“GROUFIE”: INQUIRER editors capture the moment with President Aquino in his
office, with Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, Communications Secretary
Herminio Coloma and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Emmanuel Esguerra.
The mood is chill and mellow as Aquino prepares to say goodbye
As president Aquino greets us in the meeting room in the Palace, he instructs his aide to play the CD, then turns to me, telling me to listen to it.
The Inquirer editors have gathered in the Malacañang room for these final interviews with the 15th Philippine President—this first one set before the May 9 elections; the second, after the polls.
As in past meetings or dinners with Mr. Aquino, one never knows how he will start it. But usually it’s with music he wants us to listen to.
For instance, at one private dinner in a friend’s house, he entered lugging his music gadgets, telling me that he had brought “Moon River”—a favorite of mine—and if I would like to listen to Jane Monheit’s cover version. That private dinner began with Monheit’s “Moon River.”
Now this afternoon, in one corner of the Palace room, he asks his aide to play John Pizzarelli’s “New Standards” album. Above the din of the editors’ voices in the room, I can pick out the song, “I Am Alright Now.”
It’s not only chill, it’s mellow, even languorous, but if I know Mr. Aquino, a friend for almost 30 years, Pizzarelli’s song is his unequivocal way of saying he’s not only coping, but he is also actually all right —this man who, six years ago, embraced his destiny with all his might and sense of decency.
The election campaign about to wind up a few days from that afternoon has been bruising and dirty, and the past six years challenged not only his non-trapo approach to politics but also his belief in transformative governance. Even as he tried to transform the system, he worked within it, respecting the country’s institutions, recognizing the relative independence of the executive, legislative and judiciary branches—going by the book, so to speak.
He believed in leveling the playing field in business and industry. I remember asking one of our business editors, in our discussion on the recap of P-Noy’s administration, who she thought were P-Noy’s cronies; she was hard put to come up with names, and ended up saying, “None.”
The level of trust and confidence in the Philippines, which he tried to raise in the world community and among investors, significantly helped turn the country from being the “sick man of Asia” to the “Asian tiger,” the fastest-growing economy in the region.
Yet, unfortunately, it’s the shrill cries of his enemies and their spin masters that continue to echo now as his term ends—the growth that didn’t trickle down to eradicate (yes, as in erase) poverty, the “Yolanda” disaster, the Mamasapano deaths, the MRT breaking down and the traffic, the tanim bala in the airport (no matter that the decrepit Naia 1 has been rehabilitated).
His opponents have astutely put a spin to each hiccup of governance to brand it a “national crisis.” The sustained virulence of the attacks, from traditional to social media, could faze even a strongman obsessed with power like Marcos (pardon the reference).
But if such fate has made Mr. Aquino despondent, he doesn’t let on, certainly not this afternoon, and also in the week after the elections, when the Inquirer editors return for a second interview, this time on his legacy and his thoughts about the issues that have dogged his administration.
Both in public and in private, he has this puzzling way of deleting emotion from the equation and sticking to cold data and facts—no “empathy,” opinion makers branded it. His long-winded answers filled with statistics are for voice recorders, but yield no sound bites—the direct opposite of his successor.
Yet, in these two afternoons (May 6 and 25) he spends with the editors, he seems candid as he answers a very wide range of questions, from poverty alleviation, the conditional cash transfers, the PPP and human rights, to the months ahead as private citizen P-Noy.
For instance, on the dissatisfaction with economic growth, he says, rather graphically, “We can go to the mall, you think we’ll find anyone who’ll say, ‘Yes,’ if we ask him or her, ‘Are you content with your salary?’”
He talks about achievements of the various departments—for instance, how the Department of Science and Technology has been “transformed,” especially Pagasa; the rise in domestic tourism to 55 million; how the negotiations for free trade agreements have quadrupled; how there have been only 17 labor strikes the past six years; how the PPP avoided sweetheart deals; on the 4Ps, how more than 7 million have crossed the poverty line; on the expanded PhilHealth coverage; on signs of improved lifestyles.
“Look at the malls, the purchases, how often people travel now, the car sales. That means people feel the confidence that they will be able to pay and keep their jobs,” he says.
“I’d like to ask people what their life was like before 2010, compared to how it is now.”
Perhaps, we say, so much has been lost in translation, and what his administration has been doing hasn’t been adequately conveyed.
“What I tried to do was to tell the people the truth all the time,” he says.
While our News and Business will tackle the nuts and bolts of his legacy, Lifestyle zooms in on his more personal memories of the presidency.
What were the outstanding, if happy, memories, we ask. And there really were, particularly those moments he was allowed to relieve stress.
“Siguro ’yung part of … kailangan ng decompressing moments, sabihin na lang natin,” he begins.
“I remember one in particular, this was from Barack Obama (state visit). To make him feel at home, nagkaroon ng singing portion led by (Budget Secretary) Butch Abad and (Public Works Secretary) Babes Singson. Favorite song daw ni Barack Obama, ‘What’s Going On,’ so they sang that. Mukhang natuwa sina Obama and Susan Rice. Of course, when we passed the mic on to them, they passed it on to the person next to them.”
I remember how, at that Obama state dinner, Kuh Ledesma sang a very snappy yet romantic “Let’s Stay Together,” an Al Green classic said to be the favorite of Barack and Michelle Obama, to which they danced during their inaugural.
Music lover and audiophile that he is, Mr. Aquino must have had a hand in the music selections for Palace state luncheons and dinners.
