Written on the day of the controversial second State of the Nation Address, and published on July 25, 2017.
Since I first met him in August 2015, I have tried to describe Rodrigo Duterte, the man and politician, as fairly, as completely, as I could. In this column and before various audiences—rule of law advocates in The Hague, student leaders on Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City, Asian news executives in Bangkok, campus writers in Legazpi, journalists in Perugia, even residents of my hometown of Cagayan de Oro—I have sought to give President Duterte his due.
I have always pointed out that, in private, Mr. Duterte is unfailingly courteous, and thoughtful and responsive in conversation. He makes bold statements (arguing, for instance, that the presidency is not powerful enough) but leavens them with an earnest mien, a healthy sense of humor, even a talent for mimicry. I’ve met him only thrice — a group interview at the Inquirer that lasted for about four hours, a chance encounter at the Naia 2 airport, a presidential debate — but my impressions have found an echo in the recollections of the senators and Cabinet secretaries I’ve interviewed since his election.
I have also always noted that Mr. Duterte is a genuinely charismatic personality; I have seen his effect on an audience of about 50 as well as a massive crowd (the thanksgiving rally in Davao City after his victory) of perhaps 500,000. There is really something there that many people respond to. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has seen this charisma at work, not only in the President’s native Davao but in Tokyo, too, when Mr. Duterte came visiting. It is a mistake to dismiss this talk of mass appeal or reduce it to cult-like conduct. (To be sure, there is that, too.)
But put a microphone in front of him, and (time to look afresh at this tired phrase) all hell breaks loose. Continue reading