Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s inaugural speech

President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr. began his inaugural speech last June 30 with a reiteration of his call for unity and ended with a plea for Filipinos to have hope that, under his watch, the future will be better. Yet, in various parts of the speech, the message of unity is subverted by references to a highly disputed narrative that depicts the outcome of the 2022 presidential election as the historic vindication of a much-maligned regime.

As maiden political speeches go, this one seemed pretty straightforward. It was well-delivered. The speaker stuck to his script—unlike his predecessor who gained notoriety for his penchant for ad-libbing and mocking the formal text before him.

Mr. Marcos Jr., in refreshing contrast, effectively conducted himself as the personification of presidential decorum. He accorded to the position he was assuming the respect it fully deserved. In that regard, his presidency marks the return of statesmanship as a valued form.

Listening to the new president, therefore, one is understandably charmed and inclined to cede to him all the benefit of the doubt.

But no matter how well-crafted and well-delivered they are, political speeches are typically littered with tensions and contradictions, silences, and double meanings. To point these out is not to nitpick, but a way for the reader to recover some authority over a text’s interpretation.

Here I offer just a few of the more obvious ones.

“By your vote, you rejected the politics of division. I offended none of my rivals in this campaign.” This flies in the face of what actually happened on the ground, where armies of media strategists and trolls, through lies and disinformation, freely used social media to wage the most divisive presidential campaign in the nation’s political history. Mr. Marcos Jr. could pretend to stay above the fray because his own partisans of hate were busy doing the attacking for him.

“I did not talk much in this campaign. I did not bother to think of rebutting my rivals. Instead, I searched for promising approaches better than the usual solutions. I listened to you.” This is an attempt to make a virtue out of his refusal to attend the Comelec-sponsored presidential debates. If platforms of government are not to be presented to the voting public for fear of causing further dissension, how are voters supposed to decide? If candidates refuse to answer questions about themselves, how are voters supposed to tell if they’re lying or telling the truth? Mr. Marcos Jr. doesn’t say.

“I am here not to talk about the past. I am here to tell you about our future.” But he says this only after praising the legacy of “a man who saw what little had been achieved since independence in a land filled with people with the greatest potential for achievement, and yet they were poor. But he got it done … So will it be with his son.” What, exactly, did Marcos Sr., his father, get done? And at what cost? Again, Mr. Marcos Jr. avoids a full accounting of that regime’s record. The important thing to remember is that, referencing the title of Ernest Hemingway’s first novel, “The sun [son] also rises like it did today.”

“We are here to repair a house divided, to make it whole and to stand strong again in the bayanihan way, expressive of our nature as Filipinos. We shall seek, not scorn dialogue, listen respectfully to contrary views, be open to suggestions coming from hard thinking and unsparing judgment. But always from us, Filipinos.” In what way the house is divided or how it got divided is, again, something he doesn’t explain. For that requires a full review that would have to include the atrocities and massive corruption committed under his father’s watch. But—he offers a hint of what caused the fragmentation: foreign meddling.

“Solutions from outside divided us, none deepened our understanding. They were always at our expense. Never forget, we are Filipinos, one nation, one republic indivisible. We resisted and never failed to defeat foreign attempts to break up our country in my father’s watch.” Ah, here we seem to be getting to the heart of the Marcos narrative—that foreigners are mainly responsible for the divisions in our country. Mr. Marcos Jr. leaves it there, however, and chooses not to elaborate.

The more he speaks, the more the silences mount. He says nothing about the problems his predecessor leaves behind. But he has time to praise him: “President Rodrigo Roa Duterte built more and better than all the administrations succeeding my father’s.”

He finds the pandemic response wanting; it has forced people to invent their own coping mechanisms. “You got by, getting some of what you needed with a massive government help. And for this, I thank my predecessor for the courage of his hard decisions. But there is a way to put more means and choices in your hands.” If government help was “massive,” would there be a need to put more means and choices in people’s hands?

“Imagine how much more you’d achieve, if the government backstops instead of dictating your decisions. Always there to pick you up when you fall, giving what you need to get past a problem. Imagine if it invested in your self-empowerment to bring it closer to taking on whatever challenges come.” I like this passage; it sounds like an indictment of the authoritarian approach to the pandemic, and an endorsement of Leni Robredo’s approach to popular empowerment. But it was needlessly weakened by Mr. Marcos Jr.’s prior praise for “the courage of his [Duterte’s] hard decisions.”

Some speeches thrive in their ambivalences and ambiguities, rather than in the clarity of their insights. This is one of them.