A joke going around goes like this. Why did the President’s husband stay behind in the USA even as the President “rushed” home to make it to Cory’s wake? Answer: he has to wash the dishes at Le Cirque after he tried to pay for the dinner with Martin Romualdez’s credit card.
What should be the appropriate context for evaluating whether the public response to that revelation of a $20,000 dinner for the President and her hangers-on reflects a genuine issue, or simply the deep dislike most people seem to have for our chief executive and most of officialdom?
The first is the public expectation that our presidents must “show the flag,” and that means even if we’re a poor country, our chief executives as head of state are accorded the widest latitude in asserting their status because it’s also an assertion of our existence as a sovereign nation. For that reason, the President’s staying at the Waldorf-Astoria raised few eyebrows, not least because as a hotel used to handling heads of state, billeting the President there makes some sense.
But if this is so, why then should a meal at New York’s Le Cirque kick up such a fuss? The primary reason seems to be the contrast between the President and her party enjoying themselves while her countrymen lined up hours in the heat and the rain to pay tribute and express grief and appreciation for one of her predecessors, during a period of national mourning proclaimed by the President herself.
I think we are a reasonable people and I’ve seen many reasonable reactions among those expressing criticism of the President’s anniversary dinner. Quite a few pointed out that had the President been able to point to some reason of state – a dinner for the purpose of courting foreign investments, for example, or to secure diplomatic support for a Philippine initiative – the country might’ve written the dinner off as a justifiable case of official lobbying.
But it was a purely personal occasion celebrated among fair-weather friends; and again, quite a few pointed out that had the President eaten at the same place with her husband and children the country might have been inclined to respect their desire for a treat to mark a personal milestone in the First Family’s lives. Instead the whole kit and caboodle dined out, when there has been sustained public criticism on the composition of the President’s official party to begin with as excessively large.
It was also the manner in which the President’s anniversary bash came to public attention that immediately imbued it with rather unsavory connotations of subterfuge the Palace can’t shake off, even if Representative Romualdez has taken the bullet for the President (and the Cebu businessman whom some quarters believe actually footed the bill). It only served to underscore the contrast between the public expressions of sympathy by the President and the hesitant, even bumbling, manner officialdom – beginning with the President herself -actually responded to Cory’s death.
There was the ineptly edited tape sent by the Palace to TV stations showing the President breaking out into a big smile after concluding her public statement on Cory’s passing.
There was Cerge Remonde saying the President would cut short her trip, but not short enough that what she’d scheduled as a wedding anniversary Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was passed off as a memorial Mass for Cory; the gesture being proven hollow again, by the subsequent revelation of the anniversary dinner.
And, even before the dinner was trumpeted in the New York Post’s infamous Page Six, Remonde, taking pains to say the President was skipping an original side trip to Guam, and head straight for Manila to make it to the wake, couldn’t shrug off strong suggestions from Filipino-Americans themselves for the President to get on the first available plane right after the St. Patrick’s Mass.
Remonde said President Arroyo could have flown anytime she wished had she been on a chartered flight, but she was going on a commercial flight to save money. So, instead of New York-Manila, she went New York-Los Angeles where she skulked around, without the Filipino community in the area, according to Greg Macabenta, even knowing about it.
A case of presidential paralysis due to overanalysis over the consequences of Cory’s death? Or sheer ambivalence? You do the math: blogger Market Manila pointed out the President must have known Cory died by 4 p.m., yet after her subsequent meeting with Hillary Clinton, it took a Filipino reporter to inform Clinton that Cory had died – the President had apparently considered it too unimportant to mention. And the “rushing home” trumpeted by Remonde was truly at a snail’s pace: Aug. 2-3 in New York; Aug. 3-4 in Los Angeles; a photo finish arrival for the last hours of the wake, when the President could’ve been home at least a full day earlier.
It’s important to point these things out because the public noticed the President’s insecurity and how her officials shared that insecurity, setting them apart from the rest of a country united in commemoration and sadness. Just as it noticed Ambassador Lagdameo studiously downplaying the importance of Cory during a stint as a guest on the BBC.
And just as it noticed the government stations trying to pretend there wasn’t a massive public tribute to Cory going on, and choosing to broadcast the President’s speeches instead. And how, when the President finally appeared at the Cathedral, an NBN announcer breathlessly cooed, “It was amazing, the grace under pressure of our president, to go to the funeral despite jet lag and a busy schedule.”
There’s the problem right there. Could it have been different if the public had been informed of an anniversary dinner in the first place? Probably not; the disconnect was obvious from the start.