The Impossible Dreamer
Benigno S. Aquino III dared to believe the Filipino could be different.
(SPOT.ph) The writers among my former team obeyed former President Benigno S. Aquino III’s injunction to us, as his term was winding down, to write our memoirs only after he was dead. I suspect he’d read a piece I wrote in March 2015 that tried to understand him and, well, explain him. There is nothing I would say today that I wasn’t willing to say then; but to take off where I’d left that piece, here is how I’d ended it:
“Yet with the passing of that moment, he must continue to confront what he is: to his mind, someone not permitted the freedom of public emotion. For you will never be alone, never allowed to let go, never permitted to come to terms—until your own time is up, and the next generation steps forward to come to terms with what you had to live with all your life: neither joy nor grief are exempt from being public property.”
Benigno S. Aquino III is, briefly, public property again. Except for a short, abortive attempt by the powers-that-be to harass him—brief because his willingness to face public inquiry only heightened the contrast between himself, alert, informed, unafraid, and those who’d only appeared, grudgingly, in wheelchairs, waving medical certificates behind a screen of lawyers—he finally got to live a private life, but only for a few years. As the public knows, close to half of it was spent in increasing ill health, the joys of living one by one being taken away from him; near the end, it was his sense of taste; as I understand it, among the very last joys left to him was one of his deepest—music.
In this his taste was omnivorous, his knowledge encyclopedic, his approach, scientific: such is the nature of the audiophile as he glories in obtaining bargains on second-hand equipment and fusses around to get the placement of speakers right. But it can also be said to be a meticulousness reflected in such hobbies as he had: billiards, pistols, even cars. Fine-tuned in each instance. Take guns. Someone once tried to explain to me, what his pistol-shooting said about him.
In contrast to Ferdinand Marcos who was a sniper—which requires long periods of lying-in-wait in ambush, and a very personal yet clinical relationship with your chosen target—the kind of pistol shooting Aquino excelled in—and by all accounts, he did excel; one staffer proudly told me of how, during a visit to a firing range of the F.B.I., the then-President split a playing card in half with his shot—required quick reflexes, and extreme precision under pressure as you confronted unexpected challenges. The difference between the offensive approach of a sniper and the defensive one of a pistol-shooter, couldn’t be clearer.
I have written elsewhere of how, in the first crisis of his presidency, he saw what was coming. To summarize what transpired: he dropped by our office late in the afternoon, to alert us to the period of maximum danger that was approaching: the hostage-taker at the Quirino grandstand, he said, would be getting very tired and very frustrated, and so liable to go out of control. He had instructed the special forces to secure an identical bus and to practice their going in if necessary. Yet we know what transpired without realizing what later on, turned out to have transpired: the pecking order among classes in the PMA meant that one general could not fulfill the President’s instructions out of deference to an upper classman at the scene; and Mayor Alfredo Lim’s behavior ultimately sent the hostage taker into his fatal panic.
As it began, so it would end, in those fields at Mamasapano; a competent commander-in-chief arguably ill-served by bungling subordinates in uniform: the Filipino people, who pay better attention to what their institutions are doing, rewarded the ground commander of that operation with ignominious defeat in the polls, as he deserved. Yet in their sovereign might they too handed down their own verdict on the commander-in-chief; but I have already written on the traumatic divorce between the President and the Filipino people that took place in the wake of that tragedy, so let a small portion of what I wrote back in 2015 suffice:
“His strengths—an understanding of logistics, a long view with regards to the national interest, a vise-like grip on his own emotions, a reluctance to say things for the sake of saying something, and an insistence on rationality and facts when addressing the public—have also been his weaknesses. We (the people), who live life so vividly, are often confounded by dogged determination to do his duty behind the scenes when what we have come to expect is the grand gesture, the clichéd phrase, cathartic unfolding of a familiar script.”
The accounts by people distant and close to him, in the main, are variations on the above. As far as they help to explore the foibles and quirks of a quirky man who had his share of foibles, they provide human interest. But he was a president, and a president can, at their best, or worst, define eras. As his mother began one era, he ended up closing it; and it is to that that my thoughts turn at this time.
As Leon Ma. Guerrero once wrote, today began yesterday. Until I was ushered in to meet him in preparation for a speech he was scheduled to make before the Makati Business Club, I’d only seen Benigno S. Aquino III twice in person, and briefly, before that.
