“PRESIDENT Digong is clueless about what’s happening in his administration. Those around him feed him the good things and set aside the bad…” (Ramon Tulfo, “In My Line of Sight,” The Manila Times [TMT], Sept. 5, 2019). This must be serious — Mon Tulfo, the special presidential envoy to China, calling PRRD clueless. This may not be an affront, but in some ways it contains a kernel of truth masking the incompetence of those who compose the Office of the President (OP). Tulfo may also just be taking a dig at Executive Secretary Salvador “Bingbong” Medialdea with whom he has a running feud.

But in his column of September 10, “Which is worse, being tanga or corrupt?,” Tulfo further obliquely hit DU30 while accusing “…Faeldon is tanga (its English equivalent is clueless or ignorant, but it does not convey the full flavor – RT)”

Clueless or tanga

This is sensitive territory, putting the Deegong and Nicanor Faeldon in the same breath as clueless or tanga. Mon must be careful to place things in context, though I agree with him that DU30 is being made clueless when you have Malacañang people, like “…the ‘little president’… [not] caution[ing] the President against appointing [Sen. Ronald] ‘Bato’ [dela Rosa] or Faeldon to that sensitive post?… I’m told by some Malacañang insiders that Medialdea doesn’t have the verve for work as he always looks sleepy. The President’s mistake, if I may say so, is in not surrounding himself with Cabinet members who are intelligent enough to advise him against appointing bureau directors who are incompetent.”

To put all of these in proper perspective, PRRD being “tanga” is really attributable to his Palace clique “…Presidents do not operate in a vacuum. To do what he thinks he must do, Duterte can only operate through what we call the state, the ensemble of institutions, especially the bureaucracy, that manages a nation. Unfortunately, we have a weak state, and there are already indications that the bureaucracy has been too weak or has even been captured by the elite — even by criminal and provincial elites — as to block Duterte’s reforms.” (Rigoberto Tiglao, TMT, Sept. 11, 2019.)

In-house strategist

To complicate matters, there exists a vacuity of another indispensable person in the presidential coterie; a deep thinker, an analyst, a confidant to the president and strategist combined in one office: the National Security Adviser (NSA). This brings to mind a paragon, the likes of Henry Kissinger who also served as Secretary of State, and intellectual foil to President Nixon (as the internationalist, not the crook), who initiated the policy of détente with the Soviet Union and opened up relations with China. In contrast, PRRD is personally carrying the country’s diplomatic cudgels with China, burdening him with all the awkwardness and forced mendicancy in his dealings with Xi Jinping. We couldn’t help longing for a tandem similar to President Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) and his adviser Gen. Jose Almonte, a strategic thinker, who despite his egoism, helped FVR see his way clear through the diplomatic minefield and helped fashion a politico-economic storyline for his regime and beyond. We don’t see this today among the intellectual eunuchs at the Deegong’s OP.

Tulfo and Tiglao’s reflections touch the very core of the OP and has far-ranging effects that impact the body politic. This is where the role of the Executive Secretary (ES) becomes critical.

A gatekeeper

Several columns back I wrote a critique on an excellent book using the same as a backdrop to this administration. “The book, The Gatekeepers (Chris Whipple, Barnes & Noble) is a non-fiction political work describing nine American presidencies from Richard Nixon’s to Barack Obama’s. But the interesting part was that the focus was on their chiefs of staff (COS), from Nixon’s H.R. Haldeman to Obama’s first COS Rahm Emmanuel to his fourth, Denis McDonough.” (TMT, Sept. 28, 2017, “Part 1, The Gatekeepers”). I asked Secretary Ernie Abella, the then-Palace spokesman, to procure several copies and distribute them to the President (if he does read), to the ES and to the Deegong’s circle. If indeed Sec. Ernie procured and distributed them, empirical evidence shows that the lessons of the book were left unlearned, or the books remained unread. Whatever!

Whipple’s thesis is basically centered on the COS, The Gatekeeper. In this administration, the ES acts as one. As I described then, the Philippine presidency is a multi-dimensional office further complicated by an occupant like DU30, an alpha male prone to spew out curses, vomit out misogynic repartee, inanities and statements calibrated for maximum shock effect. Oftentimes, one is befuddled as to the intentions of such presidential histrionics though at the same tempo occasionally spouts a rare gem of an idea — but only rarely. Is this merely for show? Is this his native communicative way to inspire/inflame his base? Or are these simply worn-out apothegms or aphorisms from his presidential script. Invariably this requires an ES/COS who not only is attuned to such type of personality but firm enough to handle the volatility and moderate the profanities. Among his essential attributes should be fierce loyalty, selfless and protective of his principal but with one eye out for the common good, and morally anchored. This is of course herculean for one man; but the ES/COS is precisely what the Deegong needs. This is where the mettle of the Gatekeeper is tested. The President in choosing the right ES/COS could define his administration, and in so doing, also characterize and demarcate the presidency and his legacy. With that, their relationship is a symbiotic one. Unfortunately, both are failing.

