A character sketch of a man both uncomplicated and complex
It is no coincidence that Davao is considered the heartland for the Philippine eagle, and that when terrorists bombed the city, a meme sprang up on Facebook comparing the President to an eagle; thus he began to be portrayed, and remains venerated by many, as the Great Eagle Father of the country.
As the latest SWS survey shows, the Great Eagle Father is overwhelmingly the pride of Mindanao. And his national numbers point to great satisfaction. The September 24 to 27 results show 76% satisfied, 11% dissatisfied, and 13% undecided. His standing is nearly supreme compared to his predecessors in the first surveys of their presidencies: Cory Aquino 78%, FVR 70%, Estrada 69%, GMA 42%, and B. Aquino, 71%. (A note on the number that has stuck in everyone’s minds: in June 2010, Benigno S. Aquino III who won with 42% of the votes, obtained an 88% trust rating. In June 2016, Rodrigo Roa Duterte who won with 39% of the votes, obtained a 91% trust rating: SWS has yet to release the September, 2016 results for this).
As the President marks his first hundred days in office, there will be commentary aplenty on his governance, achievements, and shortcomings. In the first place let’s remember neither he nor his team wanted to commemorate this milestone; they had preferred to mark the first fifty days. Such milestones, when you think of it, are arbitrary: 100 Days dating only to the Cory Aquino administration and borrowed, in turn, from Franklin D. Roosevelt half a century before; 50 Days proved so new, the public had a hard time digesting it. But what you and I can do is reflect on the President, and the presidency, and that combination of the new and old that is uniquely his.
So the first thing we should realize is that he is more than himself; he is first and foremost the fulfillment of a long-delayed victory for both his part of the country, Mindanao, and his enthnic identity as a Cebuano. But beyond being Cebuano and a Mindanawon, how well do we really know the President? To be sure, he is a vivid figure in the imagination of our people, and that applies to fans and skeptics alike. It is fair to say that nearly everyone will recognize his victory in May as a historic event.
Three facts reveal how historic because long-delayed this victory was. It has been 70 years since the country last had an ethnic Cebuano as president (Osmeña); 55 years since we have had a non-Luzonian president (Garcia); and 51 years since the last Mindanawon presidential contender, Emmanuel Pelaez (elected vice-president in 1961) was defeated by Marcos in the 1965 Nacionalista party convention.
The second thing is to realize that he has—temporarily—reversed the natural generational-shift in leadership for a predominantly very young country as far as our population goes. The President, who was born in 1945, is the first, and also the last, of his generation to make it to the highest office in the land: But in President Duterte we have what will almost certainly be the last president born during the colonial era, and the last born in the first half of the 20th Century.
He thus represents a generation that was essentially cheated of its chance to hold national power when martial law eliminated what could have been presidential elections in 1973, 1977, 1981 and 1985 (if we’d retained four-year terms). Instead, after EDSA, from 1986 to 1998 we had leaders born before World War II. Only in 2001 did the country finally have its first president born a citizen of an independent Philippines (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo); it seemed inevitable that a president born in the 60s (B. Aquino) would be followed by a president born between the late 50s and mid-70s. No coincidence, then, that early on, as he was assembling his cabinet, some estimates pegged the average age of his official family at 66 years old.
His belonging to the generation that came of age in the 50s and 60s tells us his frame of reference is longer, and deeper, than most of those chattering away on who he is and what he is like. He has been fully immersed in a time when the past flowed into his then-present (now his and our collective past) in a more real manner than can ever be possible today, when the “old days” is merely the 1980s or 90s for most. In this sense, his brash behavior and dismissive informality; his zigzagging diplomatically, his making statements that raise eyebrows, his executive impatience and penchant for confronting critics, even his belief in destiny, all have firm foundations in the behavior of his predecessors and the prominent politicos of his youth. This is neither shared nor known by most Filipinos today. But he knows.
Add to this that while he puts forward an air of humility and speaks of deprivation and modest beginnings, nothing can erase the fact that he is—and betrays often enough a touchy pride in being—from a “somebody” family. There is a striking photograph of the young Rody Duterte glaring at the camera, standing by a big American car bearing a “Governor” license plate.
We know very little about Vicente G. Duterte, but the little that we know suggests the President is prickly about him precisely because his old man was an impressive figure who belonged to a family that was nothing to sneeze at in local politics (the Dutertes are the only family aside from the Osmeñas to have produced two mayors of Cebu City: Ramon Duterte in 1957 and Ronald Duterte in 1983; Danao).