The first time was in the immediate aftermath of the 2006 Philippine Army headquarters standoff; people had gathered at the home of Cory Aquino’s parents where she’d gone after the government had stopped her going to see the rebels. As Leah Navarro and I arrived, there was (then-senator) Aquino standing by the gate, smoking, and chatting with the guards; he told Leah, “Better go in, Mom’s inside.” The second time I saw him was the wake for his mother in the Manila Cathedral. He was quietly sitting off to one side, with his nephew Josh hanging on to him and I thought to myself what a doting uncle he was—and how his nephew’s great affection was in danger of breaking his uncle’s neck.
A note on that neck: lodged in it, near his carotid artery, was a fragment of one of the bullets that nearly claimed his life during one of the coups that tried to topple his mother’s government. It could never be removed precisely because of its delicate location. A permanent reminder that, like his father, and we forget, even his mother, he was always a marked man: liquidation was not a theoretical risk accompanying public service.
Every famous name carries its baggage and in Aquino’s case his was a matching set of luggage: he was an Aquino but also a Cojuangco. On both scores alone, he has been condemned in life and death. On both scores alone, before even getting to know him, he has already been prejudged.
In my mind, his being an Aquino meant a reputation for being willing to be contrarian—at its worst, in the punning quip of the pre-war generation to which my father belonged, “Aqui, no… Alli, si…” (“Here, no, there, yes…”: referring to how Benigno Senior he switched sides in the 1933 Osrox fight)—and at its best, the stubborn, lonely resistance and martyrdom of Benigno Junior.
As for his being a Cojuangco… Well, John Collins Bossidy penned a famous ditty on the Boston brahmins, as the WASP bluebloods were called, that always reminded me of what used to be said of his mother’s family—
And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.
So when I did finally get to meet him, as potential wordsmith, I thought I had a pretty clear idea of what to expect. In some respects I wasn’t disappointed: he had the famous Aquino temper, and the infamous Cojuangco ability to nurse grudges, but he was not so much the prisoner of history I expected, as he was a reluctant yet determined volunteer for a suicide mission.
Our political culture is a fundamentally violent one, whether merely rhetorically or that actual bullets ending disputes best settled by means of ballots. But power is characterized by another kind of lethality. Whether sinner or saint, statesman or racketeer, the one thing public office does is prematurely age the office holder. Ninoy Aquino liked to say he had to be in a hurry, because Aquino men do not live long; his father died of a heart attack before he could vindicate himself; Ninoy would die of a bullet to the brain in the airport now named after him; his son became president at the age his father was, when he died.
I am not convinced Benigno S. Aquino III, in his heart of hearts, ever expected to have a long life. What I do know is he had to undergo the kind of soul-searching a man of his family history cannot avoid; as they say, the first things torturers do is to lay out the instruments of their craft before their victims, to weaken their resolve. His family history was enough to lay out the instruments of his torture.
His office used to be the Great Dictator’s bedroom. It was one of the few places in that claustrophobic bunker that is the Palace, where there were actual windows to let in real sunlight. From his desk, he had a commanding view of the river, and his (temporary! He reminded everyone) residence, Bahay Pangarap, just across. In quiet moments he liked to keep an eye out for a white heron that from time to time would perch on the riverbank to hunt fish. The fatalistic side of him liked to remind visitors, whenever a barge would pass by, that a 500-pound bomb hidden and detonated would knock a several-kilometer-wide radius completely flat; the message being, when your time has come, it’s come. This fatalism is a hallmark of our better presidents—it grants them the serenity to go ahead and do their duty.
But there is another moment I remember best, in that same room, in the twilight of a late afternoon, at the end of a cloudy, rainy, stressful day at work. The central air-conditioning had left the bulletproof office windows fogged up, the condensation leaving streaks and blotches on the panes. We had just walked in, he was sifting through a folder of papers, when, off-handedly, he pointed to the windows and the patterns of condensation on them.
“Look. Like monsters,” he said.
I remember being startled not least by my whole-hearted agreement. The moment has never left me because it seemed to me then as now, it was representative of a basic truth about the existence of Benigno S. Aquino III. Indeed, not just of the palace, or the presidency, but of our nation can it well and truly be said, like the maps of yore, “here be monsters.”
He viewed himself as a man of the Center; in the ideological divide, his approach was inclusive: history did not operate on abstract, supposedly-scientific, predetermined tracks; it was cause and effect, on a person-to-person basis. A phrase he liked to use—"rattling the rice bowls”—to refer to his fight for reform, underscored how basic, and primal, the fight was—and the stakes involved.
