I once asked Mar Roxas why he wanted to be president. His answer was simple: “I want every Filipino to have the sense of limitless opportunities I had growing up.”
It struck me as a supremely worthy ambition, and one, furthermore, grounded not in enabling an infantile dependence on leaders, but instead based on recognizing what leaders ought to do: provide opportunity, while mentoring excellence.
It may be that Roxas would have found it easier to do precisely what he hoped to set out to do had he stayed abroad. He could have taken in a promising Filipino intern or two, and helped them shine in the word of banking and finance. He might have done much for a few, and done his personal wealth a favor. After all, while bankers are generally viewed as prudent, never rash, and generally conservative people, we forget all too often that Roxas had built a career in venture capital, which is not far removed from politics in both its deal-making, and, as has gotten all too familiar in fiction, its buccaneering aspects.
He did the more difficult thing: he came home, to a life he never sought, in fulfillment of a sense of duty he could easily have escaped, with rivals and allies and an electorate so trapped in the many impossibilities of our present-day societies that it would be a perpetually painful, because at times all too implausible, effort to bridge the gap between his sense of limitless possibilities and our cynical certainties.
Consider how easy it is to caricature Mar Roxas whichever way one chooses to consider him, but always from the perspective of a sneering certainty in the vanity and avarice of our fellow man: a scion, endowed both with political and business pedigree, which carries with it both crushing expectations and, all too often, a sense of entitlement and impunity; an Atenean and a graduate of Wharton, propelled, by virtue of education, to be first in line in most undertakings and so, unsurprisingly, who ended up a New York financier. And of course, as we all know Roxas today: a politician.
But again, even in this, his latest incarnation, his identity as a politician, though politics was always inseparable from his very being, was not his first choice – nor the one in which he was ultimately best prepared, either by temperament, much less instinct. His entry into politics was because of a family tragedy: the untimely death of his brother. In a nation where nearly every calling, from the priesthood to the military, the bureaucracy, even arts and letters – indeed, where virtually all the professions, noble and ignoble – have their dynasties, what would impel him to enter government is something that needs little explanation.
But what is relevant here is that if he could move with self-assurance and be regarded as possessing integrity in his career as a banker, he could never be assured of these things. Indeed, outside his milieu, at times he could appear so cautious as to seem paralyzed, and when inspired to take a stand, seem calculated and thus, feigning passing, instead.
And yet what, in the end, is the proper way to judge a public man than to consider the absence of public sins? Never a whiff of graft, even the remotest scent of corruption; never any allegation of manipulation of government rules for personal or familial gain; no talk, ever, of putting self above country, or putting ahead family over community, or setting aside duty in order to heedlessly pursue personal pleasure.
Going into his campaign, these were – and remain – his strengths as a public man. They were and are, however, the things for which a public man can never ask for recognition, nor, if he is truly a virtuous man, can he even point them out. In the end this is the dilemma that confronted Roxas throughout his campaign: in a campaign full of poseurs, to call attention to one’s authenticity becomes a kind of fakery, especially in a field full of fakers to begin with. But the practiced faker appears more genuine than the instinctive conscientious man reduced to making maladroit efforts to be understood.
Having done his damnedest, it may be that Mar Roxas saw that the country could continue down the futile path we’ve collectively been negotiating like suicidal lemmings since 2005. Paul Johnson, in his book, “Heroes,” pointed out that “The Pagan Classical world had an empirical morality which celebrated the skilful and successful use of force. It feasted and immortalized those who were able to wield it. It averted its eyes from failure and regarded the weak and helpless with indifference.”
Our supposedly Christian country, then, has a pagan political culture, and, to borrow Claro M. Recto’s phrase, the “Neros and Caligulas” of our present plying the plebes with rice crises and political circuses were doing so in a manner even Ferdinand Marcos would have considered unbearably uncouth. But here they are – and the choice was starkly evident. In normal circumstances, Roxas could have undertaken a campaign in the ordinary manner and contested the election in all the ordinary ways, but this is not an ordinary time.
Today he is being damned with faint praise. His patriotism and self-sacrifice – his statesmanship – are being proclaimed by many of the same people who probably never liked him, who do not consider his representing anything but frustrated ambition, and who certainly had no intention of voting for him. So in a sense, when Roxas made history Tuesday night, his loss was not theirs. And the false praise resonating among their ranks is like a cloud of incense, a smokescreen to disguise their glee over what they consider his political death.
The only thing buried last Tuesday is the false assumption that nice guys finish last. While Mar became a statesman, he did not raise the bar for himself – he set it, after all – but for others. A standard he could reach is one he can sustain, but fundamentally beyond the reach of his so-called peers.