As for Vicente, he had served, after all, as mayor of Danao (1946; the city would then become the preserve of the Duranos whose patriarch, Ramon Senior, was married to the President’s cousin, Beatriz Duterte) and governor of Davao (1958) when it was still an immense province. He also served in the first Marcos cabinet (as Secretary of General Services in 1967). As the President recounted just the other day, “My father was one of the two who stood by Marcos in his darkest hours. Everybody was shifting to the Liberal at that time, kay Diosdado Macapagal. And it was only Ebarle and my father who stood by Marcos.” Mark Cojuangco pointed out this was when there was a showdown in the Liberal Party between Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos bolted the party, joined the Nacionalistas, and toppled Macapagal in the 1965 election.
He himself has added that a grandfather was Chinese, a grandmother, Maranao, important inheritances, too. While these established his Dabawenyo and Mindanawon bonafides, we have to reflect on the distinct possibility that the President’s mother was the political outlier in the family: she was well known (and by all accounts, well-beloved) as an activist and a Yellow crusader against the dictatorship—after her husband had passed away; before that, she was the disciplinarian in the family. A revealing interview of the President’s sister last May tells us:
“But though Vicente was the politician, it was Nanay Soleng who could talk for hours on end and command attention with her loud voice and disciplinarian ways. Vicente was ‘soft-spoken’ and ‘gentle,’ exuding his strength in silence, says Jo.
“If Nanay Soleng would shout at her children and punish them by making them kneel on monggo (mung bean) seeds in front of a crucifix, Vicente preferred to talk to his children.
“The opposing characteristics of their parents would combine in their eldest son, says Jo.
“’In the mayor’s character, you will see the toughness of the mother. But his heart, his acts of kindness—that, I think, comes from my dad,’ she says.”
The President’s sister described her brother Rody as a prankster, a rebel, fond of guns and fast cars (and later, famously, of motorcycles): recklessness not unusual for a man of his social status. What we get is a picture of a man who, for all his being a black sheep, who was devastated by the death of his father (involving a story of what seems to be political betrayal, which surely rankled), who may have done badly in school but well enough to become a lawyer; who served in the Marcos government even as his mother ended up opposing it, and who made a name for himself as the kingpin of Davao in a newly-restored democracy of which he seems to have always been rather contemptuous.
These are not contradictions; they are the messy circumstances surrounding all climbs to, and the holding of, power. Far from being unique, in many ways he is clearly a man of his place, class, and time.
I have long argued that the formative institutions for those belonging to both the middle and upper classes in the country are three: Church, Clubs, and School. It is to the Church that, much as he demonstrates an ambiguous attitude, he owes his intellectual development. By all accounts, his being a wide reader owes to a period when he had to leave the Ateneo de Davao and ended up in a school where he had little else to do but read—which he took up avidly; he is a club man in both formal and informal terms, belonging to a fraternity and a brotherhood (the Guardians); and he is a proud alumnus of San Beda which has its own uniquely combative culture.
Where his being unique comes in is how he handled the specific problems of a very specific place, Davao. In the same manner we forget one of Davao City’s claims to fame: that it is, in terms of land area, the largest city in the Philippines. To be master of this near-infinite domain, as the President was three decades, in an island of almost unimaginable, because contiguous, vastness is to possess a sense of place nearly impossible to imagine for outsiders. He likes to claim he never imagined, and never prepared for, the presidency. But if any job requires self-assurance and the conviction one can get things done—as good a preparation to be head of a nationwide barangay which the presidency essentially is, to the people themselves—then Davao was perfect.
An admiring but illuminating study of the man who would be president comes from his former chief of staff. Admirers will, of course, wholeheartedly agree with how she explains him; everyone else will surely profit from reading what she has to say. The meat of the matter, to me, is this:
“He communicates best when he tells a story and his stories are usually long with a lot of digression. He might appear to be rambling on without a point but if you listen closely, you will get it and you will even get a glimpse of how his mind works. He can tell a story countless times but there will always be a new twist or a new insight that will be revealed that wasn’t there the previous time.
“Duterte is actually easy to figure out because his general principles are clear. He is all about equality, justice and fairness. Some of us may disagree with some of his methods in achieving that but everything he does is motivated by those principles. So if you want to know how he would handle certain things, look at it from the perspective of what would promote equality, be more just, and what is fair to everyone.
“He is also a very impatient man. So people who work for him and with him must understand this about him early on. Everything will be urgent and must be dealt with right away. Do not wait for a memo. Just do it already. That is why it is important that you know your job and what you are supposed to do from the get go. He will not give you a welcome orientation and a set of dos and don’ts. If you are doing a good job, he will just let you be. But expect to hear from him, very loudly, if I may add, if you are not doing well.
“Duterte is like Yoda. For him, it is ‘Do or do not. There is no try.’ So if you want to be a part of his team, you better be good at solving problems and finding ways to get things done. Preferably without bothering him with every little thing or whining about how hard it is.