Time is of the essence

As I wrote in my critique, “The presidency’s most valuable asset is his time. It has to be hoarded and dispensed with sparingly. He has to have more of it for himself to discern and think through the myriad concerns that bombard the office daily. The ES/COS job is to allow access only to a few important people with ideas that can add value to the Presidency. The dictum ‘bring to my office only solutions, and seldom the problems’ could very well be applied.”

This is not what’s happening. DU30’s pronouncements which have the force of official policies are not well pre-processed, which lays himself bare to contradictions from even his own cabinet and subalterns. The President is a singularly driven man who tends to dominate while his minions cower. From a political management viewpoint, deadlier is the perception that the OP is in a disarray. This government is merely coping.

The Deegong is an excellent parochial politician thrust into the rarefied air of national prominence and global politics. His glaring flaw is surrounding himself with pedestrians as advisers, “recruited into the national political stage, naïve about the arcana of national politics, perforce elevating them to their level of incompetence.” In the second half of his presidency, with eyes toward his legacy, it’s time for a drastic overhaul and an upgrade. Tame your sycophants, “tsokaran” or school batchmates if you must but engage patriotic professionals who can say ‘no’ and “speak truth to power”!

The Senate President crowed yesterday that the party he nominally coheads, PDP-Laban, has a “pleasant problem” — too many potential senatorial candidates. Koko Pimentel’s estimate is they have up to 20 possible choices for the 12-person slate for the 2019 senatorial race. But his list includes the five administration-affiliated senatorial incumbents up for reelection next year. This is a group that has made noises that, much as it prefers to remain in the administration camp, it is unhappy with the way PDP-Laban has been designating its local leaders and candidates, and therefore prefers to strike out on its own, perhaps in alliance with the other administration (regional) party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago, headed by the President’s daughter and current Davao City mayor, Sara Duterte.

Setting aside, then, the five-person “Force,” the administration-oriented but not PDP-friendly reelectionists (Nancy Binay, Sonny Angara, Cynthia Villar, Grace Poe, and JV Ejercito), what Koko’s crowing over is a mixed bag. Some of them have been floated by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez (with whom Mayor Duterte clashed in recent months): six representatives (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who is in her last term in the House of Representatives; Albee Benitez, Karlo Nograles, Rey Umali, Geraldine Roman, and Zajid Mangudadatu), three Cabinet members (Bong Go, Harry Roque, and Francis Tolentino), and two other officials (Mocha Uson and Ronald dela Rosa), which still only adds up to 11 possible candidates (who are the missing three?).

Of all of these, the “Force” reelectionists are only fair-weather allies of the present dispensation; their setting themselves apart is about much more than the mess PDP-Laban made in, say, San Juan where support for the Zamoras makes it extremely unattractive for JV Ejercito to consider being in the same slate. Their cohesion is about thinking ahead: Creating the nucleus for the main coalition to beat in the 2022 presidential election. The contingent of congressmen and congresswomen who could become candidates for the Senate, however, seems more a means to kick the Speaker’s rivals upstairs (at least in the case of Benitez and Arroyo) and pad the candidates’ list with token but sacrificial candidates, a similar situation to the executive officials being mentioned as possible candidates (of the executive officials, only Go seems viable, but making him run would deprive the President of the man who actually runs the executive department, and would be a clear signal that the administration is shifting to a post-term protection attitude instead of the more ambitious system-change mode it’s been on, so far).

Vice President Leni Robredo has been more circumspect, saying she’s not sure the Liberal Party can even muster a full slate. The party chair, Kiko Pangilinan, denied that a list circulating online (incumbent Bam Aquino, former senators Mar Roxas, Jun Magsaysay, TG Guingona, current and former representatives Jose Christopher Belmonte, Kaka Bag-ao, Edcel Lagman, Raul Daza, Gary Alejano and Erin Tañada, former governor Eddie Panlilio and Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña) had any basis in fact.

What both lists have in common is they could be surveys-on-the-cheap, trial balloons to get the public pulse. Until the 17th Congress reconvenes briefly from May 14 to June 1 for the tail end of its second regular session (only to adjourn sine die until the third regular session begins on July 23), it has nothing much to do. Except, that is, for the barangay elections in May, after a last-ditch effort by the House to postpone them yet again to October failed.

Names can be floated but the real signal will come in July, when the President mounts the rostrum and calls for the big push for a new constitution—or not. Connected to this would be whether the Supreme Court disposes of its own chief, which would spare the Senate—and thus, free up the legislative calendar—to consider Charter change instead of an impeachment trial. In the meantime, what congressmen do seem abuzz over is an unrefusable invitation to the Palace tomorrow — to mark Arroyo’s birthday. An event possibly pregnant with meaning.
“Politics is the art of looking for troubles, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” – Groucho Marx

WHILE discerning directions, issues and ideas worth writing about, I find, to me at least, nothing indubitably stimulates the subconscious mind as much as “political” matters can. I hope readers tolerate my obvious preference and bias towards politics, a subject which, despite my exiguous political background, training and experience, I hit upon as edifying, utilitarian and challenging, notwithstanding that like religion, my other interest, it is unfairly despised.

