Mirror Images: My interviews with two Presidents

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I wouldn’t call them friends, but neither were they mere acquaintances. Presidents Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III and Rodrigo Roa Duterte will forever stand in history as heads of state, two of a long line of 16 powerful Chief Executives that had served under our Republic.

It is safe to conclude, therefore, that my relationship with these powerful individuals goes way beyond professional. While I may have faced them in my capacity as editor and writer, my being a citizen of the Republic puts such encounters on a personal plane. So much so that any opinion I may have of these two after the hours-long interviews should count for something worth ruminating about.

Benigno “Nonoy” Aquino had been sitting as President for about a year and a half when I arrived in Malacañang that summer morning. BusinessMirror columnist John Mangun and Aliw Media Group Executive Vice President and COO Frederick Alegre arrived minutes earlier.

It took me some time to pass the security check as I was in my blue Levi’s 501 jeans. For some reason that day, the standing dress code required for those wishing to interview the ‘Big Man’ totally slipped my mind.

Thanks to our COO then, Mr. Alegre, whose powers of persuasion borders on the legendary, I was able to squeeze through the eye of the needle with little altercation.

In no time we were standing at the Malacañang Music Hall. A long table that can sit twelve people had been prepped for the interview. Cameras and microphones were arranged in boardroom-like fashion.

I was no stranger to the Palace, having interviewed former Presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada in the same. It was, however, my first time in that particular hall.

To me, the whole setup looked rather disingenuous and cold. Detached may be the better word. The President’s chair was set a little over four feet from across the table. It was too far and much too formal for the free-flowing conversation I had in mind.

Soon after the obligatory show of social refinement, the interview began. Mr. Aquino sat with his glasses perched on his forehead while I patiently waited for my turn. I was raring to ask about the Freedom of Information Bill, which had been a hot topic since his inaugural.

I waited for what seemed ages. Mr. Mangun and Mr. Alegre, in tandem, had been throwing questions on the country’s economy for the first thirty minutes. Little did I notice at first that Aquino had been dishing out anecdote after anecdote in answer to my colleagues’ queries.

The President had, only too well, dodged some of the difficult questions raised by the BusinessMirror team by drowning some of them, in my opinion, in misplaced tall stories.

When my chance arrived, finally, I lost no time laying the cards on the table. Without ado, I asked him about the Freedom of Information Bill and how his administration planned on implementing the bill should it pass into law under his watch.

Aquino’s answer was marked by a certain peculiarity I had not seen in previous interviews with Presidents. While most leaders would stick around and fight despite difficult questions hurled at them, Aquino chose rather to take flight. He seemed to be very good at dodging difficult questions. Mine hadn’t even turned white with heat when he immediately instructed me to cut the recording.

The next minute or so went from cloak to dagger. He threw a question back at me: “Would you be able to handle all the information that crosses my desk?”

It was as if, by hurling the question, Aquino would be able to strip my profession of any and all presumed pretenses.

Former U.P. Dean of Mass Communications Luis V. Teodoro, in his essay “Power and the Media,” had noticed this peculiarity in Aquino, saying, “Mr. Aquino seems to have expected the press to report only the good news about his administration and to ignore the bad by, among other means, not asking the hard questions during his press conferences and interviews. And yet the task of the press is precisely to ask those questions in behalf of public interest. Mr. Aquino’s view was therefore a serious misreading of the essential role of the press in providing the information and analysis the public needs to make sense of their society if they’re to change it.”

Aquino’s obvious contempt for the press didn’t sit well with me either. It had the clear intention of putting the press on the defensive by doubting its ability to manage information.

If anything, it is precisely the job of journalists and editors to manage information, more so to make sense of facts, records, and statistics on behalf of the public interest. That, in fact, is journalism’s raison d’être, its purpose and reason for being. We process data using figures, documents, context, historical backdrop, even advance efforts at further research to arrive at acceptable conclusions.

My immediate reaction, had I been given the chance, was to compare my thirty long years in the newsroom with the President’s one-and-a-half year stay in the Palace. But such arrogance would defeat the purpose for which we conducted the interview in the first place: to get vital information on the issues of the day.

With the little over three hours we spent with the former President, I came to one conclusion: Noynoy Aquino was going to be one huge disappointment.

I was right. The 15th Congress saw the death of the Freedom of Information Bill, roughly two years and six months after Aquino won the presidency. Clearly, it was a campaign promise the former President never had the intention of fulfilling.

To make matters more disturbing, it was replaced by Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Law, which in my opinion was—and still is—an unconstitutional piece of legislation.

Such was my discontent that I wrote these few lines in my book, Blood Republic: “A dictatorship of secrecy goes against everything a free and open society is all about. It encourages deception in high places by putting the assumed rights of the State over the constitutionally protected rights of the individual. It is evasion of the most devious sort, replacing transparency with double-speak” (Philippines Graphic Publications, Inc., 2013).