“Character is more important to Duterte than skill. And that is why he subjects people around him to random tests without them knowing that they are being tested. He wants to see how people would react and handle things given a particular situation. It is not unusual for him to start a rumor just to find out who he can trust and who he cannot. It is like that game ‘pass the message’ but with a twist. He will also try to tempt you with all sorts of things just to see what your weaknesses are. Don’t worry, he will not judge you. He will only use that information in deciding where you can best be useful to him and his mission.
“There will always be factions and divisions in any organization. This does not faze Duterte. In fact, he uses that to his advantage. For him, he sees rivalries as opportunities to learn more about each person’s character and motives. It helps him craft more effective strategies and tactics to accomplish his mission.
“Of course, he is not always right and he does make mistakes. And he is humble enough to admit them and rectify these mistakes. Because he is very self-aware, he knows his strengths and limitations. So he is not shy in asking for help from people who are smarter and better than him.”
In other words, this is a man who requires interpretation only if you have not been paying attention, if you do not pause to see what is consistent in what he has said, in which case everything else is merely a tactical smokescreen; who has very fixed, and clear, ideas of what he wants to do, and how he will do it; who has stayed in power for three decades by playing off –and wiping out, whether by political or other means—all comers.
The inexhaustible ability to engage in “duro,” with its escalating taunting and bruising language; the tenacity required to be “malakas” and never “mahina,” the tireless clientelism and implacable force that makes and keeps you a Boss in a land where “Bossism” is a particular brand of political leadership; the careful cultivation of ideologically-motivated lieutenants to give bureaucratic sheen to his populist rhetoric: all these reveals a man in whom the local, regional, and national all come together in a society whose political culture one American observer (accurately) described as “personalistic but violent, religious but superstitious, corrupt but tolerant, hierarchical but distributionist, solicitous of form but not of content, legalistic, but careless of equity, media-obsessed and nationalistically vociferous with respect to rights but negligent to obligations.” It is a culture confronted with modernity and distinctly uneasy with all that implies.
That is the man in his mileu. It is messy, undefined, inherently contradictory yet surprisingly clear, because he is like the rest of us, defined by the past and ambivalent about the future.
In the face of this ambivalence, rage is the result. Someone must be blamed; and whoever is the scapegoat must be hunted down. Call in the sheriff! Obosen. A recipe for vendetta.
In fact one can argue that to understand him is to understand the vendetta raging in the majority of our countrymen’s hearts: against the poor who get benefits, against the rich who exercise impunity, against a modern economy with its globalized merciless trends, the tedious long-term planning resulting in a dissatisfying absence of instant solutions, the talk-talk-talk of civil society about processes and empowerment when actually, people just want daddy to know best –all the better to blame daddy later. And, as daddy never fails to remind friends and foes alike, the list of the vendettas in which he has engaged is long and bloody indeed.
And here is the aspect of the Great Eagle Father that is unavoidable because he glories in it: instilling fear is the foundation of power–according to Machiavelli’s prescription that is far better to be feared than to be loved. And fear is fostered by firmness in doing what it takes: as he said in 1989, “shoot-to-kill can never be shoot-to-live.” The ultimate veto –against life itself.
To be able to exercise that veto at will requires a special something. What is it? A public document –because a court order annulling a marriage—was reported in this manner:
“In its April 20 report, ABS-CBN cited the report prepared by Dr. Natividad Dayan, former president of the International Council of Psychologists. Zimmerman used Dayan’s report as evidence in annulment proceedings she initiated against Duterte in 1998 before the Pasig City Regional Trial Court.
“The report concludes that Duterte is suffering from Antisocial Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Dayan described the disorder as a condition characterised by ‘gross indifference, insensitivity and self-centeredness.’ Persons with the disorder have a ‘grandiose sense of self-entitlement and manipulative behaviors’ and ‘pervasive tendency to demean, humiliate others and violate their rights and feelings.’”
That is a clinician’s take on things.
And yet: It is a truism that no one really knows a president: political life does not reward candor–because we should not confuse the surface characteristics of being outspoken, impulsive, or decisive, with knowing the true nature of a chief executive. Long experience teaches compartmentalization; it demands not just keeping your cards close to you chest, but an opacity that breeds mystery, which is essential if you are to keep friends and foes alike on their toes.
Whether Great Eagle Father or Godfather, then, it seems to be the best way to approach the man, is in the manner he approaches others. To read and listen to the stories he loves to tell; to find the patterns in his tales. You will find no better examples than two such speeches over recent days. At the Masskara festival in Bacolod, and before Local Government leaders in Makati. There you will see what sets him apart: he has a long memory, in a nation living in the constant present; he is unambiguous about imposing his will on a people who have long wanted someone to decide things for them; and that he has a great gift for mimicry (watch him poke fun at Secretary Yasay in Bacolod and imitate Ferdinand Marcos in Makati)—which is why, at the end of the day, to an overwhelming majority of our countrymen, when they see him, they see themselves.