Fernando Poe Jr.’s entry into politics was not a particularly Filipino phenomenon. Celebrities worldwide have been running for office for years, although it was actor Ronald Reagan’s winning the US Presidency in 1980 that convinced others that they too could govern a city, a province, or even a country.

The constant presence of celebrities in the public mind and eye via the media is of course their key advantage over others, assuring them at least enough name recall for voters to write their names on the ballot.

Film has been a particularly potent medium in furtherance of political ambitions, especially in poor countries where movie-goers run into the tens of millions, and tend to imbue actors with the virtues of their film personae.

Although comedians and singers have won office solely on the strength of their familiarity, Joseph Estrada won the Philippine presidency handily in 1998 at least partly because of the roles he’s played in his dozens of movies, where he has almost uniformly played the underdog who in the last reel lays his enemies low. An Estrada film usually ends with the wish for justice fulfilled, satisfying, if only for the moment, those whose lives outside the theater have been a string of sorrows, suffering and hopelessness.

Fernando Poe’s own roles were of the same category, although one detects a primness and propriety absent in Estrada films. Except for a chaste hug or a kiss on the cheeks or two he didn’t go in for romance the way other actors did, at least not in his later films.

Sometimes the romance angle is absent altogether. But usually he’s meek and mild-mannered like Clark Kent, the unassuming mechanic or jeepney driver or some other common breadwinner who simply wants to get on with his life, until some personal catastrophe occurs. Then Clark Kent is transformed into Superman–except that this Superman packs a forty-five or a magnum .357, and mows down his enemies as if they were grass.

Although he’s won five best actor awards, Poe has not been a especially good actor. What comes across in his films has turned out to be what he is in real life, at least in the communication department. He’s literally the man of few words he portrays. When asked during the campaign for the May 10 election what his plans for the country would should he be elected president, Poe could only mumble, and was visibly uncomfortable at having to answer complex questions.

Although the middle classes, who fancy themselves superior to the poor and uneducated, hooted in derision, what they didn’t realize was that Poe’s being a man of few words was virtue rather than vice to the masa, who’ve heard too many politicians talk but have seen too little or nothing of their promises.

Poe’s popularity is based not only his having been in over 200 films, period. It’s also based on the fact that in those films he plays the community savior and the all around good guy whose .45 is always on hand to right wrongs. He’s the masa fantasy made flesh, whether in film or out of it.

Part of that fantasy has been his invincibility, in film as well as in life. Until his stroke last Saturday, Poe had seemed as invincible as Panday or as the cowboys and soldiers he’s played on screen. At 65, the well-preserved Poe is every vain senior’s fantasy as much as he’s the masa’s hero. Although his hair’s visibly dyed, not too many wrinkles cross his face, which even young women still swoon over. He has also endured in an industry where the rage today is tomorrow’s has-been, by being in film for nearly half a century, and, from all appearances, by being still likely to be in the movies at least till he’s 70.

Poe supposedly lost the presidential contest last May. If he did and wasn’t cheated (and most Filipinos believe he didn’t and that he was), it was not for lack of popularity, but for other reasons, among them the split in the opposition, and a campaign that for its over-confidence was frequently in disarray.

Poe’s troubled relationship with the media may not have been as crucial as earlier thought. Although a major personality in the most popular mass medium in the country, Poe was not comfortable with the political journalists whom he found out soon enough were not as deferential or as forgiving as film reporters. The result during the last weeks of the campaign was indifferent media coverage. But that was unlikely to have mattered much, given the vast crowds he was still attracting.

Those crowds during and after the campaign showed that Poe’s popularity was undiminished. News of his illness over the weekend thus swept throughout the country incuding its recently devastated parts via text messages like a prairie fire cutting through dry grass. At St. Luke’s Hospital, where his admirers have congregated, what’s noticeable was the subdued, rather than the circus atmosphere that in this country attends even the death of a favorite actor. Pain and worry were visible on the faces of the many who had found themselves at St. Luke’s.

If Fernando Poe Jr. dies, expect a wave of grief and even rage to sweep across the country, millions of whose voters last May thought him the answer to their collective woes, and who literally worship him and sincerely wish him well.

Those millions will feel as if they’ve lost a relative, a friend, a hero–someone they can identify with, and someone on whom they had pinned their best hopes for salvation from the miseries of this life. With that grief will come despair, and further disaffection with a political system that, the opinion polls show, has lost much of its credibility–the despair that opinion polls do manage to record, but whose ultimate expression we will never know.

If he survives, it will confirm Poe’s status as the hero of myth, although it will not make the political system, with which at the time of his stroke he was still in contention (he has filed a petition before the Supreme Court alleging fraud in the last elections), any more credible than it is now.

Which is to say that whatever happens to Poe is not likely to have any impact on the Arroyo government’s own problems, principally that which involves its legitimacy. If Poe dies, his protest will lose steam, but that will not necessarily make the Arroyo government any less legitimate in the eyes of his millions of supporters than it is already perceived to be.

Beyond that, however, is the political system itself, which in the eyes of millions is a fraud and a deception. As far as the poor are concerned, the political system will thus continue to be a spectacle in which they play no part except during elections, whose workings have not made their lives any better or even any different. Who knows where that understanding will lead? We need to look at other times and other places to realize that the readiness for change needs to merge with the obvious need for it. Poe was the poor’s hope for change within the system. He could be their last.


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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