THE LONG VIEW
By Manuel L. Quezon III
The dilemma Romulo Neri faces today is no laughing matter. His inability to appear at the Senate last week only makes public interest in his Wednesday appearance even more intense. In the rumor-infested uncertainty that surrounds the whole investigation, one bit of scuttlebutt glitters like a jewel. In a tension-filled Cabinet meeting, Neri supposedly told the President and his peers that he would not commit perjury. Most people who have heard this story immediately have the same reaction: yes, that sounds like him.
And so, this is why I call it a glittering jewel of a rumor: because most other rumors (some of which, later on, have proven to be true, such as the Wack-Wack meetings) tend to show officials behaving badly. This is one rumor that shows virtue: a clear, concise, demonstration of integrity. A line a man like Neri will not cross, whether out of fear for his mortal soul or a dedication to certain absolutes, whether in the laws of God or man.
By reputation, Neri is a man who has tried to demonstrate that professional success can be achieved without being intellectually or professionally dishonest. We tend to believe that numbers speak for themselves; though the reality is, it is in the interpretation of numbers that mental and professional dishonesty has room for maneuver.
He has managed to move easily in political circles without being accused of prostituting his profession to pursue political or financial considerations. This is difficult to do, not least because in the public sector at least, he has enjoyed the patronage of powerful politicians. In the morally ambivalent world of those holding public office, with great patrons comes the risk of having to utter great lies on their behalf. Yet Neri sticks to the facts.
Matthew Mehan in The National Review pointed out that it was St. Thomas More who coined the word “fact.” Neri’s career has been dedicated to looking at the facts, and from those facts, figuring out beneficial policies. And it’s the example of St. Thomas More, patron saint of politicians and statesmen, that bears a stunning relevance to Neri’s dilemma today.
In “Utopia,” More said of that mythical place and people that “They have no lawyers among them, for they consider them as a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters.” Now Neri faces a situation where those “whose profession it is to disguise matters,” whether by means of EO 464 or a purely tactical but meaningless suspension of contracts that have sparked controversy, have forced him out of what should have been the pinnacle of his professional career (the director-generalship of Neda) and into where he is, now.
And that is: he is a virtual prisoner, facing tremendous pressure, who had to belabor the obvious to the Cabinet. When he said he would not perjure himself, it suggests that perjury was an option his peers considered wide open to themselves.
St. Thomas More, on the scaffold, said, “I die the King’s good servant and God’s first.” He believed he could serve both God and country faithfully and well; yet knew, too, that if his country (or his king) insisted on seeing otherwise, God’s law made the king’s law something to endure but not fear. And so, during his trial for treason More used every prudent means to avoid condemning his king for divorcing the queen. And yet he would not budge on his insistence on maintaining fidelity to his Church. He became a martyr not because he freely sought death, but because he would not forsake his faith to please his king. To do wrong to please his monarch was, to his mind, a faithless act, a disservice and disloyalty to God and country.
Neri, under military surveillance, still bound by position to be a servant of the President, called to bear witness before the Senate, must now ponder if he can be the President’s good servant and God’s, too. There are those impatient with Neri’s prudent silence up to now, and who ask, why doesn’t he simply speak up, and get it done with? If Neri is, as is said of him, a person who values his honor, still aren’t there limits on what Neri should do to uphold his personal honor? More once said that “If honor were profitable, everybody would be honorable;” since so many in the Cabinet are not, why should Neri do any more than the minimum required by his conscience? He will not lie; but he will not proclaim the truth from the mountaintops.
Yet St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote, “Teach us to give and not to count the cost.” Does prudence suggest to Neri that there is no sense in his seeking martyrdom over his principles? If so, let him take stock of what he has achieved, so far: the public trusts him. That trust makes me confident he knows he cannot hold back – much less fear that the country won’t mind if the administration holds him back. Were Neri to suddenly be “taken ill” before Wednesday, or to suddenly be covered by a presidential prohibition to testify, the country would know the villains: the President, her Cabinet, her goons. It would acknowledge Neri as their victim.
But rather than letting events unfold, perhaps the Neri the country trusts should trust himself to entrust the truth to the country.
In Chris Lowney’s management book, “Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company That Changed the World,” he describes how St. Ignatius believed anyone could be a leader, and that unlocking that leadership potential was centered on an orientation to show “greater love than fear.”
The dilemma is not that Neri is the President’s good servant and God’s, but rather, he serves God and country. There is a higher law that can arm him with the strength of the ancient Christians as they faced the lions in the arena under the watchful eyes of Caesar’s praetorian guard.