Although already all-powerful by 1972, Ferdinand Marcos still delivered his public statements with care. Only rarely did he allow his temper to break through his carefully contrived image as articulate, civilized and reasonable.
He did raise his voice when during a press conference an American journalist confronted him with the latest human rights violations of his fascist regime. But he neither insulted him nor cursed. No profanity ever escaped Marcos’ lips in public throughout his nearly two-decade rule. He apparently approved his propagandists’ description of Corazon Aquino as “a mere housewife” when she ran against him in the snap elections of 1986, but that wasn’t really as insulting as it seemed. Being a housewife is after all an honorable calling despite what misogynists may think.
The “mere housewife” proved to be Marcos’ undoing not only by winning the elections, but also by being the rallying symbol of the 1986 EDSA mutiny that finally removed him from power.
Despite the coup attempts against her, once in Malacanang Aquino remained as gracious as her finishing school education had trained her to be. Only when a columnist claimed that she had hidden under her bed during one such incident did she reveal a hitherto unknown side of her by filing a libel complaint against the alleged offender, and inviting the media into her bedroom to prove that there was not enough space under her bed to hide in. But filing that libel complaint was the limit of her use of presidential power against a member of the press, although she imposed a dress code — no t-shirts and denims in her presence, please — on journalists covering her.
Fidel Ramos took what journalists said about him and his administration seriously enough to phone them to explain his side of things or to invite them to breakfast so he could get a better press. But he too tried to sound as presidential as his former boss Marcos even in those times when he felt unjustly criticized.
Joseph Estrada launched an advertising boycott against the broadsheet he detested most, and filed a Php 100 million libel complaint against another. But despite his “bad boy” filmdom- inspired pretensions, he never quite went beyond late night drinking and associating with riffraff to curse critics publicly or threaten them with harm.
Neither did Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, despite the many scandals that hounded her regime. She kept her composure despite her low approval and trust ratings, and tried to sound as academic and as reasonable as her having a PhD in economics demanded. In 2004 she even confessed to a “lapse in judgment” when she called a Comelec official during that year’s elections. She left the foul labeling of critics to her subalterns.
Benigno Aquino III was too much his mother’s son to curse or threaten anyone, although he did complain often about the press, and downplayed the killing of journalists during his term. Despite his obvious limitations, he was enough of a gentleman to occasionally listen to criticisms so as to contradict them without rancor or arrogance.
Every President has set the tone and shaped the messaging of his or her administration on public issues, and is also among the most likely model for imitation by officials as well as ordinary citizens.
Rodrigo Duterte is no exception. But uniquely among Philippine Presidents, all of whom have at least tried to endow their policies with some coherence and what they say with a semblance of tolerance for dissenting views, over the four-and-a-half years that he has been in power, Mr. Duterte has disdained criticism, dismissed it as of no value, insulted and cursed critics and even threatened them, and in general cultivated a give-them-hell model of regime discourse.
Among its consequences is some of his officials’ adopting his model as their own in dealing with criticism and citizen concern over the wisdom, honesty, justice or effectiveness of government policies in addressing the issues and problems that confront the nation. Perhaps part of the reason is their perception that since Mr. Duterte seems to be as popular as ever, berating critics as he does is acceptable to the public.
The fear factor helps explain Mr. Duterte’s phenomenally high approval and trust ratings despite the corruption scandals that have rocked his administration and its less than sterling handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But even if those ratings accurately reflect public sentiments, they are not as transferable as these officials may think.
They nevertheless make free with their views which very often are interpreted by the citizenry not only as government policy but even as echoes of Mr. Duterte’s own opinions, hence the occasional need for his Spokesperson to correct such impressions. But despite the usual “clarifications” from Malacanang, some still persist in airing and defending even the most outrageous views on public issues. They refuse to weigh their words carefully, apparently because they think themselves infallible and accountable to no one.
Not only are they mistaken in that assumption. Their hostility to criticism is also counter-productive. Defending what the government does is best served through reasoned discourse. It defies logic why some regime officials launch name-calling tirades rather than, for example, explaining why the suggestions of the University of the Philippines Marine Sciences Institute on the rehabilitation of Manila Bay are unacceptable. The same may be said about reacting to public criticism of police and prison officials’ brazenly inhuman acts by dismissing the grief of a mother over the death of her child as merely staged for dramatic effect while at the same time accusing her of crimes for which she has not been convicted.
Both reactions provoke further criticism and even outrage not only from ordinary citizens but even from their fellow officials themselves. No one can blame those who, as a result, end up concluding that regime bureaucrats focus on non-essentials because the administration they’re serving can’t even articulate its own policies and actions.
It didn’t use to be necessary to remind the bureaucracy that the citizens of this rumored democracy have not only the right but also the duty to call government to account, and that as their sovereigns are entitled to hear from them more than profanities, arrogant displays of power, and evasion.
Conceding that in some instances both ordinary citizens and the experts in fields they’re unfamiliar with may be right; admitting errors so flagrant they cannot be denied; and assuring the public that complaints will be seriously studied and addressed should be second nature to everyone in government. Contrary to their usual mantra that they serve at the pleasure of the appointing authority, they are in office only with the consent of the citizens who have delegated their sovereign powers to the officials they elect. They are the people’s servants, not their masters.
Because of the loss of civility and any sense of public duty in the discourse of some of its officials, the citizenry has to remind them from time to time of these fundamentals of public service in a government that claims to be democratic. But as unteachable as many regime functionaries are, they will continue to validate the growing perception that the administration they’re part of has made irrational speech the norm and is beyond redemption.
(Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO. Portions of this piece were part of this columnist’s answers to the questions of another broadsheet on the hostility to criticism of some Duterte administration officials.)