The US media called him “the Teflon President” because nothing ever stuck to Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States.

The former actor died in 2004, felled by Alzheimer’s disease. Marked by various scandals, among them the Iran-Contra mess, his two terms were disastrous to poor families, the number of whom increased by a third, and even, some analysts say, to the US’ multicultural character, which he never quite understood.

Acting on his belief that the poor were poor because they depended on government rather than on their own efforts, he slashed Federal grants for poor students and the families of the disabled. He was accused of union-busting and putting the lives of airline passengers at risk when he fired unionized air traffic controllers rather than grant their modest demands. He cut taxes and spent trillions in developing the loony “star wars” or Strategic Defense Initiative meant to counter the mythical arms superiority of the Soviet Union. He fathered the worst fiscal deficit in US history.

He sent Marines to Lebanon in an operation that has been described as “disastrous,” and invaded the tiny nation of Grenada on the ridiculous pretext that it was a threat to US security. Meant to circumvent US congressional sanctions against providing military aid to the Contras of Nicaragua by providing the latter aid from profits made in the sale of arms to Iran, the secret arrangement known as the Iran-Contra affair helped Iran-whose government had hostaged US diplomats in 1980– re-arm, and led to the indictments of key Reagan government officials.

Instead of rebuking him and his Republican Party cohorts, the US electorate rewarded Reagan by reelecting him by a landslide in 1984, and with consistently high approval ratings until his second term ended in 1988. The critical US media labeled him “the Teflon president,” after the Dupont Company trademark for the coating that keeps food from sticking to cooking pots and pans. Although, as Harry Truman trumpeted, the buck stops at the Oval Office, it never quite got there during Reagan’s twin terms.

In contrast, everything ends up in Malacanang and in the lap of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose approval rating, incidentally, has reached another two-year low.

Although 10,000 miles away in New York, Mrs. Arroyo might as well have been in the Senate last Wednesday, when her former economic planning and current transportation secretary, plus the most controversial chair of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) since the unlamented Leonardo Perez, testified before the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee on the National Broadband Network (NBN) project.

Mrs. Arroyo had cast a long shadow over the NBN mess even before the hearings began. Speculations were rife that her Executive Order 464 could lead to another crisis should she instruct former National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Director General, now Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Chair Romulo Neri and Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) Secretary Leandro Mendoza not to testify in the hearings. The hearings were called in response to the claim of Jose de Venecia III that the implementation of the project by the DOTC and China’s ZTE corporation would be overpriced.

Apparently she instructed them to do otherwise after she and her advisers had weighed not only their options but the implications as well of the two officials’ testimonies on her and her husband. They were not disappointed

While implicating Comelec Chair Benjamin Abalos in an alleged bribery attempt, Neri emphasized that Mrs. Arroyo told him not to accept the P200 million he said Abalos had offered him. Later, Neri claimed executive privilege in behalf of Mrs. Arroyo when opposition senators pressed him on Mrs. Arroyo and husband’s involvement in the multi-million dollar project.

Neri’s testimony tended to confirm Jose de Venecia III’s claim that Abalos had an undue and possibly lucrative interest in seeing to it that the Chinese company ZTE is awarded the supply contract for NBN-and that presidential husband Mike Arroyo had ordered him to stop competing with ZTE for the project.

Abalos’ credibility is at less than the sub-zero levels of Mrs. Arroyo’s. With an impeachment complaint before Congress in his future, he could end up the goat and sole casualty of the entire scandal. But neither Mrs. Arroyo nor her husband is off the hook-at least not in the court of public opinion, where the suspicion is rife that Mike Arroyo’s (literally) pointed advice to Jose de Venecia III to back off from the NBN project is widely taken as proof of their involvement.

It’s not as unfair as it may seem to outsiders. In the extremely centralized Philippine bureaucracy, presidents have not only been known to stick their fingers into every pie (and face) from jueteng to arms procurement. In the case of this particular president, nothing happens in government, specially when it involves a major multi-million dollar project among some 30 other projects with China, without her knowledge and his.

The sense that there’s an Arroyo lurking somewhere in every major scandal, controversy or anomaly in government has been again and again validated by, what else, the regime’s own actions. Among these actions is the issuance of EO 464-one of the most obvious of all its attempts, next to its sustained assault on free expression, to make opacity rather than transparency the basic assumption in governance.

When Romulo Neri invoked EO 464 near the end of Wednesday’s marathon, 12-hour Blue Ribbon Committee hearing to avoid dragging Mrs. Arroyo into the fray, he thus merely confirmed that, while she was physically thousands of miles away, she’s been right there all along.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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