One didn’t have to go up close—but our late editor in chief Letty Jimenez Magsanoc did—to sense the good chemistry between Mr. Aquino and Mr. Obama. On two occasions, during Obama’s state visit and during the Apec Welcome Dinner reception, Mr. Aquino introduced a protocol-violating Magsanoc to the visiting US President as one of the “heroines of Edsa,” and Obama then engaged a thrilled Magsanoc in small talk, capped with a promise that he would autograph her copies of his books (he actually did, after Apec, before he left).
I remember this trivia about how, in 2010, shortly after Mr. Aquino was installed as president and on his first visit to the UN in New York, where Obama would also be speaker, Obama seemed to have stood deliberately on the corridor, just when Mr. Aquino was emerging, so they could have their “chance” and “unofficial” meeting. That was when Obama congratulated Mr. Aquino in person for having assumed the presidency.
Mr. Aquino continues his reminiscing: “Siyempre when the Emperor and Empress of Japan came, for somebody to be in an exulted position to be so humble… Also during Pope Francis’ visit. Ang presence niya parang gumagaan ang mundo eh.
“Pero sa totoo lang, dito at nung nasa Rome, para bang tingin ko sa kanya Papa ng simbahang kinabibilangan ko. Parang hininga ko na sa kanya ang mga concerns ko. Sabi niya sa akin basahin mo ang encyclicals ko. For somebody who is so grounded—the things I was complaining about would not be flustered by all these challenges. Even with just a smile, he seems to say, ‘Kaya natin ito.’”
He cites another memorable moment in his administration, and is prodded by us to see its curious, lighter side: “At Jesse’s (Robredo) wake, everybody was really sad. I don’t know who had that bright idea to sing Jesse and Leni’s favorite song, ‘Betcha By Golly Wow.’ (laughter) Parang late hour na yata. And they were dragging me, Butch Abad was dragging me, and I said, ‘Hindi niyo ba alam gaano kataas ’yang kantang ’yan?’ And I was looking at Leni, hindi ko lang alam if she was just being courteous or gracious… In the end, I asked, live ba ito? That laughter in a way broke the loss and sadness we felt.”
Indeed, sing-alongs were the chill time in Mr. Aquino’s downtime at the Palace. “Sing-along is the extent of his merrymaking,” a Cabinet member once told us.
Usually after official dinners, if the guest band was still around, he would sing along with a few of the guests who had stayed on. Inevitably he would emcee and call out the guests to sing; he gave the most hilarious quips. That was how he let his staff relax—akin to a pat on the back after a hard day.
In one such post-state dinner, this one in honor of Obama, our editor Magsanoc was obviously having a swell time so she stayed on. Prevailed upon by the President to sing, he asked her what song she’d like to sing.
“You Are My Sunshine,” she said nonchalantly. The choice was met with silence in the vast Ceremonial Hall.
Obviously, no one, not even the band, knew the lyrics to this prewar (1939) song. Mr. Aquino turned to his bespectacled aide, who must be only in his early 30s, to go, get the lyrics.
Fast, the aide gave the tablet to the President, the lyrics in it (thanks to Google), so that our editor could deliver her own rendition of it—at close to midnight.
“Didn’t know that song had so many stanzas to it,” Mr. Aquino would say later of his newfound knowledge. He narrated that anecdote in his eulogy for her—a ray of sunshine in a moment of sadness.
Watching the post-event sing-alongs in the Palace has given me a few relaxing moments myself (even as it must have given Mr. Aquino my tireless/tiresome rendition of “Moon River”).
It was people-watching heaven, as they say: Justice Secretary-now Sen. Leila de Lima can give Donna Summer a run for her disco money; Public Works Secretary Singson is one of the best swing dancers I’ve seen; Budget Secretary Butch Abad has his ’70s beat and sticks to it, no matter what.
Always, the signature songs of the night would be P-Noy singing The Free Movement’s 1972 hit, “The Harder I Try, (The Bluer I Get),” with his close friends—Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, Pagcor Chair Bong Naguiat and Romy Mercado; and Dennis Lambert’s “Of All The Things” (another ’70s hit).
(Why all martial law era tunes, come to think of it.)
The night over, with such music-making still playing in our head, we would walk down the iconic Palace staircase to the door by the driveway, waiting for our car as we stared at the biggest giant tree on the Palace grounds, the one said to be inhabited by the kapre given the name “Mr. Brown.”
It always cast an overpowering image even in the dead of night. While previous Palace occupants had their grandeur and extravagance, this one was happy with just the casual, free-for-all sing-alongs, which even a feisty editor like mine enjoyed.
After that Obama state dinner and the post-dinner sing-along, a lighthearted Letty Magsanoc stood at the door waiting for her car. As her car pulled to the side and Mr. Aquino stood to open the door, Letty told him casually, “Please check first if that’s my driver.”
Mr. Aquino was about to, but then paused and turned to her—easily one of the most powerful women in the country—and said, “But Tita, I haven’t met your driver.”
Such memories still make us chuckle even now as we face the president.
Back to a reminiscing president, we ask, how about weddings? Any memorable wedding?
“Na nag-enjoy ako? (chuckles) Very rare ang mga receptions na pinuntahan ko kasi parati na lang tinatanong sa akin, kelan naman ang sa ’yo? Iniiwasan ko na ang repetitive question.”
As the final interview ends that afternoon, Mr. Aquino grants the request of the editors to see his office. He does even better—he tours us around the Palace, starting in the vast wing that used to be Imelda Marcos’ bedroom. (See “Imeldific: P-Noy gives guided tour” by Nikko Dizon, A1, May 29, 2016.)
He seems relaxed, lighthearted even, describing the palatial environment as if he is seeing it for the first time—giving lots of curious details, but with a certain detachment, as if he isn’t its occupant.
Unlike his predecessors, this guy didn’t succumb to the power NOT to leave this palace.