“To poke the eye of the President”

Philippines Graphic editor-in-chief Joel Pablo Salud with former President Fidel V. Ramos

I recall meeting former President Fidel V. Ramos for the first time. Decades ago I was assigned by a lifestyle magazine editor to conduct an interview at the President’s home south of Metro Manila.

Strange how interviews with political top brass, Presidents in particular, compel journalists to want to brave the ropes for that WWF wrestling belt. But not me. Oh no. I find personages wrapped in power utterly dull and wearisome. Like having a conversation with a pre-recorded video where everything—right down to the winks, scratches, glimpses on the wristwatch, and that occasional cough—were all scripted to make the “glorious leader” appear humble.

Until they sneeze and lose their bearing. First impressions slide downhill from there.

However, this hardly stopped me from doing my job, that is, to parrot what they have to say. What I’ve previously heard about FVR already proved interesting, enough to haul me out of bed even after my weekly wee-hour binging on horror movies and potato chips.

I rushed to the President’s private nesting place. Quite a huge house for someone eking out a living on government wages. First thing I saw upon entering: a gigantic cupboard of his collection of golf balls.

Old news: everyone knew of FVR’s fondness for the game. It hardly occurred to me, though, that he had this thing for golf balls. I’d expect a collection of imported golf clubs, like the Callaway, perhaps, or the Mizuno, but 2,500 golf balls? From all over the world? That’s taking the principle of a hole-in-one to grave extremes.

It was then that he welcomed me into his home and began our hour-long tête-à-tête on the witchery that went with making golf balls, and how much these round, white, hole-spangled thingamajigs interested him.

I was bored stiff, truth to tell. Days ago, the journalist in me had already drafted the needed interview questions. I wanted to get to the meat of things, you know—the politics, scandals, and allegations that shook his administration. I remember bringing with me a list of problems I wanted answered with all the ruffled glitz of lace underwear exposed accidentally on national TV. “Explain this, please.”

Didn’t happen. He quipped on and on and on about the tales behind each golf ball, to his joy and my consternation. As a token of his appreciation for my longsuffering, he handed me a golf ball with his name and signature inscribed on it. It occupied a special place in my library shelves for some time, between David Sedaris’ Barrel Fever and Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus (where anywhere from leftover Soup No. 5 and balls of suspicious character ought to be placed, I guess).

It had this little signage: FVR’s ball. Shortly after, and for some reason I couldn’t put my finger on, I lost the President’s ball.

An hour had passed before the former Chief Executive pulled me into his office. As I casually sat right next to his table, I noticed he was wearing thick-rimmed glasses. Strange how his glasses looked spick and span—too spick and span, in fact, they were surreal.

I know glasses. Been wearing frames since I hit my teenage years. Voracious reading does that to a man. Suffice it that I have yet to see glasses without smudges of skin oil on them or last night’s spaghetti sauce. These ones looked as though they’ve been licked by cats or The Chippendales. But then I shrugged my curiosity aside, knowing I had better things to accomplish for the day.

We breezed through the interview without a hitch. FVR flinched but little, if at all, even after I threw his way some extremely nerve-wracking questions. I appreciated the gesture. In my years as a writer, I’ve witnessed politicians of ever weakening métier buckle under the weight of such inquiry. One comes to mind: a former hard-hat mayor who, after I asked him about his drug addict of a son, started munching on watermelon slices that had been desiccating on his table for hours. By the way, the mayor is notorious for hating addicts.

FVR was different. He stood his ground, like the battle-scarred soldier that he was, to my utter amazement.

A decade or two passed after I met him again at a party, wearing those same ghostly clean glasses. By now he had stepped down as President and was an ordinary citizen. From roughly ten feet away, I saw him wave at me like we were long lost teenage buddies who once dreamt of pole dancing as a career. I waved back, wondering how in Dante’s hell he remembered me.

We sat at the organizers’ table and chatted for the first few minutes. He appeared older, more dignified. I’ve always held the opinion that Presidents, after their stint at the Palace, aged by leap and bounds all because of Malacañang’s servings of chicken sandwiches, to say nothing of vintage air-conditioning.

Dignified, henceforth, is something you don’t expect from a former Commander-in-Chief.

But there he was, in all his post-EDSA 1 glory, mysterious glasses in tow. As I made my approach, I poked my finger through one of the glasses without so much as a warning. To my surprise, there was nothing there. No tempered glass. My finger went through it cleanly and ended up poking his eye.

And so, the obvious question, “Sir, have you been wearing this glassless frame all along? Since we first met?”

Squinting in pain, he said, smiling, “Joel, you just poked the President’s eye.” I answered, casually grinning, “You’re no more the President than I am the twin of Sean Connery.”

He laughed and collared my beautiful wife, planting a kiss on the cheek. It nearly drove me to go for my shovel or was it my handy Baygon spray? Anyway, I chose to stay cool. He was the President, I thought, one I liked more than others. That’s saying a lot for someone like me who has this juvenile antipathy for some men in uniform.

On the day Inday Espina-Varona, my former editor-in-chief in the Philippines Graphic, handed over to me the editor-in-chief’s torch (she was about to leave for a stint at ABS-CBN), I asked myself, “What would be the real job of the editor-in-chief of the longest running political and literary magazine in the country?”

After hours of mulling the answer, it hit me: “To poke the eye of the President.”

For close to 10 years now, that’s what I’ve been doing: poking the eye of the Chief Executive. I write weekly articles, analysis pieces, and yes, the occasional investigative report. I hardly spared the Big Guy at the Palace both my praises and mockery. Thanks to FVR, I have finally found my life’s calling. From then on, I stalked each President with the winsome smile of a hyena lying in wait for its share of the chocolate mousse cake.

It should therefore be expected of journalists to continue giving Malacanang a watchful eye. Barring journalists from coverage of the President’s engagements reeks of a media crackdown. G

Bad move, if you ask me. Really bad move. But on the other hand, it’s all good if you’re picking a fight. G




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