He had an abhorrence of any behavior or statement that, to his mind, would be conducive to public panic or the unleashing of emotions that could spark a public conflagration. Reams have been written taking him to task for using this as a justification for language his critics found harsh or worse. We forget it was fear of our society reaching this point of no return, that brought his father back home; we forget the bullet in his father’s brain and in his own neck and yes, in the corpses at Mendiola and Luisita, were all testimony, one way or another, to moments of no return. I know for a fact something only guessed at and simulated in novels and films, which is the anguish he felt whenever giving orders that might potentially lead people, civilian or military, to risking their lives.
It will take many years before he is given the credit due, for taking the situation in hand and going to Zamboanga, there to firmly hold the line with his generals who were far more willing to risk and accept, casualties both civilian and military, in confronting the hostage-taking by Nur Misuari’s berserkers. Instead the top brass and the commanders on the ground had to closely coordinate, and act with patience deliberateness, to reconnoiter and then move, in a manner that saved lives. And it may never be fully recounted how behind the scenes, he faced down, and was horrified by, demands verging on proposals for ethnic cleansing, in retaliation.
He afterwards excused these reprehensible statements in his presence, to the trauma of urban warfare. It made me realize how utterly devoid of prejudice he was in several spectacular respects. Particularly since in so many other ways he was an unsurprisingly conventional example of his generation, class, and gender.
His bold decision to break an impasse in negotiations, by flying to Japan to secretly meet the head of the MILF; his steely navigation—this was the first time I would come to hear of, and understand, the concept of “strategic patience”—as he received brickbats from proponents of Reproductive Health and its religious opponents; his steadfast support for the concept and implementation of Conditional Cash Transfers for the poor; his fight for the implementation of K-12 in our educational system: these were all the products of having approached problems with an open mind, in listening to basic sectors and understanding, and then fighting for, profoundly nation-changing solutions, impossible to those with closed minds, as I came to understand seeing the criticism against each of these efforts.
The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski once wrote that “The most difficult thing to do while living in a palace is to imagine a different life—for instance, your own life, but outside of and minus the palace.” One of my favorite moments was a meeting in which the continuing nightmare the MRT-LRT was being discussed for the umpteenth time, and President Aquino asked why it was, there were so many different ticketing systems for a network that should ultimately be considered an integrated one. The bureaucrats hemmed and hawed, the lawyers helped produce a smokescreen of jargon that would (they hoped) starve the proceedings of oxygen. But the President wouldn’t relent and for every obstacle they put forward, he kept asking why anyone should accept that as an answer. That, much later, a more integrated system emerged at all, was testimony to the stubbornness of one man angry on behalf of commuters—an irony not lost on me, later.
In a similar manner he listened to, and was convinced by, urban-poor organizers who petitioned for the provision of public housing to the homeless, not in far-off places of exile, but where they had set down roots and formed communities. He brought government funding and presidential support to projects and infrastructure in the provinces only to learn the electoral lesson that Metro Manila is jealous and demanding, that provincial affections are fleeting, and the permanent interests of incumbents in every instrumentality and branch of our public and private institutions could outlast any administration.
Ultimately the fate of Benigno S. Aquino III was to end the era his mother began. Thirty years, bookended by his mother’s and his terms of office, is a phenomenally long run, by the historical measure of any society or nation. It was one that was not uninterrupted: in 1992 only the division between Imelda Marcos and Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. prevented a Marcos restoration, and 1998 would be our first flirtation with populism. The era of People Power came to its end between 2001-06 in three acts (Edsa Dos, Tres, and State of Emergency); the Filipino people in their schizophrenia have always alternated between crying out for a liberator, and pining for a dictator. It is why Rizal said as a people are, so is their government; why Quezon posited the people prefer good government to self-government and that ultimately, their expectation from the presidency is the maintenance of order; and why Ninoy Aquino once told a friend he who would be a leader of his people must learn to forgive them.
There was once a member of the cabinet who mightily disappointed the President, who like his mother, never hid it when he disliked someone. The cabinet member in bad odor responded by refusing to go into prudent self-exile and instead, at meeting after meeting, would stand off to one side as the President arrived or left, with the meekest, mildest, most humble demeanor you ever saw. Week after week he did this, until, one day, as the President passed him by, the cabinet man caught his eye and gave the sheepiest, goofiest, smile you ever saw and the President couldn’t help but laugh and motion him to join him. All was forgiven. The President had been disappointed because he’d failed to meet his targets; there were those with even thicker faces who committed actual transgressions who got short shrift for which there would be no redemption. Yet sometimes they would be the loudest in their protestations that the President and all he stood for was being betrayed—by others.