Come to think of it, politics is the domain of those who genuinely desire to learn and serve as leaders of the community including, I admit, those who consider public service as the ladder to gaining prestige and popularity and perniciously, financial returns. They are, in Greek Democracy termed as “polites,” persons who are interested in public affairs, who consider citizenship both as a right and a duty. Being polite is “marked by or showing consideration for others and observance of accepted social usage.” Thus, the derivatives of policy, polity and, of course, politics would have its root from “polis” (Greek city-state), referring to the body of systems and standards, laws and regulations appurtenant to governing a society or community. The “polites” of this community receives incentives and gratifications in their social involvement and are thus politicized by their association with like-minded individuals. The motivations are as varied and portentous, as current social concerns could take away focus on crucial political and economic legislative issues.

Consider for example the extant issue on the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression Equality bill (Sogie), an anti-discriminatory bill proposed in Congress which seeks to prevent prejudicial acts against some people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. Some claim there’s really no need to pass them since there are numerous statutes that ensure discrimination is avoided and penalized such as in the 1987 Constitution, the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 and the Magna Carta for Women, among others. But the bill, earlier filed in 2000 by the now late senator Miriam Santiago, and refiled even today, seeks an expansive law preventing discrimination against lesbians, gays, transgenders, bisexuals and queer sectors (LGBTQ++) lumping them with differently abled and indigenous groups, protecting their rights on the basis of their Sogie (e.g. right to access public and private restroom services, admission to educational institutions, among others) and providing penalties. Its political undertones are unmistakable, further dividing this benighted country splintering our social consciousness with more disruptive issues than our lawmakers and citizens can handle. I myself, would vote against the bill unless they amend provisions that will unnecessarily incriminate otherwise sane and innocent people and the stiff penalties provided therein that are by themselves discriminatory to the rights of the rest of the populace.

In his treatise on Politics, Aristotle made distinction of the political animal as a “social creature with the power of speech and moral reasoning,” and being naturally sociable, human beings are drawn to associations and activities of society. Such activism, not necessarily engaged in any form of protests, rallies and marches, is any activity “that promotes or directs social, political or economic change designed to improve society.” He went on to say that those who turn their backs on society, declare themselves to be “lawless, tribeless and heartless,” alluding to a bird flying alone which, of all the wild animals, “refused to be domesticated by human beings.” To be alone, concerned only of one’s private affairs, deciding only that which unequivocally benefit one’s self is being birdbrained or idiotic.

Aristotle might have called them political idiots, from the Greek idios which pertains to one’s own self, private, peculiar, self-focused or separate. In Athenian democracy, an “idiotes” was a person not active in – or not capable of being active in – public affairs and engaged only in self-interested pursuits or private matters, never mind the “civic space and the common good.” The words idiopathic (basic) or idiosyncratic (peculiarity) derive from same roots. From this flowed the idea of an idiot as an ignorant or mentally retarded person, and later evolving into our modern sensibility of an idiot as an insult to someone’s intelligence. They typically represent the majority in today’s society who could not care less if the locality swims in flood and garbage, boils in terrible heat due to traffic and elects similarly disposed idiotes who are concerned more on recouping campaign expenditures and perpetuating themselves in power, largely ignoring the general good.

Another issue of idiotic proportion, is the concern about our judicial and penal system particularly on GCTA, which brings home the point on the idiocy of a flawed interpretation of the law. First, our legislators created laws which abolished the death penalty found to be an ineffective deterrent to crimes and settled with reclusion perpetua which guaranteed perpetual punishment minus the killing. I have no argument with that. Then they amended the laws allowing for good behavior (Good Conduct and Time Allowance) and converting them into days and years, which could be deducted from their penalty, to give chance for those repentant ones who did sufficient time, made amends and capable of reuniting with society. All these are commendable acts that show our judicial system is more reformative than punitive. But embedded in the same system are corrupt and corruptible elements which circumvented the law to serve their own private interests, the idiotes of penology.

According to their own convoluted computation, even those who are not allowed by law to qualify and are in fact expressly disqualified by law, the rapists, murderers and plunderers who were consigned to perpetual punishment, can make time with good conduct, deductible from their total stay, regardless if the number of years meted out are meant to ensure they stay for good. Even if they have five life imprisonment, each life being equivalent to 20-40 years, if their behavior inside the correctional facility showed them as reformed, then they qualify. What about the injustice done to the victims and their families, can the crime be reversed too and get the dead to come back from the afterlife because they have made time wherever they are now? It is utterly mind-boggling and thus, exacerbated by a flawed system, interpreted by corruptible prison officials and supported by idiotic politicians, understandably, the polity of idiots howled.

According to Mark Twain, “Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”