Do Filipinos Long for a More Charismatic Leader?
by Manuel L. Quezon III
In the Philippines, the president is required to go before Congress, in person, and report on the state of the nation. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo last Monday did so, for the sixth time. It was a bravura performance. The first four of her appearances before the Congress were marked by an inability to match the words she read out, with convincing body language or delivery. Last year, having clung on to power by the skin of her teeth, she looked tired, drawn, and even wistful. Her allies cheered, but seemingly more in delight over her accelerating their desire to eliminate national elections than out of any loyalty or sympathy to her.
This year, her personal ties to the members of Congress are as strong -even stronger — than they have ever been before. It showed in her confident manner and ease of delivery, and in the happy hooting of her audience. She was applauded over 160 times. She cackled with delight. I have only seen such orgiastic devotion in old films of Mussolini addressing the Grand Fascist Council. The president’s bravado, after all, recalls what some admirers of Mussolini used to say — at least he made the trains run on time. I once read a book by Luigi Barzini who explained that actually, in Italy, this is how the train system worked. At stations where trains were due to depart, clocks were set in advance. This forced passengers (except for tourists who kept wondering why their watches always seemed wrong as they ran to catch their trains) to arrive early.
On the other hand, in the train itself, or sometimes in stations in which trains were due, clocks were set back, so that passengers always had the delightful feeling they were establishing a speed record and arriving early in a remarkable display of efficiency. This system, which existed at the time Barzini wrote his book in the 1960s, made life happier for everyone, though of course it ignored the realities of time.
While I’ve heard quite a few Filipinos argue that President Arroyo receives criticism no male president would have to endure — because Filipino males, and male leaders in particular, are admired for character flaws intolerable for some reason, in women — such criticisms, even if valid, ignore something I’ve come to believe. On the whole, President Arroyo has a masculine mind. Or to be specific, a type of masculine mind one sees in people who adore electric trains.
Perhaps you’ve encountered such men (I’ve never heard of women who waste their time on choochoo trains as a hobby). They turn their gardens, living rooms, attics or basements into elaborate homes for their model railroad and their collection of trains, gadgets, and figurines. They spend hours setting up the tracks, controlling the trains, pressing a button to blow an electronic whistle and pester their friends and family to watch their mini railroad in action. Talk to such enthusiasts about art, music, history, or philosophy, and if it doesn’t involve railways their eyes glaze over until you mention anything that can be related to locomotives. The result is that electric train enthusiasts tend to be solitary people.
Arroyo is the same way, and it was a cause for discomfort among her loyal retainers, who had romantic notions of presidents with a more charismatic, and visionary, frame of mind.
The same sort of frustration has often been expressed by Filipinos (not necessarily of any particular political persuasion) who view the presidency as a creative force anchored on effective communication. However, effective communication requires charisma, something the Philippine president has never had in spades, at least when it comes to crowds (in person, in small groups, she is more than capable of it).
Left to her own devices, Arroyo would be happiest putting together her model railroads while swapping parts with fellow collectors who might be treated with an invitation to toot the horn of her little trains. If all she were expected to do were to be asked to extol the merits of model railroading, she would undoubtedly be charismatic, convincing, and even inspiring.
Which she undoubtedly was during her State of the Nation address, when her fellow amateur railway men lapped up her combined operations manual and PowerPoint presentation. She — and her audience — took particular delight in detailing the construction of “nautical highways”, in the expansion and interconnection of existing railways, and the building of new ones. Everything, she suggested, is like a railway; the magnificence of moving populations hither and thither, engaging communities to and fro, to make possible infrastructure and rolling stock, truly a wondrous thing to behold.
And it is: There is something breathtaking, as the Communist dictatorships of the past well knew, in ignoring the individual while preaching the iron efficiency of railways (combined with ports and avenues). The thing is, there is also something abstract, impersonal, even inhuman in doing so without explaining to a population their role in the whole thing, beyond being the obvious source of taxes and cheap labor.
Arroyo herself likes railroad terminology: Speaking of her efforts to amend the Philippine constitution, she once remarked that the locomotive had left the station. Who knows if she once read that children’s classic, “The Little Engine That Could.” But that is the image of her presidency. Having asked everyone to hitch their baggage train to her administration’s engine, she is happy to (as a Japanese sign might put it) “tootle vigorously.”
Whether such things constitute governance, or not, remains to be seen. As for myself, I recall Winston Churchill’s account of how he rode on an ill-fated armored train during the Boer War. It was derailed with ease on the part of the enemy. And he ended up a prisoner of war.