Clean hands

The “great debate” on charter change has hardly begun, yet the country is riveted once again on the sordid affair of the “Garci Tapes.” For two weeks following Ms Arroyo’s State of the Nation Address, the media stopped talking about the Garcillano conversations.  Public discourse shifted to the parliamentary and federal forms of government and their relative merits. The embattled Arroyo government got the breathing space it needed to review its situation and to map out a plan to re-take the political initiative.

Ms Arroyo went on a media offensive, projecting the new confidence she drew from the orchestrated applause of her supporters at her last SONA.  But the questions she was asked in her TV appearances could not be regulated.  She found herself parrying persistent questions about the wiretapped conversations.  Though she kept her composure and even managed to project cheerfulness, her answers were evasive.  She refused to talk about her alleged conversations with Garcillano, invoking her “rights as an accused.”  Yet, in the same interviews, she was quick to deny meeting with election officials at her private residence in La Vista, Quezon City before the 2004 presidential election.

Having previously apologized on public television for a “lapse in judgment” when she called an election official during the canvassing period, Ms Arroyo was asked by GMA-7 anchor Mike Enriquez to confirm if the election official she did not name was Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano.  She declined to answer.  On another occasion, ANC anchor Korina Sanchez asked her pointblank why she felt the need to publicly apologize for a mere lapse in judgment.  Her reply was an intriguing: “I should have been better.”

That response is a take-off from the same theme she has spoken about on many occasions, namely, that our political system has so degenerated that it is extremely difficult to come out of it with clean hands.  It shows a beleaguered politician wanting to regain some moral ground while refusing to render a clear account of her actions out of fear of the legal consequences.

In the impeachment court where the political opposition wants to take her, Ms Arroyo only needs a fraction of the votes she wields to kill the case against her. In the more unwieldy court of public opinion, however, where trust matters most, she needs to demonstrate the quality of moral fitness expected of the highest leader of a nation. This is especially so because of the extraordinary circumstances of her succession to the presidency in 2001.  She took over from a morally discredited president who was taken out by the direct action of citizens acting on their own moral instincts.

If Ms Arroyo’s political allies think they can go through the procedures of the impeachment process while blocking the admission of the Garci tapes in evidence, then their memories are short.  They have forgotten how the fatal vote on the second envelope in the Estrada trial spontaneously brought the people out into the streets. That envelope was supposed to contain details of the hidden bank account of Estrada. Today the public demands to know the truth about the Garcillano conversations.  Are these conversations real?  If they are, what conclusions can the public reasonably draw about Ms Arroyo’s behavior in the 2004 elections?  And what do these tell us about her fitness to lead the nation in these crucial times?

We may not agree with Mike Defensor’s unusual methods, but his political instincts are at least correct.  His desperate attempt to impugn the authenticity of the tapes is far more useful to his boss than the smug strategy of blocking the complaint at every point of the impeachment process.  The real tribunal is the public one.  Before the court of public opinion, there is no way of avoiding the Garcillano tapes.  Ms Arroyo’s allies can use their numbers to terminate the impeachment, but where will that leave her?  She may retain the allegiance of legislators using the same decadent tricks that she laments in the present political system, but if she completely loses the trust of a nation that had looked to her as the last hope of moral renewal in government, how could she govern?

In the final analysis, Ms Arroyo has no choice but to tell a plausible story of her calls to Commissioner Garcillano.  In her public apology to the Filipino nation, she had said she owed it to the people to set the record straight.  Beyond insisting that she did not cheat in the last election, she has done nothing to dispel the suspicions that have hounded her presidency. She sidesteps the questions, even as she allows her operatives to obfuscate the issues.  Mike Defensor’s latest maneuver is continuous with Chavit Singson’s “X-tapes” – the main goal is to plant enough seeds of doubt in the public mind about “spliced” recordings so as to diminish the probative value of the Garci tapes.

Ms Arroyo may be a little stronger today than she was a month ago. But whatever gain she has made has been at the expense of the moral community of which she is a part.  In his little book, “Being Good,” Simon Blackburn writes: “A different example of a bid to escape the stringency of behaving well is the excuse of ‘dirty hands’.” There is something not quite right about this, he says.  “We have some sense that we should keep our own hands clean, however much others will then dirty theirs.  The excuse is not open to a person of strict honor or integrity, however convenient it may be in practice. In many areas, it is not over and above the call of duty to keep our own hands clean.” Will the nation survive this crisis with clean hands?

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