President Duterte and the challenge of aging

Presidents who have reached the end of their term have an understandable desire to influence the choice of their successor. They may differ only in the length to which they are willing to go to control the process. In this, President Duterte probably exceeds all previous presidents in his desperation to stake everything to get his anointed successor elected.

We have not seen anything like it. When Mr. Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio decided not to run for president and chose instead to vie for the vice presidency in a tacit team-up with Ferdinand Marcos Jr., he was livid. He thought his daughter had been shortchanged.

At once, he ordered his loyal and longtime aide Christopher “Bong” Go to withdraw his candidacy for vice president and instead file his bid for the presidency as a substitute candidate in an unknown party. He has since publicly attacked the fitness for office of the dictator’s son. He has also reached out to some legislators, asking them to campaign for a Bong Go-Sara Duterte tandem.

That Mr. Duterte thinks he can get his taciturn personal assistant, now a senator, elected to the country’s highest office on the sheer strength of his own popularity shows what an inflated view he has of himself and what he thinks of the Filipino voter. Or—perhaps it only demonstrates what the lethal mix of power, old age, and painkillers can do to one’s mental faculty.

This kind of madness has been previously noted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as afflicting some of the most deluded of Latin America’s dictators. So huge were their egos that they could only think of their country’s future as one tightly bound to their own outsize persona.

It is perhaps to such thoughtless rulers that the philosopher Nietzsche addressed these lines: “You have no idea what you are living through; you rush through life as if you were drunk and now and then fall down some staircase. But thanks to your drunkenness you never break a limb; your muscles are too relaxed and your brain too benighted for you to find the stones of these stairs as hard as we do. For us life is more dangerous: we are made of glass; woe unto us if we merely bump ourselves! And all is lost if we fall.”

But who can deny that often, in politics, it is the reckless statements and eccentric behavior that mesmerize audiences? That it is the colorful characters with their crazy utterances that draw public attention, rather than the hard issues requiring critical thinking and elaboration.

Mr. Duterte’s tirades against Bongbong Marcos have, as expected, captured the headlines. They signify a crack in the partnership that his daughter has forged with the Marcoses. It is akin to a daughter eloping with a lover that the father finds unworthy. It is enough to keep people talking about what may happen next. Will she stand by her man and declare a complete break from her father?

No discussion of corruption and cronyism under the present government (here, the outrageous Pharmally deals and the Malampaya transfer of shares to a favored campaign contributor quickly come to mind) can match the urgency of the profoundly personal dilemma of a princess being made to choose between her lover and her disappointed father.

Alas, it is what defines our political reality today — emotional dispositions toward persons take precedence over the rational discussion of complex national issues. While politics has always been partial to theater and entertainment, nothing can be worse than to see the head of state himself become their chief purveyor.

A little introspection might teach Mr. Duterte a thing or two about what worries him at this point. More than the fear of being jailed, I think it is the terror of being forgotten after he steps down that besieges him. All of us in our fading years go through the same fears and insecurities, but these are likely to weigh more heavily on people like him, who, having come to power relatively late, desperately attempt to extend their control of things beyond their mortal life.

Apart from the usual troubles associated with impaired mobility, chronic illness and fractures, and cognitive decline, it is finding meaning in the remaining time that sometimes poses the biggest challenge to the elderly. Recently, I came across the novel “After the Finale” of the contemporary Chinese writer Zhou Daxin. Its insights into the struggle to find relevance after one has reached the pinnacle of a career anticipate his later book on aging, titled “The Sky Gets Dark, Slowly.”

Though still unpublished in English, translations of some of its notable passages have been shared on the internet. I am certain the book struck a familiar chord in a society that some years ago felt compelled to pass an elderly rights law. The law, among other things, orders adult children to visit their aging parents.

Zhou Daxin offers sharp reminders about aging that he may as well have written for Mr. Duterte: “No matter how glorious your previous career was or how famous you were, aging will always transform you into a regular old man and old lady. The spotlight no longer shines on you, and you have to learn to contend with standing quietly in one corner, to admire and appreciate the hubbub and views that come after you, and you must overcome the urge to be envious or grumble….

“As we get older, all the better should we be able to understand what respect is and what it counts for. In these later days of your lives, you have to understand what it means to let go of your attachments, to mentally prepare yourself. The way of nature is the way of life; go with its flow and live with equanimity.”