The State of the President
On the eve of his State of the Nation Address (Sona), President Benigno Aquino III was in a good mood, even in high spirits, and—more important—of strong heart.
Yet about two weeks ago, he admitted, he was a bit down when he thought of his mother, the late Corazon Aquino, and also when he learned that some people he knew had fallen seriously ill.
A paradox—that is a side to Mr. Aquino that the people perhaps don’t realize and which his enemies underestimate, thinking he is a pushover. He can be sensitive, soft, even vulnerable in his candidness, yet he can be tough, firm and even unmoving or stubborn.
One year into his presidency, people apparently still don’t realize this contradiction.
It was close to midnight on Friday. Mr. Aquino was still in Malacañang putting the finishing touches to his Sona, down to the video or images to be used. He obviously felt good about the report he was about to give the nation—both the statistical and anecdotal evidence.
The Inquirer inquired into the “state of the President”—how he is, personally, after one year in the presidency.
He sounded good. To us, he didn’t have to put that into words.
Weight on his shoulders
How does it feel to have the entire weight of the nation on his shoulders—and the sins of the past generations? The buck stops at his desk, and that’s anything and everything.
“That comes with the job,” Mr. Aquino said. “It’s obvious how the enemy aims to tire me, to make me falter and fumble. Paguran.”
Then, with his trademark sense of irony, he chuckled, “Or, baka naman pwede silang magtanong kung may maitutulong sila sa paglutas ng problema ng bayan (Or they might want to ask if there’s anything they can do to help solve the country’s problems).”
“It reminds me of what my Mom said during the barrage of coups—‘they’re waging battle with my blood.’”
Then he bemoaned how the results of the toil of the year just passed have been almost ignored in the frenzy of mudslinging—typical of traditional politics—and in the motley of distractions: his love life, his smoking, etc.
Substance, not style
“They’ve been minding the style. How about the substance?” the President said. That may well be one peg of his Sona—how the substance is lost in the diverted attention to style.
We’ve been so used to the presidency being the handiwork of spinmeisters, so that when it comes unadorned, unembellished—transparent, in short —it is lost on us. We’ve been used to presidents summoned only for the sake of the camera, 24/7, a president for our living room delectation.
Satisfaction ratings don’t faze Mr. Aquino apparently, although his remains higher than those of past presidents, including his mother.
He looks at the dips in the satisfaction ratings this way—“You wouldn’t take on this job if you were satisfied with the status quo in the first place, satisfied with how things were, are. You want change, that’s precisely why [I ran for the presidency].”
“We can’t promise heaven, but we can bring people closer to it. Have change in their lives, at least,” he added.
Asked if there is anything in the job or of the past year that he didn’t expect or he was unprepared for, he was hard put to cite anything. There seemed to be nothing that came which he didn’t expect to begin with—yet.
“Nobody could really be prepared fully (for this job),” Mr. Aquino said. “No sooner had you solved one problem than behind you would be 10 more problems.”
But while he’s learned to roll with the punches, so to speak, and to deliver some himself, still, he said, “the intensity of the onslaught” of the smear campaign—our term—against him still is something to make one sit up.
He has a metaphor for that: “You know like when we visited Carl Vinson (the US aircraft carrier that visited recently). We were told to expect that to get there, our chopper ride would be a sudden rise, then a big plunge. You expected that, yet when it did happen, the impact (upon ascent and descent) was still something.”
What makes him feel good is how people receive him when he goes out to make an appearance. He experiences a greater outpouring of support than during the presidential campaign. That is what gives him a lift.
In one foray into the crowd, for instance, an old woman walked up to him and, with motherly concern told him, “Marami kang babanggain sa ginagawa mo (You will be up against many forces).”
It may sound cliché-ish but he draws his strength from such people support.
On the downside, that also means the public is with him 24/7, even and especially in his love life.
“Mag-asawa ka na (It’s time you get married),” he said, quoting the oft-repeated line about him, “pero kasama kami sa ligawan (but we will be with you when you go a-courting).” That always draws a laugh of resignation from him.
He’s not seeing anyone these days. That outing in the Hotdogs reunion concert, the photograph of which was splashed on the front pages, was the last time he went on a “date,” if you could call it that.
To him, to go out on a date is to have to answer many questions: Should he put the woman through the media gauntlet? How will it affect her private life? Is there even a future in it or can it be long-term? And will he even have the time? (He doesn’t.)
As the saying goes, it’s complicated.
Sleep is luxury
No, he really doesn’t have anyone to vent on at the end of the day, if a president’s day does end—he receives and sends text messages even past midnight.
Still, he can enjoy, even if it’s all by himself, having a good home-cooked dinner (the Malacañang chef does a very good adobo and the Aquino family’s longtime help, Yoly, has her reliable comfort food, especially corned beef).
Sleeping beyond four hours is a luxury. He hardly has breakfast. Lunch is a sandwich at his office desk, if he doesn’t have an official engagement. That leaves dinner as his only full meal for the day. He takes soft drinks but not alcohol, not even wine.
He can bring home to Pangarap his folders and work. A veritable speed reader and with a photographic memory, he can pore over piles and piles of report in one sitting to be dispatched to his staff, so that it is said that it is only when he is out on foreign trips that the staff gets a breather.
He bikes regularly, when the weather allows. “Better than running because it’s low-impact, not so hard on the knees,” he said. “The other option is swimming, but not good for the hair.” (Was he kidding?)
“Or, perhaps I can try pelota,” he mused. We had to remind him that the racquet sport pelota hasn’t been heard of since the 1970s.
Why not try tennis, we said. “That takes so long [to learn],” he said, although a friend said he did take up the sport when his mother was still president.
A continuing form of relaxation, if he does get the time to chill and relax—“chillax,” as the young say—is listening to his room-full collection of CDs. An audiophile, he keeps an incredibly extensive music collection.
To this day, he goes to the mall to buy CDs in the magazine/bookstore. He doesn’t download—he believes the quality is different from having the right speakers around you.
Down to earth
Every now and then, like two weeks ago, he can turn pensive. He remembered his mother, the democracy icon, whose second death anniversary is coming up on Aug. 1.
“Sometimes when you hear people getting sick, it also gets you down,” he said, “like there was this person I had been waiting to appoint and when I finally was about to, I was told the person has been diagnosed with cancer. Or, I was told somebody in media also is in advanced stage [of cancer].”
Taung-tao pa rin (Still down to earth)—Mr. Aquino remains so, one year into his presidency.
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