Pressroom Joker: ‘Scrooge of Congress’ rich in scoops
“How pedestrian” was Joker Arroyo’s favorite expression to mock journalists who covered his three terms in the House of Representatives—from the food they ate to the questions they asked.
Not a few reporters from small newspapers were turned down when they tried an interview with him.
“Don’t bother. Your circulation is too small,” he would say to them, dismissing them with a wave of his hand and then he would pretend to be more interested in the reporters from the big league.
But reporters knew better. Joker was just living up to his name.
Though he was a giant who walked the halls of Congress, it was not beneath Joker to bond with the small.
Our typical day in the House during Joker’s days began when he arrived fresh and crisp in the morning at the media center adjacent to the session hall—slightly hunched, perpetually smiling and knowing everyone by their first names.
A journalist could smell a story whenever Joker walked into the room.
He gravitated to the media center, no doubt by design, but in part because of his trademark style—he had an office with no staff.
Shunning the bureaucratic trappings of a typical lawmaker with hordes of aides, Joker served three consecutive terms as Makati representative (1992-2001) as a one-man act, save for his driver who held fort at his office in the North Wing.
In his two terms in the Senate (2001-2013), where he once headed the powerful Senate blue ribbon committee, Joker conceded to having an all-around legislative staff, Delfin Espiritu.
As soon as he was served coffee—by a reporter—Joker would hold court with the journalists, engaging them with his insights into the day’s hot issues amid endless banter, gossip and laughter.
A favorite source to generations of reporters, Joker was the go-to guy when you needed a quotable quote and, generally, a no-holds-barred take on everything and everyone in the government, particularly when the issues were about corruption or incompetence. After all, he was Joker Arroyo, fighter of martial law, defender of freedom and human rights, and for his outspoken and take-no-prisoners stand on issues, a maverick.
While his colleagues had public relations departments to polish their image and write their press releases, Joker was his own PR machine. He employed the most effective strategy of all—he hang out with the journalists.
He wrote his own press statements in his neat longhand and handed or faxed them to reporters. And they were almost always just one page—short and sweet.
There were even times that he dictated his statements to reporters. As a youngish reporter in the 9th Congress, during his first term, I was one of the journalists he regularly asked to take down his statements over the phone. It was a task I was happy, even flattered, to do.
“Can you please take my statement?” he would say, and proceed to dictate, pausing as he worked the statement in his mind.
He would then ask me to give copies to other reporters.
Joker was just as candid and spontaneous when we called him for our own individual interviews, and he was a tried and tested source for scoops.
He was obsessed with one issue—his unblemished record as the thriftiest lawmaker in the House. Not to mention his rejection of pork barrel and his perfect attendance.
As predictable as the seasons, Joker never failed to call almost at the same time every year to give his “favorite press release.”
Scrooge of Congress
We may have moved on to other beats or other jobs in the newsroom, but trust Joker to find us to request a write-up and space for his latest report on the statement of expenditures of the House, where he starred as the undisputed “Scrooge of Congress.”
He even called up the editors.
And as luck would have it, he would land on the front page, many times in what we called a “cartoon” or light, feel-good story accompanied by our opinionated mascot Guyito.
“Joker Arroyo, the Scrooge of Congress, did it again,” was the lead in the story written by senior reporter Cynthia Balana in the Inquirer’s Jan. 10, 2003, issue, reporting on Joker’s first year as senator.
“In his one and a half years as a senator, Arroyo repeated his record of nine years in the House of Representatives as the most frugal legislator. An itemized list of audited expenses for 2001 showed that Arroyo spent P5.39 million, the lowest among 13 senators who started their terms in July 2001. Other senators spent from P6 million to over P7 million. The itemized list was published pursuant to Commission on Audit regulation,” Balana wrote.
Or this story written by Michael Lim Ubac, now chief of the Inquirer Day Desk, in the Feb. 16, 2004 issue.