We, who were the President’s people, that is, people who answered the call to serve his administration, upon his personal invitation and not because of old ties to his mother, her administration, or his previous service in the House or Senate, witnessed all of this playing out inside government as it played out in our larger society. We were, after all, the perennial targets of those who alternated between condescending to the President because they were big shots when he was a young man, and slavishly pandering to him to gain access, all the better to hiss intrigues into his ears; at least, of course, that is how we saw it. They were for the maintenance of old alliances, the perpetuation of old ways of trafficking in memories; we were on the side of data, and systems, and reform.
The President’s greatest failure was his inability to hold his coalition together but it was one so pre-ordained one has to at least suspect it was as much a necessity for national evolution as it was the closing manifestation of a process predictable as far back as 1992.
Every organization has factions and the hallmark of executive management is the balancing of those factions. It seems to be there is an instinctive appreciation of this among our people because if you ask the professional pollsters, one basic truth they will tell you, is that the public weighs the presidency according to a different standard than the rest of “the government” or “the administration.” It is a reason why so few of the hangers-on of a popular or effective president reap any benefit from the association, while most presidents tend to remain more popular than their administrations.
Conversely, it is why presidents weighed down with the disappointments they have caused in their time in office, are usually ineffectual in determining who will ultimately succeed them.
Edwin Lacierda liked to repeat the famous quote that you campaign with poetry but govern with prose. Our presidents are called upon to weigh in, one way or another on questions of policy, so too is the public called upon by presidents to weigh in for or against defining questions of the day; some political scientists have described this continuity from Quezon to Aquino (the mother; but arguably it still applies today) as “plebiscitary democracy”; Benigno S. Aquino III recognized it himself and without any mental reservation or evasion, bluntly told the people themselves that 2016 was a referendum on the path the country had taken.
His answer was a repudiation. And with it, the end of an era. It will take time to recognize that the fundamental nature of that repudiation was as much an act of omission—the inability or unwillingness of the Aquino coalition to hold together—as it was of commission, by which I mean the different disappointments and resentments, not all of them self-inflicted, that created a constituency of the disgruntled slightly larger than any subset of what had once been the defining Middle of our electorate. But I believe he knew, as only a fundamentally democratic man and leader can know, that the people had decreed the end of an era.
He had tried to offer a competing vision: modernity as the antidote to nostalgia. In the increasingly apocalyptic closing days of the 2016 campaign, Aquino took to repeatedly, even stridently, warning of what could be in store for the country. Again it may be a long time to come before we get to recognize how complete calamity was averted, because somehow, more of the old Middle held together for the vice-presidency than the presidency. But we should recognize him for recognizing we were on the cusp of change and pleading with the public to take up the fight for democracy themselves because his family had already given up so much for the country.
The official calendar never ceased to refocus our minds on the theme of sacrifice. On one occasion, as we went over the draft for one of his speeches, I passed on to the President, a passage from Cynthia Ozick’s essay on Christian heroism. Writing of the holocaust, she said three participant categories are often named: murderers, victims, and bystanders. She asked her readers to ask themselves which of the three they might be, or be likely to become. And then she concluded, “…When a whole population takes on the status of bystander, the victims are without allies; the criminals, unchecked, are strengthened; and only then do we need to speak of heroes. When a field is filled from end to end with sheep, a stag stands out. When a continent is filled end to end with the compliant, we learn what heroism is. And alas for the society that requires heroes.”
To my delight the President liked the quotation very much and used it in a National Heroes’ Day speech. I have to wonder if it informed his thinking as he kept seeking ways to convince the public of not just the need, but the possibility, of being a society that could do for itself what it had formerly demanded of its heroes to do.
Soon after the news of the former president’s passing started circulating, Gang Capati tweeted me an icon of a broken heart, and I replied to her, “The Aquino way. They did their duty, and then they are done.” And we cannot doubt they’re done, in the world-historical sense, though others of the name or other branches might step in, or step up, from time to time to offer themselves up for public office. But an era is done; and done, in the only way Benigno S. Aquino III knew as practiced by his parents.
