The politics of appearances

You could see the little miracles wrought by their handlers’ wise counsel by the way they conduct themselves in front of the media these days.  Erap Estrada has been telling less and less jokes.  We now hear him on radio on Saturday mornings seriously addressing questions of governance and problems of policy, the stuff we expect a president to take up at Cabinet meetings or at summits with other heads of state.   He is beginning to sound as knowledgeable as a graduate student who has crammed for a comprehensive exam.

In contrast, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the one with the doctorate in economics and who went to school with Bill Clinton in Washington, hardly needs to remind anyone that she has brains.  But because of her size and youthful face, some people think she’s too young to be president.  She’s actually older than Tony Blair, the new British prime minister.  The bangs have disappeared and she now maintains a fullystretched pose that gives her more height, at least on camera. The smirk that often makes her seem bratty and arrogant is under control. She is beginning to look older and as accessible to the masa as a movie star just before the showing of a new film.

Joe de Venecia is not old, but his  problem has always been his identification with old-style politics.  It has nothing to do with the way he looks, nor with the fact that he was a politician in the old regime. Rather it has to do with the way he speaks, which reminds people of the way politicians spoke during the Marcos years.  These days, Joe de Venecia’s talk is milder and less oratorical.  The earnestness is now coupled with an ironic effort to project political amateurishness. He is beginning to look more sincere.

No one doubts the sincerity of Rene de Villa, but he seems to have a problem convincing people that he really wants to be a politician.  His gentle and quiet manner, which comes out even when he is trying to be assertive,  is unfairly equated with indecisiveness.  Nowadays, he is often seen distancing himself from the loyal circle of the president’s men, and is heard expressing views that are different from those of the man of whom he is supposed to be the abiding clone.    He still looks tentative but he is beginning to be more and more his own man.

Bobby de Ocampo’s problems are of a different sort.  Like Rene de Villa, he is an amateur.  But in addition, he is not known, and those who have heard of him view him as a cold technocrat alienated from the masa.  He has been singing his way into talk-shows and public gatherings, and has lately been answering questions in a spoken balarila Tagalog that projects the kind of charm a foreigner exudes when he speaks your language.  Still, Bobby de Ocampo is beginning to show he can be as warm and as Pinoy as the average voter.

Charm and color are precisely what Ed Angara seems to have trouble summoning.  Most people think he has perfected the art of blandness. In another context, we could  take that to mean he is just your average person, shy, not bombastic, not flighty, but simply unadorned.  Yet for some reason, some people continue to wonder if beneath that blandness lies nothing sinister, opportunistic or ruthless.  Instead of wearing those colorful shirts, he might net greater attention from explaining where he comes from, how he made himself, what he was and what he did during martial law, and what he really thinks of our present leaders.  When you run for president, you necessarily take risks, and Ed Angara must open himself to such risks.  Then perhaps, he can become more multi-dimensional and interesting.

Many who are bothered by the nature of our politics would probably limit their choice to Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Raul Roco, and Nene Pimentel.  All are political mavericks.  They are confident about their views and are not afraid to make enemies when they need to, which is quite often.  Their main problem is how to persuade the public that they could win even if the surveys say otherwise and even if they have no political party or administration to back them up.  Their biggest enemy is a curious attitude that says that unless you vote for a probable winner, your vote is wasted.    They can win only on the wings of an urgent and frenzied movement for change, one that embodies the romantic belief that a nation is what it makes of itself, and that a people can be what it collectively decides to be.

In response to an earlier column I wrote on presidentiables, a thoughtful reader, Mr. Roberto V. Robledo, wrote to remind me that while a candidate’s platform and stand on issues remain important, there is a tendency for politicians to offer “the usual motherhood statements, generalities and obfuscation which are the handiwork of eager-to-please think-tanks.”

A similar observation was made by another reader, my friend Dr. Vedasto Jose, who believes that politicians will always “appeal to our emotions, thought-habits, prejudices… use sophistry and logical fallacies in argumentation… and cleverly cloud factual issues by using emotionally colored and expressive language.”  The way to protect the public against these, he says, is by teaching our people to “think in accordance with the facts”, and to see through “the gimmicks, the tricks of marketing, etc.”

I cannot agree more.  The possibility of new politics, in the final analysis, rests on the formation of new, sophisticated, discerning, honest and brave voters.  This, however, is more than just a task of voter education campaigns; it is rather a function of our cultural institutions in general.


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