The gatekeeper and the talking head

The gatekeeper and the talking head Featured

First of 2 parts

IN light of the sacking of Executive Secretary Victor Rodriguez and Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles, a portent in presidential politics reared its ugly head marring the newly elected president's smooth accession to power. This peculiar frame of mind was established earlier when a presidential candidate must rely on a special group of his own people with special skills — to win the presidency.

In the Philippines' perverted traditional political environment, where the tools of the trade must necessarily include the use of "guns, goons and gold" to win these high-stakes contests, the advantage lies on this clique of political operators possessed of amoral scruples. This elemental expertise to win elections is in fact a double-edged sword for the candidate who must bank on these competencies making him paradoxically vulnerable.

These are the people the president-elect had relied on for months during the campaign period. Some of them go back a long way, possessing no particular political skills short of being childhood friends, schoolmates, tsokaran, kabarkada, hangers-on and gofers. Upon winning the election, they claim their prerogatives — entitlements for the choice cuts in a menu of government largesse, the spoils of war. They aim for the top chops — Cabinet posts and sinecures. This is expected as these people have delivered on their expertise: win the election at whatever cost and thus claim their prize, and the devil takes the hindmost.

Winning election vs running a country

What is rarely understood is that the dexterity required to win an election is dissimilar in some ways and even in conflict with the capabilities needed to run a government. The former skills are ephemeral and brutish while the latter are more permanent and need a certain sophistication. The immediate concern of any incoming presidency is to discern the type of personal organizational structure that suits him and distinguishes who among his subalterns possess the right qualifications, experience and more importantly the rectitude for his administration to succeed.

Looking decades back, past presidents mistakenly allowed through sheer inertia the accession to important offices of people who during the campaign had the privilege of propinquity, to himself, the spouse and immediate relatives lending their ears irrespective of their suitability or qualifications for the position. While imbibing in the euphoria of an election victory, they invariably routinely reward these subalterns. Some presidents have been serendipitous, installing their campaign operators to a fit in sensitive positions in the bureaucracy and many did well.

Different team to run govt

This was perhaps BBM's failure when at the outset he installed as his executive secretary, his spokesman and a coterie of friends whose qualifications and political acuity are at best dubious. The top position of executive secretary in the Philippine context has undergone drastic changes from the time of Marcos perè when he abolished it and, in its stead, emplaced two senior executive assistants. But it was subsequently reinstated and has evolved to a prestigious standing among the inner circle of power, second only to the president — thus the sobriquet "Little President." In this lamented episode, Rodriguez took the title quite literally, in a fit of megalomania, drafting in fact a special order granting him "a free hand to act as president" (Catherine Valente, TMT, Sept. 18, 2022).

Many who occupied this exalted space brought with them their solid reputation for political perspicacity, organizational and management skills prior to warming the seat. Others grew in the office. To name a few, the first executive secretary Jorge Vargas was handpicked by President Manuel Quezon, followed by Manuel Roxas who became the Republic's fifth president. President Ramon Magsaysay's Fred Ruiz Castro became Supreme Court justice; Rafael Salas and Alex Melchor under Ferdinand Marcos Sr. were management gurus. Presidents Cory's Joker Arroyo; FVR's Teofisto Guingona Jr; Ronaldo Zamora and Ed Angara of President Estrada; Albert Romulo and Ed Ermita of GMA — all were already men of stature.

Sadly, others squeezed through the cracks with shady pretentious repute. I have not met Rodriguez or Angeles and know nothing of their qualifications, excepting their inclusion in BBM's inner circle. But in the few weeks they were in the limelight speaking and acting for and on behalf of the president, and in his absence, one couldn't help being uncomfortable with this nagging feeling that both may have been connected through their umbilical cord of deceit.

Rodriguez was earlier involved in that anomalous attempt at sugar importation, leaving Agriculture undersecretary Sebastian twisting in the wind defenseless at a Senate hearing, the ES denying giving him a written authority to sign for the President in the latter's capacity as concurrent Secretary of Agriculture. As it turned out, Rodriquez really did sign the grant of authority. Spokesman Angeles knew the undersecretary had that authority under the memorandum of designation issued by Rodriguez, yet she corroborated her ES' statements and covered for him "lying through her teeth" (The Manila Times, Mauro Gia Samonte).

But Trixie Angeles had it coming when the new executive secretary, former Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin, turned out to be one of the justices who concurred in the Supreme Court decision slapping a three-year suspension on Angeles for violation of Rule 1.01 of the Code of Professional Responsibility. Bersamin was not going to be caught in the same room as Angeles. She had to go!

Vetting mechanism

These episodes earlier in BBM's administration just simply show the haphazard, lazy, and perhaps trusting nature of the young Marcos. He should have vetted these people thoroughly, including those he allowed in as holdovers from the Deegong's old structure — before endorsing them to the Commission on Appointments.

A vetting mechanism needs to be immediately installed — peopled by persons with expertise on each facet of governance and the workings of the bureaucracy, preferably persons known for their integrity, expertise and competence outside of the President's immediate circle — not necessarily from the campaign organization.

Putting in the right people to sensitive positions in government is a high art considering the systemic infirmities of our unitary-presidential type, where the fallible system is prone to corruption, regulatory capture and manipulation by traditional politicians and their allies in the oligarchy.

If this current administration sticks to the appearance that BBM's is in some ways a continuity of the Deegong's, he could still have picked old hands who did excellent jobs for counsel. Sonny Dominguez is one, except perhaps for his tiff with Senator Imee correcting her on the fictitious rice exportation during her Dad's regime; and ES Medialdea who could have held over temporarily until BBM's vetting process kicked in.

Duterte had good and proven people who could have been tapped like Art Tugade, point man of the Build, Build, Build program; and former Cabinet secretaries — Gilbert Teodoro, Raffy Alunan and Manny Piñol. BBM did well with Bersamin (executive secretary), Ben Diokno (Finance secretary), and Delfin Lorenzana (BCDA chairman), among others.

At this juncture, after the debacle with Vic and Trixie, I would recommend a book, The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple (Crown Publishing 2017), describing the choice of chiefs of staff — a position Vic Rodriguez salivated for while being sacked.

Next week, Nov. 2, 2022: Gatekeepers, PH version

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