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Remembering Gani, the journalist

(Editor’s note: The Philippine Daily Inquirer is putting out this tribute to its late publisher, Isagani M. Yambot, to mark the 40th day of his death. He passed away last month, at age 77, less than two weeks after undergoing a quadruple heart bypass.)

Isagani Yambot

We were still busy moving into the Senate office of freshman Senator Salvador H. Laurel when a youngish looking journalist with droopy eyelids walked in and introduced himself to us as the Senate reporter of the Manila Times.

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He said his name was Isagani Yambot and wanted to meet the guy in charge of Senator Laurel’s public relations. There was no such position in the Senate plantilla, but I guessed he meant me, so I introduced myself as the secretary of the Senate committee on government reorganization.

He handed me a calling card, asking, “So you do the senator’s press releases?” I said, “Yes, among other communication stuff like correspondence, bill drafts, speeches, committee reports and correcting the Senate Journal that meticulously recorded each senator’s remarks on the floor for posterity.”

He smiled wryly, his top eyelids drooping even more. “Call me Gani,” he said.  “Come, I’ll introduce you to the rest of the gang.”

We entered a smallish office with smoked glass doors proclaiming “Senate Press.” About a dozen manual typewriters lined each wall leading to windows that opened on to Burgos Drive just a stone’s throw away from the historic walls of Intramuros.

“Nice view,” I said, making a quick comparison to our office which had no picture window. It was 11:30 a.m., much too early for Senate reporters, and the only other journalist in the room was Dick Pascual who, like Gani, would move on to edit a newspaper and is now a columnist.

Next to covering Malacañang in those days, the best reporters were assigned to the Senate. I would learn later that the Senate reporters became better at their craft because they covered 24 future presidents.

Gani and Dick gave me a quick rundown of the club rules. The rest of the gang normally came in after lunch and would start writing their stories at 1 p.m. Deadlines fell at around 5 p.m., when the Senate regular sessions started, so important committee hearings would be finished at around 4:30 p.m. Late-breaking news could be accommodated up to around 7 p.m. because all the major newspapers were within 15 minutes away from the old Congress building.

I would understand later why Gani and Dick were in the Senate before lunch. They covered even the committee hearings held in the mornings and rarely relied on press releases. In fact, on this day, they already had a request for one-on-one exclusive interviews with Senator Laurel.

Tale of 2 leaders

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Laurel had entered the Senate together with the enfant terrible of Philippine politics, former Tarlac Governor Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. Sons of senators, the two were boyhood friends and had been elected together in the 1967 off-year senatorial elections, although on opposite sides of the political divide. Ninoy was a Liberal and Doy a Nacionalista, as were their fathers.

President Ferdinand Marcos was at the peak of his popularity, and the left-wing “First Quarter Storm” of the student revolution was yet to erect its first barricades at the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman.

It was the best of times, but soon it would be the worst of times. Ninoy would sporadically rock the Senate with well-researched speeches exposing headline-grabbing malfeasance in the government, while Doy worked diligently on “Justice for the Poor” bills which had formed his campaign platform.

The two charismatic leaders would soon lead the movement for change that would culminate in the Edsa People Power Revolution of l986.

But before that would come the proclamation of martial law in 1972. In the brief crossing of our paths in the Senate before it was padlocked during the martial-rule years, Gani left me with indelible memories of life in general and journalism in particular that survive to this day.

Typewriter, thesaurus

First among these was Gani’s extreme devotion to his craft. He was never content with the usual story. On many occasions, he would drop in to ask me for the inside story, the telling detail lurking in the background that would make his story leap out of the front page.

He doggedly went for the meaning of the news behind the headlines with a passion that inspired in-depth analysis at a time when that phrase was hardly understood in journalistic circles.

Beside his battered manual Underwood typewriter, he always kept a dictionary and a thesaurus close by so that he could use the exact word for the occasion. Always, he submitted perfect copy to his editors at the Times.

Looking back to those glory days of journalism, I thought his journalistic sleuthing was his strongest card.

When not harassed by daily deadlines, he would seek me out for small talk about the investigations happening, say, in the blue ribbon committee. He would pursue the smallest of details with the other legislative staff. It did not surprise me to see his byline on a story I had dismissed as unworthy of a second look.

Enterprise journalism

On long weekends or extended holidays, like Holy Week and Christmas, Gani would drop in to gather stories he could write about even while the Senate was in recess. His expected visits so became a habit that I kept a folder on top of my desk that he could rummage through even while I was not around.

Gani’s easygoing manner had earned him the respect of my secretary, who allowed him access to a folder marked “For Gani.” Once, I left a draft bill beside it that had not been called yet for “First Reading.” That’s lingo for bills that senators file. Until it is called for first reading, it is not officially a bill yet. I would learn this lesson painfully, for it almost cost me my job.

Gani must have seen the bill during one of his lightning visits and helped himself to it. He must have thought it was meant to go inside his folder. Or, my better guess was that he really did not care for such legislative niceties. He wrote about the bill for the weekend edition of the Times.

Slap on the wrist

Senate Majority Leader Arturo Tolentino, automatically chair of the committee on rules, was a strict disciplinarian. He was not wont to allowing this breach of legislative protocol pass unnoticed. He gently reminded Senator Laurel that he was not aware the bill had passed first reading.

For this infraction, I got a slap on the wrist. Looking back, I now think it was akin to the slap on the wrist President Aquino’s political adviser got for buying pirated DVDs.

I decided not to mention the episode to Gani. Having been a campus editor myself and with three years of editing copy at the old Philippines Herald, I was not about to cast a chilling effect on good old journalistic enterprise.

The Senate rules could hang, I remember telling myself. That was the day I think I decided to abandon my dreams of going on to law school (like my journalistic father) and pursue a career in the “communication stuff,” as I had described it to Gani in our first meeting.

This decision would take me on a meandering career in advertising, public relations, marketing and business management. Now I am back doing what I really like doing most: writing.

Once in a while, I think of Gani Yambot, journalist par excellence, and believe I really would have wanted to be a journalist.

(The article is excerpted from a forthcoming book, “Competing with Giants,” a work long in progress. The author is chief executive of a think-tank specializing in transforming social and political trends into public policy and business strategy.)

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