Everyone except his lawyers assumes that presidential spouse Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo is a public figure. There’s an “Office of the First Gentleman,” for one thing, which an effusive Philippine News Agency article insists is “also popularly known as the Opisina ng Kabiyak (OK).”

The same article, written sometime in 2001 and still on the Office of the Press Secretary’s website (www.ops.gov.ph) declares that “since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo assumed the highest post of the land last Jan. 20 (2001), First Gentleman Atty. Jose Miguel Arroyo has buckled down to work to assist the new administration in the delivery of various services to the people.”

Arroyo is quoted as declaring that while his wife governs the country, he doesn’t “meddle in governance”. What he does is “help the people who need help and the neglected sector of the society.”

The PNA article mentions several projects Arroyo launched and/or completed, describes “his work” as mobilizing “voluntary private action,” and claims that he shouldered the expenses for a number of children with medical problems.

Arroyo also had a livelihood project which extends small loans to families for “income- generating activities” which seem to have been limited to vending, repackaging cooking oil, salt and pepper, and producing and selling rags. In addition, he also had “outreach health services” that included providing free dialysis treatments. He’s also been involved in such environmental concerns as the Clean and Green and Pasig River Rehabilitation projects.

But even if his projects were or are privately-funded, or even supported through his personal resources, the “Office of the First Gentleman” is maintained with government funds. That makes it a government office, and Arroyo a public figure. There’s also his projects’ “complementing” what his wife’s supposedly doing (governing the country), as well as the additional fact that it’s his being married to the de facto president of the Philippines that enables him to generate whatever support he’s been getting for those projects.

Far beyond his occupying a government office, however, is his influence over his wife, which in itself is a form of power. A former critic but now a partisan of Mrs. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Negros Oriental Congressman Jacinto Paras described Arroyo last week not only as Mrs. Arroyo’s “shield,” but also as her “loyal lieutenant” and “informal security chief,” who has ensured continuing police and military support for her in the most critical periods of her administration.

Paras was merely stating one of the worst-kept secrets in the land. Arroyo is best known as his wife’s lead political operator and trouble shooter, who, more than the Punos and the Garcis and the Esperons, allegedly played the most pivotal role in ensuring that the 2004 elections would result in her favor.

So huge has Arroyo loomed in the political landscape that his recent illness was treated by much of the media as a national policy issue, or as the equivalent of a tsunami striking these troubled shores.

Some of the media coverage (which included the most detailed stories not only on Arroyo’s chances of recovery and the complexities of his operation, but also on how he looked, what he did yesterday, and even what Mrs. Arroyo was wearing while she kept vigil at the hospital) could be faulted for excess, exaggeration and repetitiousness. Not even Fidel Ramos—and he was President at the time– received the coverage Arroyo got when Ramos had his own medical problems. But the very fact that the media focused that much attention on Arroyo shows that he’s not just someone’s stay-at-home spouse.

Few political spouses and even would-be and should-be spouses are in that category. Joseph Estrada’s Loi and others were right in there, exerting various kinds of influence during Estrada’s watch. Fidel Ramos had “Baby” Arenas and his Ming. And Ferdinand Marcos had his Imelda. Even the lowest government office often has wife or mistress either messing things up, making themselves useful, or at least seen and heard.

The meddling spouse has become part of Philippine political tradition. But Arroyo has insisted that not only does he not “meddle in governance,” he’s also a private figure. He’s been loudly making that claim since he began suing reporters, columnists, editors and publishers for libel, and again when he belittled the class action suit that journalists’ and media advocacy groups have filed against him, which claims that he’s abusing his right to sue for libel.

This is not to go into the merits of that case. But, filed by some of the journalists Arroyo sued as well as individual journalists and journalists’ and media advocacy groups, the class suit argues that, Arroyo being a public figure, he has been suing journalists in furtherance of a political purpose that necessarily has a bearing on the way his wife is governing the country: to intimidate journalists, including those who were merely reporting on events involving Arroyo, into silence.

Whether that’s true or not is up to the courts to decide. In the meantime, however, in keeping with long-standing tradition, who’s married to whom is a crucial factor in the way this country is being governed—or misgoverned. One more indication of this fact was that, during the most critical periods of Arroyo’s hospitalization, speculations were rife about the impact of his possible demise on his wife’s political survival—which many observers thought was precisely the main thing on her mind. Now that the FG’s OK, it seems she’s OK too.

(Business Mirror)

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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