Benigno S. Aquino III wasn’t only an honorable man, he believed that honor mattered. Belonging, as he did, to the generation for which the words of Churchill still resonated, I think it entirely appropriate to offer up that statesman’s words on his immediate predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, because what he said in 1940 applies to the loss we suffered in 2019.
“It is not given to human beings,” he told the Commons, “happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days. What is the worth of all this? The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations; but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.”
Back in 2008, Randy David observed: “Our leaders and rulers, on the other hand, suffer from a nobility deficit. A sense of honor, drawn from tradition, no longer deters or restrains them. The poverty and ignorance of the masses bring out the predator rather than the hero in them. They take advantage of the weaknesses of the legal system and the persistence of the old habits of an unequal society, even as the old values like delicadeza no longer compel them.”
Honor is that fine line that, even in the absence of a statutory prohibition, an official won’t cross, all other lines, politics being what it is, being equal. The difference perhaps between a Fidel V. Ramos, for all his shortcomings, who moved heaven and earth to amend the Constitution but handed over power to his elected successor, and those who argued in Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration that the national interest called for any means necessary to prevent a Poe presidency (and Poe himself, who took the national interest to heart and stayed the hand of mob rule when he could have unleashed it after his defeat).
Aquino had that sense of honor, informed by tradition, primarily that of his parents’ service, but he was also willing to break precedent in the interest of the common good. This is best demonstrated by the difference between Aquino as a president capable of being outraged by his predecessor violating the constitutional prohibition on midnight appointments (so that she could put in place a chief justice midwifed by a convenient precedent-breaking decision by the high court), and his successor shrugging off the same court eliminating that chief justice’s replacement through the kind of dexterous reconfiguration of old legal precepts to suit the present, that was the true and longstanding legal legacy of Marcos Sr. and his minions such as Estelito Mendoza. Aquino would fight in the light of day and in the political arena (which is what impeachment is) while to undo his good work legal legerdemain had to be resorted to. The old habits had to persist; the legal system could not resist its own arbiters redefining matters to accomplish what can be described as a self-coup; all under the assumption, accurate as it turned out, that observers would not or could not tell the difference.
Aquino was the last of his line; he took the leadership his family and background represented to its furthest extent.
Proof of this was how Aquino had an almost missionary zeal when it came to believing that the public valued rationality and facts. Yet he himself had experiences aplenty to prove otherwise.
I remember one senior citizen going up to him and telling him how he’d not only voted for him, but had been a passionate admirer of his father. “I loved hearing him speak,” the senior enthusiastically reminisced, as the president smiled. “I had no idea what he was saying but he said it with such conviction I had to believe!” The president just shook his head in reply.
Later on, when, in the midst of some issue or another, the president insisted on the facts, time and again he discovered, as all officials do sooner or later, that the Philippine government’s relationship with facts is a tenuous one at best, because no vetted fact is ever fresh enough to be much use and what is needed now more often than not has been manufactured elsewhere by someone far less scrupulous. An enormous amount of time, including the inevitable raging behind the scenes, was spent trying to find out the facts, on the increasingly slender, it seemed to me, a premise that if only given these, the public would understand.
This is how I came to believe that in witnessing the old-fashioned “bomba” (in the sense of detonating a bomb) style of his father, Aquino III overlooked what made the machine-gun facts of Aquino Jr. so politically lethal.
What was needed were three things: the facts themselves, the style of delivery, and the appetite of the public for these dramatic public executions by means of exposés. Aquino Jr. and Aquino III both had a mastery of marshaling facts; the father may have been more flamboyant, rhetorically, but the son developed his own effective style; but what the father enjoyed that the son did not was a public with an appetite for such things. Or to be precise, the era sandwiched by the two Aquino presidencies was the sunset of such things, which rapidly became extinct so that by 2022, the electorate was telling the surveys 69 percent would be influenced to vote against candidates presenting accusations involving anomalies by rivals and 75 percent would do likewise against anyone perceived to be destroying the character or reputations of other candidates. This change in public opinion is a change in public values: it makes both the electorate and candidates immune to the very relevance of graft and corruption, and honesty in the selection of leaders. We are left, not with honor, but merely amor propio.