The Sona as authorized speech

Presidents of the Republic give countless speeches in the course of their terms. These speeches vary not only in length and style and their audiences, but also in the degree to which they are shared with the larger public.

The one thing they have in common is that they all carry the authority of the nation’s highest office. Anything the President says in a public setting is authorized speech, that is, proceeding from a situation of authority. As such, it is the stuff of news. Government officials, journalists and analysts, always on the lookout for policy directives, draw meanings and conclusions from what these speeches say and do not say.

Of all the occasions in which presidents are expected to speak, none, apart from the inaugural speech itself, comes close to the President’s annual State of the Nation Address (Sona) in the weight of the authority it carries.

Here, the speaker enjoys what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls “effective monopoly of speech.” Even the person who formally introduces the President is, by convention, limited to one simple sentence: “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the Republic of the Philippines, Rodrigo Roa Duterte.” Given this discursive monopoly, the speaker can, in theory, say anything on any subject, in the style he prefers, and with no time limit. But, in the normal course of things, speakers in such authorized situations are expected not to abuse this privilege.

It is part of the charm of Mr. Duterte that he routinely defies the conventions in which the exercise of political power is wrapped. He seems unable to stick to prepared speeches, almost as if he takes these as nauseating examples of elitist artifice. Thus, for him, any audience becomes an irresistible invitation to ad-lib, to utter whatever comes to mind, to speak extemporaneously, which means, literally, “out of time.” His admirers equate this with speaking plainly, without adornment, i.e., “from the heart.”

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque appears to understand the special appeal of this linguistic populism. In a recent interview, he said he would like the President to continue to “speak from the heart,” but he also wishes that he would learn to “stick to his prepared script.” He believes that these two intentions need not clash, that both could be met by getting the President a good speechwriter.

I doubt that.

I doubt that Mr. Duterte can be goaded into habitually speaking more formally, in a manner that befits the office he occupies. “I’m a mayor,” he once said, “not a statesman.” The rituals of statehood seem to make him uneasy, and so he reacts by puncturing their solemnity. Often, before he goes off-script, he rushes through the prepared speech in a tone that conveys a grudging relationship to protocol.

This is not the same as the well-accepted practice of speaking to one’s paper—a way of breaking off from the cadence of a read speech in order to reconnect to the audience at a more reflective level.

Yet, like all authorized speakers, Mr. Duterte demands to be listened to, not merely heard. We have all become familiar with his style. The attention he is unable to get by way of a profound thought or a well-turned phrase, he tends to summon by way of an expletive, an insult or a profanity. He knows he has everyone’s attention when the audience erupts in gleeful laughter and applause at the drop of a well-aimed cussword.

It has been like this in almost all his speaking engagements. His speeches are eagerly anticipated not so much for what he may say about the theme or purpose of the gathering, but for what he may say about the targets of his personal ire, or about his life and personal beliefs, or about the lessons he learned as mayor of Davao, etc. As a storyteller, he is never boring.

He clearly enjoys talking. Indeed, I don’t know of any other Philippine president who relishes the spoken word as much as Mr. Duterte. For his sheer ability to talk endlessly without missing a beat or running out of topics, he would make a great filibuster in a legislative setting.

I am sure it is a skill that he honed on television as sole host of a long-running local TV program titled “Gikan sa Masa, Para sa Masa” (“From the Masses, For the Masses”), which aired every Sunday morning on ABS-CBN Davao until 2016, when he ran for president. This was his own pulpit, from which he delivered political homilies that blended commonsense observation and analysis, political gossip, folksy humor, wisdom from the school of hard knocks, dirty jokes, threats and cusswords into a potent discursive brew.

Mr. Duterte could not get away from this template. It is what he brought with him to Malacañang—the whole equipment: a rambling style of talking, a rough vocabulary studded with some uncommon English words, a regional accent that he uses to forceful effect, a subaltern worldview that draws its power from the resentment of the underprivileged, and, most important of all, the political attitude of a local autocrat who thinks his word is law.

It is what makes listening to his Sona an imposition. The formality surrounding the Sona is not a mere artifice. It is what conveys its significance as an essential ritual of the nation-state. One expects to hear the leader of the entire nation speak of the challenges the country faces in a complex and uncertain world, of the response of government, of the goals and values that unite the nation, and of the agenda for which the collective effort of all the citizens is sought.

As authorized speech, the Sona should have no room for indulging personal animosities or for expressing idiosyncratic interests that have nothing to do with statecraft.