Column: Leni, ‘last man standing’

Published on April 19, 2016.

IN TWO debates one week apart, Rep. Leni Robredo has managed to consolidate solid performances with memorable closing statements. In public speaking as in persuasive writing, the point of greatest emphasis is often the close; it’s the last thing that’s heard, and (to use a musical metaphor) the right note can send the audience out through the swinging doors humming one’s tune. Robredo, Mar Roxas’ candidate for vice president, has done exactly that—not once, but twice.

In the CNN debate at the University of Santo Tomas on April 10, part of the Commission on Elections’ inspired game-changer of a debate series, the representative of Camarines Sur’s Third District exceeded the time limit for her closing statement, but just as host Pia Hontiveros was calling her out, managed to smuggle in the following sentence: “Sa amin pong anim (Among the six of us), may the best woman win.”

It was a resounding summation of her performance during the nearly-three-hour debate, which was a little tentative in the first hour, but increasingly confident and emphatic as time passed. It was a different kind of forceful from that displayed by Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, who repeatedly (and bravely) criticized Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for his family’s fabulous wealth and his pattern of absences from anticorruption hearings. Robredo had added her voice to the criticism (Sen. Antonio Trillanes did, too, at one point), but she was able to avoid sounding strident or glib. This she did in part by offering nuanced answers.

In one exchange of what Hontiveros described as a “Marcos-Robredo fight,” for instance, Robredo explained her position on Marcos’ lack of remorse. (She spoke in a mix of conversational Filipino and key English terms; I’ve taken the liberty of rendering her words into straight English.) “You know, Pia, an apology is voluntarily given. We cannot force it out of him. But for me, the recognition that there were many mistakes in the past includes the hidden wealth that up to now we have not yet fully recovered. And that was stolen from the people. It’s not right to merely acknowledge it. It should be returned to us.”

Robredo has both policy and psychology right; a forced apology is no apology at all. But we should not lose sight of the policy: Returning the money is more important than a Marcos apology.

In my view, “May the best woman win” captures the essential dynamic in Robredo’s answer. An unrigid, even compassionate, understanding of human nature (“We cannot force it out of him”) is based on a firm if gentle resolve to get at the practical nub of things (“It should be returned to us”). The phrase strikes me as the early-21st-century version of the late-20th-century compliment paid to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as famously “the best man for the job.”

(Thatcher’s vision of society was harsher than Robredo’s, though—perhaps a reflection in part of their formative years. Thatcher was a career politician, Robredo a grassroots activist.)

In the ABS-CBN debate on April 17, part of the TV network’s preparation for this Sunday’s last Comelec-sanctioned presidential debate, Robredo was able to stay just within the time limit. She referenced the words of the moderator of a Rotary-sponsored vice presidential debate where none of the other candidates bothered to show up, and then made them her own, thus: “Ang sabi sa amin ng moderator (The moderator told us), ito po tatandaan ninyo dahil itataga natin sa bato (and this you must remember because we will carve it in stone): ‘The last man standing is a woman.’”

Another ringing summing-up, which sealed Robredo’s arguments and at the same time traced the arc of her campaign narrative: slow and steady and stick-at-it may yet win the race. That the phrase came from someone else is a bonus: It proves something I’ve seen up close. She knows how to listen.

She’s heard the complaints about “big-time politicians,” and vows not to live in the Coconut Palace. She’s heard the complaints about Metro Manila traffic, and puts traffic first in her list of what’s wrong with the Aquino administration. She’s heard the complaints about politicians’ overweening ambition, and pledges not to aspire for higher office.

In an INQ&A with her at the Inquirer.net offices, Robredo answered my last question in an unexpected vein. (Again, my rendering follows.) What, I asked her, was her most memorable sortie?

“A lot, actually. For me, my sorties are more memorable because I always ask my campaign team… I don’t know if you noticed. I get away for one hour, I sneak in what I want to do. For example, when I went to Pampanga. This was without media coverage. I went up Mount Pinatubo. I went to Porac. I visited the Aetas there. I didn’t give a speech, I was just the emcee of the program. I just asked them to volunteer who was going to sing, who was going to dance. All happy. This is what gives me good vibes. For [another] example, I went to Bukidnon. I set aside one hour, I met the representatives of seven different tribes. Because this was my job before. In my job before, I was really working with them. I’m just giving myself a sense of, like, balance. Because the sorties, while you’re enjoying being with people, sometimes it becomes mechanical. You jump from one sortie to another. Sometimes we ask, ‘Where are we again?’ It’s like you lose yourself and these small things, these gatherings of 20 people, very small gatherings, without media, without anyone else—they are like food for my soul. This is what energizes me.”

A candidate who is ready to become president should the need arise, but seeks ordinary people for “balance” and craves ordinary comforts like bus rides home, is rare indeed. I hope the last man standing is only the first of her kind.

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