In the same passage by Kapuscinski I quoted above, he said the fundamental question of politics was that of honor; and to this, he offered up the example of Charles de Gaulle of France who resigned the presidency after losing a referendum: “He wanted to govern only under the condition that the majority accept him. The moment the majority refused him their trust, he left. But how many are like him? The others will cry, but they won’t move; they’ll torment the nation, but they won’t budge. Thrown out one door, they sneak in through another; kicked down the stairs, they begin to crawl back up. They will excuse themselves, bow and scrape, lie and simper, provided they can stay—or provided they can return.”
To the President and his family their fundamental aspiration was to return home. Some of you who read this will be old enough to remember “Tie A Yellow Ribbon,” with its story of a convicted man going home, and waiting for a signal if he should rejoin his family or accept his disgrace and move on. Eva Estrada Kalaw suggested it as the right song for the homecoming of Ninoy who’d been sentenced to death by a military kangaroo court. For his widow and son, the presidency was a one-way street, with no return to power.
When the debacle of election day came and went in 2016, I contrasted Aquino’s reaction to that of his predecessor. By all accounts, she had thrown herself into a tornado of activity, stacking the bureaucracy and the courts with allies, complete with lurid tales of her appearing in the Presidential Management Staff to personally fill out suitably back-dated appointments. In contrast, Aquino went into seclusion; a democrat at heart, he knew and took the message. When he emerged from seclusion it was with the instruction to make the transition for his successor as easy as possible—even as his bags were being packed.
Winston Churchill, after saving his nation during World War II, was immediately thrown out of office as soon as there was an election. His wife famously tried to cheer him up suggesting it might be a blessing in disguise, to which he replied, “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.” I wouldn’t be surprised if President Aquino more than once, felt the same way; but there was a genuine relief and happiness as the calendar he had ordered put together—one in reverse, counting down the days until he left office—reached its last page and he could go home to Times Street. That in and of itself was a victory—over ambition; over egotism; no one could seduce him any longer, with that two-edged appeal, “you are a necessary man.”
Chronic disease affects each of us differently but altogether reduces and narrows our field of vision and capacity of experiences until all we have is an all-consuming discomfort and endless vista of pain; I cannot and will not presume to know what he was going through all the time, but we have it from one of his sisters that to the very end, he was clear headed and still thinking of his vaccination to come.
Within a few hours of news of his passing, institutions, public and private, began lowering the national flag to half mast, without need of or waiting for, the bidding of the Palace. How true it is that the pomp and circumstance of the state are as nothing compared to the spontaneous simplicity of direct homage from the people. I began to notice people—hesitatingly, sometimes grudgingly, often surprisedly, paying some sort of tribute to him, and the ripple effect online became rather quickly tangible. There is a perfect word for this: frisson, a sudden strong feeling of excitement or fear—and it was a frisson of—reconnection—that many were experiencing. A reconnection after the traumatic divorce of Aquino from the people in the wake of Mamasapano.
It was not rehabilitation, though perhaps, reconciliation, between an Aquino who tried to compensate for his own shortcomings by mightily hoping—even believing—that the Filipino had modernized enough, to tell facts apart from lies, who could subordinate passion to reason, and who would be satisfied with incremental results as tangible benchmarks for a better future.
Looking at his urn, I recalled a story the late Napoleon Rama once recounted in an interview. After martial law was proclaimed and they were arrested and brought to Camp Crame, he and some other oppositionists, including Ninoy Aquino, were put on a bus but not told where they were going. At one point, the bus stopped at a traffic light near Guadalupe and Ninoy, observing the people gawking at them, remarked, “Look at our people. They know that we’ve been fighting for their rights, and we’ve risked our lives and that freedoms have been taken away from them, and yet they are not doing anything… Look at them, they’re just watching us, curious so, I don’t think there’s hope for the Filipino.” Solitary confinement, we now know, convinced Ninoy otherwise.
I had the privilege of, as they say, writing for President Benigno S. Aquino III, but in truth, when it mattered most, the privilege I actually enjoyed was that of writing with the President; and for this reason I can well and truly say that in his prime, when everything seemed possible, he wrote his own epitaph:
“As long as your faith remains strong—as long as we continue serving as each other’s strength—we will continue proving that ‘the Filipino is worth definitely dying for,’ ‘the Filipino is worth living for,’ and if I might add: ‘The Filipino is worth fighting for.’”
They are burying him, today, and with him, an era. He liked to quote Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” He did his duty and then he was done.
In honor of President Aquino, Summit Books is sharing Dream Big Books’ Ninoy, Cory, and Noynoy as a FREE e-book for the next two weeks. Download it here: Ninoy, Cory, and Noynoy .
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this strange new world.