The best, worst of Aquino as orator: Inaugural, 2nd Sona speeches stand out
In his five years in office, President Aquino has given 925 prepared speeches.
On Monday, he will be delivering his 926th. It will be his last State of the Nation Address (Sona).
The President is not a particularly good orator, unlike his father who delivered fiery and witty discourses, or his mother whose elegant and articulate English owed in large part to her speechwriters, Teddy Boy Locsin and the late Teodoro Benigno.
Presidential speeches are difficult and challenging presentations simply because, as political analyst Prospero de Vera explains, “everything that comes out of the mouth of the President in any occasion is taken seriously and considered policy.”
According to rhetorician Gene Segarra Navera, President Aquino’s contribution to Philippine presidential rhetoric “would have to be his use of Filipino, the corner-store style.”
The colloquial Tagalog subverts the elitism of the presidency, which you tend to find in the earlier Sonas in English, said Navera, a Filipino lecturer at the National University of Singapore whose fields of interest include political rhetoric, critical discourse analysis and metaphors.
While deposed President Joseph Estrada also used Filipino in his speeches, it is Aquino who has been the most consistent in the use of Filipino throughout his presidency, Navera said.
Aquino has “made the presidency relatable, not standoffish” like the rhetoric of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, he said.
“And that is no mean feat for a member of the politico-economic elite,” Navera said.
De Vera said Aquino’s use of the vernacular is what makes him a “good communicator” even as he observed that his speeches in English are more presidential.
“When he speaks in Filipino, he is able to simplify what he wants to say so he is able to communicate well. In fact, he communicates better than his speechwriters. He also likes to use strong words (maanghang) that is more effective in Filipino,” said De Vera, who used to write some of the speeches of President Fidel Ramos.
A government lawyer who is also a writer said the President’s Sonas in Filipino are effective because Aquino is “able to translate foreign concepts into gut-level words.”
‘None of the charm’
“He has none of the bombast of Erap and [also] none of the charm. In his obsession with detail and facts, he would be ranked with FVR (Ramos) and GMA (Arroyo). But in his communication effectiveness, primarily because he is not afraid to use Filipino and colloquial language, he would be ranked together with Erap. Both are naturals when using Filipino,” said the lawyer, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his post.
“He is also able to use different imagery—much more Filipino—to translate and drive across ‘up-in-the-air concepts’ like ‘sovereignty resides in the people’ and ‘accountability’ with his most effective line yet: ‘Kayo ang boss ko (you are my bosses),’” the lawyer said.
When the official English translation from Malacañang is not readily available, translating the President’s speeches from Filipino to English can be a nightmare for journalists.
Essence of the message
It does not only take up so much time, eating into the hours that could be spent writing to meet the deadline. There is also the fear of losing the essence of the President’s message.
An exception may be the President’s second Sona in 2011, in which he addressed for the first time China’s belligerent behavior in the South China Sea, where the English translation was more effective than the original Filipino.
The President said the Philippines does not intend to raise tensions in the South China Sea, “pero kailangan ding mabatid ng mundo na handa tayong ipagtanggol ang atin.”
The official translation—“But we must let the world know that we are ready to protect what is ours”—was forceful and remarkable.
When delivering his speeches, President Aquino speaks too fast, trips on sentences and has a penchant for punctuating them with jokes.
His oratory is crowded with repetitive themes, most notably, blaming his predecessor for the country’s woes and weaving in his parents’ wisdom and sacrifice to emphasize a point. He also has a proclivity for dwelling at great length on what his government has achieved.
As to which are Aquino’s best and worst Sonas or speeches, Navera said he considered the President’s Mamasapano eulogy for the massacred 44 Special Action Force (SAF) commandos as “insensitive, probably one of his most unpresidential utterances.”
“In that particular speech, he spent some time talking about his own personal experiences. He came off as projecting himself to his audience rather than empathizing with them. I think he would have benefited from talking less,” Navera said.
The “redeeming factor” of that speech delivered on Jan. 30 at Camp Bagong Diwa in Taguig was that Aquino showed he was serious with the peace agreement with the Muslim insurgents and avoided the “othering” of the Filipino Muslims, he said.
Navera, De Vera and the government lawyer all agreed that Aquino’s inaugural speech and his second Sona where he declared the “walang wangwang” (no sirens or special treatment) promise were the ones that stood out.
“The speech ties in perfectly with the master trope of his presidential rhetoric: the daang matuwid or tuwid na daan (the righteous path). The way he talked about rejecting the wangwang mentality is quite remarkable in that he pinned it down so well,” Navera said.
De Vera said it was a promise to break down the systemic abuse of power by the country’s leaders, akin to Estrada’s “walang kapatid, kamag-anak at kaibigan” pledge.
“Anything that the President says which breaks down this problem will be positively taken by the people,” said De Vera.
While President Aquino’s speeches are mostly straightforward, his two speeches during the signing of the Framework and Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro two years apart are best remembered for some lyrical and meaningful passages.
An emotional P-Noy
For a President who is said to lack empathy, the times when Aquino showed emotion in his speeches are remarkable.
When he took responsibility for the deaths of the SAF commandos in a speech at Malacañang on Feb. 6, two weeks after the Mamasapano debacle, he showed how the tragedy bore down on him.
“I will carry this to the end of my days,” he said in Filipino.
The President also showed some emotion at the end of the 2014 Sona.
“Whether advertent or inadvertent, it had the effect of humanizing him. Whether you believe what he is saying or not, a speaker who connects with the people is usually at his most effective,” the government lawyer said.
When he failed
Mamasapano was not the only time when Aquino, the Commander in Chief, fell short of putting across an impactful message.
In February 2013, the President called on the late Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to order his brother, Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, and their followers to return to Sulu after they went to Lahad Datu to stake their claim to Sabah.
Telling the Tausugs to surrender and “return home” was the last thing Aquino should have said if he wanted the siege to end as telling a Tausug, the fiercest fighters among the Muslim groups, to surrender is an insult.
A lack of understanding of how culture plays a significant role in national security worked against the President and his administration on more than one occasion.
In June, at a media briefing at the Nikkei 21st International Conference on the Future of Asia in Japan, Aquino likened China’s aggression in the South China Sea to that of Nazi Germany.
Japan and Germany were, along with Italy, the main allies of World War II, forming the Axis alliance.
Awkward speech for Pope
He was just as awkward in the welcome remarks he delivered for the much-admired Pope Francis.
In it, the President both criticized and praised the Catholic Church for its role in Philippine society.
When the President flounders in his speeches, whose fault is it?
“While it is tempting to say brilliant speechwriters make good Presidents, in the end a good President is the one who cannot be differentiated from the speechwriter,” De Vera said.
A speechwriter may feel superb when he writes something good, “but (the speech) should be owned 100 percent by the President. It is the President’s voice,” he said.
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