The unloved

Of the many presidents we have had, Ramon Magsaysay is consistently singled out as the most loved.  For a long time, Ferdinand Marcos held the dubious distinction of being the most despised.  Magsaysay continues to be remembered as the most beloved of all our presidents, but Marcos has been dislodged from his ignoble perch by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  Marcos was despised and feared, yet he had many admirers. GMA now outranks every president as an object of public contempt.  The public sentiment about her is not just one of disapproval.  It is one of scornful rejection. No other president in recent memory has been so unloved.

Yet, her publicists still don’t get it.  They treat the problem as if it were nothing more than the reversible outcome of a bad press. And so, led by cash-rich Pagcor, they have bought expensive time on television to advertise the president’s concern for the poor.  They have painted the shameless words “GMA cares” on bridges, on the rooftops of buildings funded by pork barrel, on billboards along public roads, in front of parks, ports, and public buildings.  They have converted the government-run Channel 4 into a huge electronic billboard that figuratively flashes the message “GMA cares” in all its programs. Alas, none of these seems to have created any positive effect on GMA’s survey ratings.

And so, in desperation, at the start of the new year, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, assisted by outgoing Press Secretary Jesus Dureza and Philippine Information Agency director-general Conrado Limcaoco, summoned the top officials of various government agencies to give them a lecture on “presidential branding.”  I quote from the Inquirer (1/24/09) report of Jerry E. Esplanada:  “Citing the low approval ratings of President MacapagalArroyo, the Palace has directed government agencies to attribute all their projects to her.”

I nearly fell off my seat as I read this.  I can almost imagine the landscape they want to create.  A school building is constructed, and, pronto, a GMA billboard goes up in front of it: “GMA cares.”  A small flood control dike is built, and a sign screams why it is there: “GMA cares.  A community is taught how to make herbal soap, and again, a billboard tells us why: “GMA cares.”  A bridge is repaired, a denuded forest is replanted, pavements are swept and painted, a store offers cheap rice and medicines, a daycare school is opened, a street lamp gets a replacement bulb, etc. – all these have happened because “GMA cares.”

The Inquirer continues:  “During the Palace meeting, top government officials were also ordered to ‘undertake PR work with news editors’ of various media entities ‘to ensure that press releases are really used.’”  This seems to me not a communication plan for the government but the launching of a personality cult.  This happened in China under Mao Zedong, in North Korea under Kim Il-sung, in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, in Germany under Adolf Hitler.  The pairing of the leader’s face with the nation was methodical, but at least it had some basis. The rise of these leaders in their respective countries coincided with a moment of national pride and renewed vitality.  In contrast, the agenda for a GMA personality cult has no leg to stand on.  GMA’s presidency coincides with a pernicious moment of national demoralization.

Leaders who built their nations or brought them to the pinnacle of greatness and national self-esteem never needed to have their names and faces advertised in public places.  Their people built monuments for them in their hearts.  The likes of Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Deng Xiapoing of China, Abraham Lincoln of the United States of America, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk of Turkey, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Fidel Castro of Cuba, and Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore quickly come to mind.  The last three, all still alive – Mandela, Castro and Lee – are interesting.  You would hardly find their names or faces plastered on billboards or public buildings in their countries.  Mandela is loved and revered everywhere in his country, but he has discouraged the formation of a cult.  In Cuba, the icon of the revolution is Ernesto “Che” Guevara, not Fidel, who actually led the revolution.  Lee is synonymous with the rise of modern Singapore, but there is no personality cult around him.

But what will Gloria be hailed for when she finally leaves the presidency?  If Cory Aquino will be long remembered as the mother of people power, Gloria will be known as its spoiled brat or its black sheep.  Historians will mark her presidency as possibly the most corrupt in the nation’s life.  Political scientists will single out her administration as the last gasp of a degenerate political culture.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has occupied the presidency for more than eight years now, longer than any of her predecessors except Marcos. Why has she remained unloved, unfeared, unrespected, unpopular, and detested?   It is not because, as she likes to claim, she took decisive action for the common good that hurt people in the short term.  It is not because she has been misunderstood.  It is rather because the Filipino people have seen through her, and understood her too well.

A political leader must have a cause higher than herself about which she can be passionate.  GMA has none.  A leader takes responsibility for the actions of her government.  She does not.  But she does not hesitate to grab the credit for every little project.   How can anyone love or respect a politician like that?

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