January 28, 2007

Juan L. Mercado

Of giants and dwarfs

Historian Ambeth Ocampo once wished aloud, in his Philippine Daily Inquirer column, that he’d “been born 30 years earlier.” Why?

“I could have seen the Philippine Senate in an age that now seems legendary.” The historian in Ocampo yearned to have tracked, on the Senate floor, giants like Claro M. Recto or Jose Diokno.

Ocampo’s longing resonates in people. Many sneer at today’s Senate, peopled by dwarfs. “Lito” Lapid, Ramon Revilla or Jinggoy Estrada, of “Jingle Bells” notoriety in the aborted impeachment trial, are not in the class of an Emmanuel Pelaez or Lorenzo Sumulong. .

Midgets plagued the previous Senate: from failed-coup specialist Gringo Honasan to toilet-humor comedian Tito Sotto. Tito shares family name with Senator Vicente Sotto who crafted the landmark law that shields journalists from revealing sources of information. Little else. “Brainless children boast of their ancestors,” the Chinese say.

Come election time, 12 senate seats will fall vacant. Terms are ending for, among others: Ramon Magsaysay, the ineffective Luisa “Loi” Estrada, Sergio Osmeña III, Joker Arroyo, the tough human rights lawyer who fought the Marcos dictatorship and nailed down “Jose Velarde”. “The Arroyo who should be in Malacañang is not Gloria but Joker,” writes Inquirer columnist Isagani Cruz. “And I’m not joking.”

Aspirants are thrice the number of seats. Most are innocent of competence or service. Yet, they’d vault into the league of a Benigno Aquino or a Cipriano Primicias. None have the candor of a Macbeth who admitted: “I have no spur/ to prick the sides of my intent/ But vaulting ambition.” In this country, brothels are built with the bricks of altruism.

If elections were today, among those who’d probably make the “Magic 12” are dwarfs like Sotto and Honasan, says a Social Weather Stations survey. Others would include Panfilo Lacson of the Marcos dictatorship’s torture chamber, Korina Sanchez, Peter Cayetano, San Juan mayor J.V. Ejercito.

What a pathetic line-up. And how does it square with the recent analysis with Urban Poor Associates: “People are tired of being used as pawns in the elite’s wars” that don’t address their basic needs”, it asserts. “The instincts of our people are right,” adds Melba Padilla Maggay from the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture. “They spurn a politics reduced to a contest for power by one set of crooks and another.”

Does electability hinge on “stardust”? We are a people hooked on entertainment. Voters demand candidates sing and dance, not apply their minds to issues that spell life or death for a country. Communication is a key factor. The cell phone, which helped trigger People Power Two, spread over the world in 11 years. Compared that to the 46 years that electricity’s 46 years. Name recall, from multi-media, can turn into an opiate for a people addicted to trivia.

I don’t have the answer. “Et ees a puzzlement,” as Yul Brynner says in “The King And I” movie. But the Senate press box today remains a front seat into history. Older journalists, like us, who worked out of it, did see a Senate “in an age,” as Ocampo put it, “that now seems legendary.”

Senators we covered included: Raul Manglapus, Gil Puyat, Manny Manahan. They were shaped by a tradition that Manuel Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, Sr. and Manuel Roxas blazed: the Senate as training ground for future presidents.

Elected at large, senators viewed issues with broader vision than the parochial Lower House. “When Congress makes a joke, it’s a law,” Will Rogers once cracked. “When it makes a law, it’s a joke.” The Senate provided balance for governance beyond cramped congressional fiefdoms. Ambrosio Padilla, or Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo effectively bridged differences.

And always, there was the over-riding factor of impeccable credentials.

“Look at Oscar,” said Senator Tañada chatting with reporters in press row. He pointed to the simply dressed Senator Ledesma quietly working at his desk. “No airs. See his simple barong. Pero walang utang yan,” he added. Tañada, who never wasted praises, then added of the self-effacing former city mayor, commerce secretary and ambassador: “Not a breath of scandal either. The perfect gentleman.”

How did so valuable an institution become so devalued?

Abolition of bloc voting in 1956 eroded the two party support for senators, who were then left on their own, Columnist Manuel Quezon III points out. “It also meant ‘electability’ became even more crucial.”

Matinee star Rogelio de la Rosa’s 1958 election breached the old system, now swamped with tinsel celebrities who’d sit where a luminary like Jovito Salonga did. Dictator Ferdinand Marcos padlocked the Senate. He thereby ensured that no rival emerged. “Nothing grows under the canopy of a banyan tree.” Marcos shattered flawed institutions and installed a kleptocracy that lupus cut short. This saw an incompetent-actor emerge as president who ended in the clink.

Decent competent senators like Juan Flavier and Ramon Magsaysay work in a Senate of devalued systems.” The “Craven Eleven” triggered People Power Two revolt by obstruction of justice. And “probes in aid of legislation” invariably fizzle out. Senate investigation of jueteng went pffft.

We’ve stumbled into what historian Barbara Tuchman calls the “Age of Disruption”: a period when swift unsettling changes slaps a premium on that “rarest of resources”: competent visionary leadership. And now here come Tito, Gringo Peter et al offering puff.

(E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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