“Sen. Joker Arroyo is still Congress’ undisputed Scrooge. For the 12th straight year, Arroyo has maintained his reputation as the most frugal legislator, spending only P8.1 million from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2002, according to an audit of senators’ expenses based on Commission on Audit regulations. The head of the powerful blue ribbon committee, Arroyo also incurred the lowest expenses in 2001 (P5.39 million), the year he assumed his Senate seat, carrying over the badge of parsimony he had earned while serving a full nine-year term in the House of Representatives.
The list showed Arroyo spent only P8,132,867.75 for the salaries of his staff, as well as expenses for meetings, conferences and office supplies. He also did not charge for any foreign travel, professional or consultancy fees and had no office space and equipment rentals and capital outlay against the Senate budget.”
It had been our “Joker joke” that you just change the date of your old story and it would still be accurate.
Although he retired from public service in 2013, Joker called a number of times to offer his statements on current issues that bugged him.
One time he called me at the Inquirernewsroom, I asked for a few seconds to open a Word file on my computer so I could take his dictation.
He said he was sending an e-mail. “Congratulations,” I said. “You have finally learned e-mail.”
He said it was his wife, Fely, a notable lawyer, who would send the e-mail.
Fely sent her husband’s commentary on martial law and the controversial Disbursement Acceleration Program. That was March 6 last year.
Fresh from his role as one of the congressmen who impeached President Joseph Estrada in 2000, Joker sailed in an easy victory to the Senate in the 2001 elections.
He was one of the candidates of the People Power Coalition, the forces that supported Estrada’s ouster and the installation of Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as President.
The fine-mannered Joker was a joy to cover on the campaign trail in his first national election.
One time, he and his fellow candidates were required to hike a mountain, ride a boat and join voters in singing and dancing at the campaign stop.
“The things we have to do to get elected,” Joker laughed.
In his two elections for the Senate, Joker was packaged for his tough, anticorruption stance.
His “Pipol’s Dragon” avatar was among the most refreshing images of the 2007 midterm elections.
In 2001, Joker’s tagline went: “Ubusin ang mga corrupt! Iboto Joker Arroyo! Walang takot!” (Away with the corrupt! Vote Joker Arroyo! Fearless!) In 2007 his line was, “’Pag bad ka, lagot ka!” (If you’re bad, you’re finished!)
In the suspense thriller that was the impeachment trial of Estrada in the Senate in 2000, Joker was the leader of the House prosecution team that produced compelling evidence that led to the President’s downfall.
Those of us who covered the impeachment trial naturally looked up to Joker as a wellspring of information, and found a source that protected and prosecuted their case like a lion, or to be consistent, a dragon.
One night, he shared with us information that the prosecution had a likely smoking gun—a check signed by Estrada as Jose Valhalla or Jose Velarde.
It was Joker’s shining moment when he presented the prosecution’s star witness, bank executive Clarissa Ocampo, who testified that she was “one foot away” from Estrada when he signed bank documents as Jose Velarde.
Joker was bigger than life for all that would be added after his name.
But it was his friendship, even kinship, with us reporters that touched our hearts.
Where journalists are taught not to be friends with their sources, Joker was a case study of the irresistible—a brilliant mind in an endearing personality.
Of course, Joker and I learned the pitfalls of this journalist-source friendship over one particularly difficult story I had to write in the Senate in 2007, for which he delivered a privilege speech describing it as a “betrayal of friendship.”
We have come to terms with that, I hope, and as news of his death reached me, I took comfort in the memory of a Christmas party he hosted for reporters close to him back in 1993.
It was all about our personal lives, and nothing about the news. At the end of the night, Joker the gentleman took us girls to our homes, driving around the city to make sure we arrived safe.
After the party, he gave me a copy of the photo with his own handwritten caption: ‘J (Joker) looks dignified; Jaileen (Jimeno, then of dzBB) looks like she’s in a tasting session; Didet (Danguilan, then with the Manila Times) mourning but cannot let food pass; Juliet overeager; Chit (Estela, the late reporter then of Malaya) lost but longing.”
In his own biting words, vintage Joker.