My interview with President Rodrigo Duterte, on the other hand, was anything but muddled by secrecy. He was open and definitive in his statements, too transparent, in fact, that it was almost as if he deliberately wanted to ‘rock the boat’ by his words.

It was on a humid night, a couple of weeks before Duterte openly declared his intention to run in the 2016 presidential elections. Associate editor Alma Anonas-Carpio and I were scheduled to fly to Davao early that day for the chance to go ‘round the town before kicking off with the interview.

Unexpectedly the flight was moved in the afternoon, leaving us with little choice but to arrive just hours prior to our appointment.

At Davao’s posh Marco Polo Hotel, we saw the future President huddled in a room packed with twenty or so reporters. There he was, slumped in a swivel chair, appearing cozy and at home with digital recorders.

Seemed like an hour had already passed. The reporters were winding down.

Shortly after the last question, the would-be President rushed out the door, surrounded by his entourage, and walked to his hotel room in one of the upper floors. His communications man gestured for us to wait, and we did. For the next two hours. Only then did his people usher us into a huge hall where we would conduct the one-on-one.

Duterte arrived appearing more relaxed. After the obligatory greetings, he sat fronting our table and, with his now familiar grin, he said, “You’re from Manila? Why would the media in Manila be interested with me? I’m just a small-town mayor. Been one for twenty years or so. Is there any question I have failed to answer?”

After I heard those words, I was immediately caught up in the memory of another interview with a tough-talking Manila mayor. “I’ve been a mayor for more than half my career. And I’ve been interviewed over a hundred times, maybe a thousand times. I don’t think there are questions left for you to ask that will make me cringe.”

I took my seat and calmly replied, “There’s this one question I have been meaning to ask, sir. How’s your son, the one suffering from drug addiction? Is he okay?”

To cut to the chase, what otherwise would had been a career-ender turned, quite surprisingly, into one of the best interviews I ever had.

As for Duterte, I had this for my initial salvo: “In Manila, they say you’re a killer, murderer, that you have a death squad. Is that true?”

I’d been told back in Manila of Duterte’s liking for expletives, his tendency to run roughshod any question that didn’t sit well with him. To his credit, he didn’t lose his composure. Quite the reverse, he opened up even more.

“I’m telling you, here in Davao, if you have problems with the law, I will find you,” he said with a hint of severity in his voice.

Having placed our feet in the open door, so to speak, my associate editor and I began the interview that would last about three hours. Duterte was strangely accommodating and rather too candid, so unlike what I had previously thought.

We managed to go from federalism to problems with taxation, salaries of soldiers and police officers, criminality, issues surrounding overseas workers, labor, foreign policy, economic development, foreign government intervention, corruption in high places, problems involving Mindanao, Bangsamoro Basic Law, land reform, martial law, possible inflation, rebellion, insurrection, and terrorism, among other things, with relative ease.

However, it was difficult to discount statements that nearly bordered on threats. Like how he would shoot the face of anyone—including officers of the military and police—if they were caught dipping their hands in the government’s “cookie jar”.

“I’ll shoot you if you’re a criminal,” Duterte said without blinking.

If we will look back at the interview, our associate editor and I pretty much covered everything that is being discussed today, including the disputed West Philippine Sea:

GRAPHIC: Mayor, what about China? Spratlys? Territorial disputes?

DUTERTE: My grandfather was Chinese. Once I went to China alone. I asked them to stop their expansion and then there will be no problems. But if you keep advancing, people will be fearful. What do you want? Shared exploration? That’s okay with me. But if you keep on threatening the country, this will be my deal with China: You are nearing our shores. That being the case I will slice Palawan in half—lengthwise. I will tell the Americans they can come here, build another Subic or Clark airbase. Pay only the Filipino $1,000. They can create what they want, place all their missiles here, then let’s fight. Whatever else can I do? I can also invite Australia whose been expressing some interest in Palawan. They can all have the coastal areas, they can build anything they like. What assures my country’s safety is my only interest here.

In a nutshell, that interview, after we posted it in the Philippines Graphic Facebook account, garnered 18,000 “likes” and 30,540 shares to date.

Decades of conducting interviews with powerful personages taught me one thing: that on the whole, what you hear cannot be trusted one-hundred percent. One must have an ear for facts, or better yet, for double-speak. As novelist John Updike said, “In an interview, you do say more or less than you mean.”

AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

While these two Presidents appear to be mirror images of each other, both turned out to be huge disappointments. That’s one thing they share in common.

Disappointments because for Duterte, he did well-nigh everything he said he would do, openly and without remorse, even though these did not square with the demands of law, justice, and presidential decorum.

As for Aquino, he did things out of convenience, and out of extreme necessity to hide true intentions for the sake of popularity. He hardly outgrew in office that need to be popular, to be thought of as respectable despite numerous evidence to the contrary.

Both reneged on a lot of campaign promises. Both barely, if at all, prioritized the people’s interests.

Two different leadership styles, one end: a country barely able to stand.

The best stories, they say, are those only you can tell. And journalism offers that chance for you to be there when it happens. G




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