Sex and the presidency

As a television host, I have spent the last 15 years asking questions in public.  But I don’t think I could have summoned the insolence to ask the president (or anyone for that matter) if she was still having sex.  One’s sex life is a very private matter. It was very bold of the journalist Raissa Robles to have asked this question of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo at a recent forum of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines.  And bolder still for the president to have gamely answered it.

It cannot be said that the drift of the preceding conversation had prompted the question. The president was talking about weighty affairs of the state and foreign policy at the forum.  The occasion was not a light freewheeling interview designed to bring out the lighter private side of a public figure.  Most important of all, the president is not from the entertainment industry where questions of that nature could sometimes be popped. The question was rude and irresponsible, and the president had not done anything to deserve it.

How should the president of the republic have responded? She could have dismissed the question curtly, with a hint of displeasure at this unprovoked intrusion into private space.  Or, if she did not want to embarrass the journalist, she could have just smiled gracefully and asked for the next question.  But it is easy for us to say this, having had enough time to ponder the options.  Perhaps its having been asked by a woman mitigated the rudeness of the question. The president clearly did not take offense.  She seemed eager to project a side of her that was the opposite of her schoolteacher sternness, and so to the question whether she still had sex, she blurted, with a broad smile, “Plenty.”   In doing so, did she devalue her office?

It all depends on how we expect our heads of state to project themselves in public.  I think that in general, we want our presidents and national leaders to be better than us in every way but not to be very different.  We want them to be sensible — lofty but practical, serious when attending to the business of the nation, but funny and ironic when talking about themselves. I do not believe that our people minded the president’s good-humored response to that tricky question about her sex life, as much as they would mind the position she takes on important questions of state.  No, I don’t think we should place the burden of responding with poise to a question like that upon any president.

What surely ought to concern us more at a time like this is whether the president is doing the right thing to prepare the country for a severe economic crisis in the face of an imminent war that could displace more than a million Filipinos working in the Middle East.  We have just begun to recover from the effects of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and we are facing tomorrow with very little strength.

If the world is on the brink of war, and the news that is coming out of the Philippines is on the president’s active sex life, we should not wonder why we have a hard time persuading other people about our seriousness of purpose as a nation.  While there is admittedly a need occasionally for our leaders to lighten up in the face of unrelenting challenges, I nevertheless believe we should give much thought to the kind of image we are projecting abroad.  This is a responsibility not just of the nation’s leaders but of all Filipinos, especially those in the mass media.

The president had every reason to worry that the next day’s headlines might record her unusual candidness about sex rather than her carefully crafted statements on foreign policy.  Naturally it is for her policy pronouncements that she wishes to be remembered.  But a question like that from left field has the effect of brushing aside all claims to high-mindedness.  I fail to see how this can serve the president.  What sets this president, after all, from the country’s past presidents is the high level of intellectual training she brings to the highest office.  This is her defining feature, and yet she is being projected as a light-headed person.

One wonders why the public projection of the president of late has taken the route of showbiz.  First, there were the photo-ops with criminal suspects showing her as a tough on-the-job law-enforcer. Then came the “Men-in-Black” cover photo for Tatler magazine showing her and some Cabinet members in a frivolous parodic pose. This was followed by a playful president balancing herself on a surfboard.  Now this giggly admission about plentiful sex in a serious forum with foreign journalists.  Taken separately, these events should not elicit more meaning than they would suggest at first blush.  But as they have come in succession, the impression they convey is that of a president who is trying very hard to be an interesting multidimensional personality.  She ends up looking absurd and frivolous, and we know she is not that at all.

This is showbiz culture, and it is such a pity that instead of moving away from the legacy of a failed showbiz presidency, we find ourselves being drawn yet again into the politics of empty images.  If the president’s political advisers are worried about the looming candidacy of Fernando Poe Jr., the correct response, I imagine, is not to engage him in an arena where he is already the undisputed king, but to draw him into a form of discourse where his movie status is absolutely of no use.


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