco and his 1998 vice presidential candidate Irene Santiago—seemed to me to represent not only the possible (I kept reminding myself that Salonga was the only senator to top the Senate race thrice, or that Roco was a top vote-getter in 1995 and an early survey favorite in 1998) but also the ideal.

They represented something larger than themselves, or their personal ambition. What did Miriam represent in 2016? It took me a long time to understand; it was only when she entered the debate hall in Dagupan for the third presidential debate, just a few weeks before Election Day, that I finally understood.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

I met the senator at the first presidential debate in February, held in Cagayan de Oro. She had reached the debate venue after a long delay at the airport; she looked composed but enervated. (Who wouldn’t be? In truth, she looked like any other senior citizen harassed by yet another interminable flight delay.)

But the issue of her health hung heavy in the room; in contrast with the easy laughter of the Duterte holding room, say, or the bustle of the Binay and Roxas holding areas, or the earnestness and shine of the Poe campaign staff gathered in their room, Miriam’s was quiet, sedate. It reminded me of a hospital suite’s receiving area.

She sat in her chair almost in the middle of the room, at one and the same time the center of gravity and the focus of concern. She seemed to be gathering her strength. The members of her staff were mostly quiet, or speaking in low voices. When I think back on it now, I can remember very little movement behind or around us as we spoke.

Her mind, though, was still sharp; during the debate, she answered the question about her decision to run for the presidency despite suffering from Stage 4 cancer with an unexpected and defiant twist: She declared it was well within her rights to do so.

She told anchor Jessica Soho: “Hindi mo ba alam na ang sakit tumataas o bumababa o nawawala? Magtatanong ka, bakit may sakit ka, bakit tumatakbo ka? Idiretso ko ’yan. Karapatan ko ’yan sa ilalim ng ating—under our Constitution. Wala namang constitutional provision that if you get sick of something, you are disqualified. Ano pa ’yung iba niyong gustong malaman?”

Unexpected, but also vintage Miriam: “Don’t you know that a sickness goes up or goes down or goes away? You ask, Why are you running if you are sick? I will answer that directly: That is my right under our Constitution. There is no constitutional provision that [says that] if you get sick of something, you are disqualified. Now what else do you want to know?”

Unfortunately, it was clear during that first debate that she was in fact ailing. The images of candidate Rodrigo Duterte helping his old friend rise from her chair became viral, no small thanks to the efforts of the Duterte social media team. The hashtag Duriam, a conflation of the two candidates’ names, with the bonus effect of reminding social media users of Davao’s famous fruit, trended even before the debate ended. There were also moments when the audience expected a fiery retort from the politician famous for, in her own words, eating death threats for breakfast, but got nothing. (She did glare at candidate Jojo Binay once, with such intensity the heat could almost be felt all the way to the last row of the auditorium.)

She had started the campaign with a (controlled) bang, appearing with her running mate Bongbong Marcos in Ilocos Sur. Then she had kept mainly to the university circuit, attending a few forums where she would give a speech and then leave after the meet-and-greet. Her defiant words in Cagayan de Oro were soon followed by the announcement that she was forgoing the second debate, to be held in Cebu, because she had been selected to join a (very expensive) clinical trial to test a new anticancer treatment. It was the most minimalist campaign for high office since William McKinley sat on his porch in Ohio.

But I was there at the third debate, which Miriam was able to join. When she arrived, the gym where the debate was held erupted in unfeigned applause. Diehard supporters of all the candidates were cheering the scrappy survivor on, and as she made her way to the front I finally realized what she meant by her statement in Cagayan de Oro: Disease is not and should not be a disqualification—not in running for president, and certainly not for living life to the full.

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