The gatekeepers, Philippine version

The gatekeepers, Philippine version Featured

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AMERICAN presidential politics are where we patterned our own, except that in most cases, the Filipino penchant for adopting form rather than substance was the overarching consideration. Thus, when our American colonials imposed on us the presidential-unitary system of government, we incorporated this into the 1935 Philippine Constitution. The 1974 Marcos Constitution subsequently sought to abrogate this model and fashioned a mongrelized version of a strong presidency within a parliamentary system. It was touted at that time that Marcos père idolized the French parliamentary model with a strong presidency – personified by Charles de Gaulle. Thus, in Ferdinand's opus, he introduced the parliamentary system in the Philippines installing himself as the strongman and established the Batasang Pambansa — with Cesar Virata, the technocrat as the prime minister and political castrate.

Cory came in with her 1987 Constitution ambivalent on the populist government to espouse. Rejecting the Marcos prototype, the Cory Constitution reinstated the unitary-presidential system, and along with the core concept of American republicanism and democracy and its integral configuration; the sacrosanct separation of powers associated with checks and balances which were meant to provide each branch of government — the executive, legislative and the judiciary — with individual powers to check the other branches preventing any one branch from becoming too powerful. In our case, the office of the president was constitutionally enhanced evolving as the more powerful branch. Thus, its head, the Philippine president is ascendant and by inference, the people existing within the penumbra of that office.

Executive branch

Briefly, in a republic, the president is the head of state, the head of government and the commander in chief of the armed forces. He is responsible for implementing and enforcing laws emanating from both houses of congress (legislative). Principally, the president runs government through the cabinet, his alter egos, who must have his complete trust and are expected to speak for and in his behalf in their areas of expertise. Such responsibility is a privileged one. I wrote then, "...the bond between the cabinet and the president is no longer a personal one as in — classmates, schoolmates or 'tsukaran.' It has transcended the familiar and morphed into one containing the majesty of the office of the presidency.

"By this precept, both are custodians of presidential prerogatives, prestige and power, adding their own to it to enable the president and them to do their tasks well. The sum of all these is the vaunted fragile political capital of the president with a sustainability dependent largely on a fickle citizenry.

"Cabinet members are heat shields and political lightning rods of the presidency. As such, part of their job is to deflect serious criticism from their respective publics and clientele from the presidency as a result of their official functions. As an efficient conductor of political heat, these honorable secretaries must prevent damage or serious erosion to the political capital of the presidency."

US chief of staff (COS)

In the book The Gatekeepers (Cris Whipple, 2010), the closest person to the American president is his chief of staff (COS). It describes the workings of the American COS of 10 administrations from Presidents Eisenhower to Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, eliciting the salient qualities that make for the desired COS. For this column's purposes, focus is on Nixon's Haldeman, their relationship and how it impacted not only the workings of the office of the president itself but the whole government. From thence, we may draw some features that differentiate the COS from the Philippine executive secretary (ES) — and perhaps adopt the positives.

The antecedents of the COS go back to the time of the President Dwight Eisenhower. Prior to his presidency, he was the top allied general that won the war in Europe. "...Sherman Adams was the first COS and reportedly 'wield as much power as his boss.'" He was in the mold of what Eisenhower has been used to: army chiefs of staff.

Similarly in the Nixon-Haldeman tandem, the latter's proximity to the flawed and vindictive president conferred on him an aura of unprecedented power and in return Haldeman was "...fiercely loyal, selfless and protective of his principal," the most desired trait of a COS.

Haldeman understood only too well that "the president's time is his most valuable asset." This precious presidential commodity should be sparingly expended, resulting in many decisions arrogated by the COS, a double-edged sword at best.

Haldeman was so jealous of his prerogative that none was permitted to meet with the president privately without going through him. The president's time is best used making decisions himself and not presiding over the decision-making process or squabbles of the staff. The quality of a good gatekeeper is the farming of what are major considerations to the president. Minor ones are for the staff to decide upon.

Thus, Haldeman as gatekeeper redefined the job of those that serve the president as one that is "not to do the work of government, but to get the work out to where it belongs — out to the Departments. Nothing goes to the president that is not completely staffed out first..."

It is noteworthy that the Nixon-Haldeman tandem resulted in the biggest debacle of any American presidency, the Watergate break-in, that eventually buried the Nixon presidency.

BBM'S office

It could be portentous that in the first 100 days of BBM's presidency, a period technically the "honeymoon interlude," it was racked by scandals. Many attributed it to BBM's misappreciation of his office or worse, the emergence of character flaws his father noted in that famous June 12, 1972, handwritten note, "...Bongbong is our principal worry. He is too careful and lazy." Perhaps this was just a loving father's apprehensions oover his son's demeanor.

Thankfully, this mess involving ES Vic Rodriguez and spokesman Trixie Angeles was cut in the bud by BBM's other gatekeepers, presidential legal adviser Juan Ponce Enrile and presumably the timely intervention of the wife — Liza — if credence is placed on Palace rumors. Now, a new gatekeeper, retired chief justice Lucas Bersamin, has just been hastily installed.

Not much is known of Bersamin except for his short and not so stellar occupancy of the Supreme Court, obfuscated by his involvement in controversial decisions and ponencias. He voted in favor of the burial of the former dictator in the Libingan ng mga Bayani; ruled in favor of extending martial law in Mindanao; supported the controversial quo warranto case against former president Benigno S. Aquino 3rd's appointed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno; supported the acquittal of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo; and the grant of bail for the imprisoned former senator Juan Ponce Enrile. The last may be significant as Enrile is now the chief legal counsel of the president.

None of Bersamin's qualifications hint on how he will be effective as ES. But considering the early fiascos at the OP, reflective of its inadequacies, the hovering role of a strong wife, who even now is unfairly being compared to the once formidable senior Marcos' wife, Imelda; and the indestructible methuselah of Philippine traditional politics, Enrile; perhaps an adult hovering over BBM and the OP could be a welcome development.

And I hope he reads Whipple's The Gatekeepers — and learns from it!

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