Saturday, May 06, 2006
Sometime in March 2004, in the heat of the presidential elections, I interviewed Chiz Escudero, then spokesperson for candidate Fernando Poe Jr. While we talked over early breakfast at the Manila Peninsula, several thought balloons popped up in my mind, thoughts I could not include in my article. These are some of those thought balloons.
It’s a pity that those who woo us to hire them as public servants aren’t as public as they should be. I had long been anticipating my interview with FPJ, struggling through the maze of kingmakers and court jesters that form Da King’s cordon sanitaire, careful to protect him from himself.
But the man who sits before me, who begs for a minute to finish his phone interview with DZMM, speaks too fast and confidently into his mobile phone, far from the abbreviated and tentative rejoinders I was prepared for.
This morning I am asked to look beyond the youthful dynamism of Sorsogon Rep. Francis Escudero and pretend that he, as the newly designated official spokesperson, is Da King.
I am not supposed to mind the switch. After all, the congressman extended his hand first and introduced himself by his nickname. I am to be charmed by this. For this breakfast interview, I am Janet and he is Chiz. I think maybe I should have good reason to have a semi-crush on this man, never mind that The Coach and I think Chiz looks like a munggo with ears.
While he shoots rapid-fire reasons for FPJ’s mini-scuffle with a reporter late yesterday, Chiz waves at the waitress to give us a menu. Is he naturally solicitous? Or is this part of his job description? FPJ or the powers behind him choose Da King’s talking head well. Chiz makes me feel almost considerate to FPJ for in effect standing me up—not too bad considering that I still carry in my head Fr. Robert Reyes’s jab against FPJ. Sitting in his Project 4 office with his knapsack still strapped to his back, the priest who runs to steer attention to the country’s burning issues said, “It’s very clear: FPJ is not a bridge to the future. He is a bridge to Erap, who is a bridge to the Marcoses.”
Chiz finishes his phone interview on a high note. His account of how FPJ did not really swing his elbow against the journalist but was merely warding off the pressure of the teeming masses may not have justified FPJ’s much-maligned temper, but it sure did mollify the radio commentators.
Chiz clasps his hands together and smiles, “So how should we do this?”
I smile back. “I ask you questions, and you answer them.”
He laughs. We are off to a good start, especially since my breakfast bacon is crisp and the hot chocolate is like pure cacao concentrate. I hope he won’t mind my first question.
“How would FPJ protect himself from being manipulated by his advisers?” I ask.
And he rattles off, his mind moving faster than his mouth: “One advantage FPJ has is his popularity. He doesn’t need that much resources to win. People flock to him in droves just to hear him speak. That’s a good start. He will not be manipulated later on by vested interests since his winnability is not dependent upon money that a person or business unit will give him but rather on the outpouring of support from the people.”
My editor’s mind paused when he said “winnability,” but I will forgive him since he speaks for FPJ. And because I myself like to forge non-words like “lawyering” and “tanggalable.”
I clear my throat. The Honorable Chiz did not really answer my question. “Well, yes, that is true,” I say. “But many are worried about the people egging FPJ to run, the kingmakers who might take advantage of FPJ’s inexperience in government.”
“That question should also be asked of other candidates,” he shoots back. “All other candidates have kingmakers and backers behind him. For instance, GMA: who is behind her? Why is nobody asking that question? Or is the answer to that already too obvious? The same is true for presidential candidates Ping Lacson and Raul Roco. Who is spending for their campaigns?”
Feint, sidestep, and draw. This man sure knows how not to answer a question. Pretty much like the man he represents. When asked for his qualifications, Da King mentioned his 40 years in showbusiness: “Karanasan ko.” Pause. “My forty years bilang isang artista, kung saan-saan po ako nakarating—sa gubat, bundok at dagat.” Reacting to claims that he had no experience, FPJ said, “Wala daw akong experience. Pero ginampanan ko ang mga papel bilang Muslim, military officer, pulis, jeepney driver, taxi driver, kutsero. At nang minsan ginampanan ko po ang pari.”
How can I press my point further? Chiz is determined not to answer my question. His eyes retain the same level of stoic niceness as when he offered me coffee, unchanging even as he drags on his cigarette or as he launches into animated speech.
“Some candidates have lamented FPJ’s deficiencies in formal education. How will he work and decide on, say, trade agreements?” I ask.
His eyes stretch. What an amazing trick: to stretch the eyes like he is smiling, when he actually is not. “Do you think it’s GMA who’s actually going through the nitty-gritty of contracts or trade agreements?” he confronts me. “If at all Roco will become president, will he actually be going through the details of each transaction? No. One thing we have to rely on, one thing we have to accept, is to trust our civil servants and those in government that they will perform their job regardless of who is the sitting president. That lack of trust also probably explains the utter absence of continuity with respect to our government. People question FPJ’s lack of government experience, but it also means that he has not been tainted by politics. He has not been consumed by the system. There lies our hope for the country and the government.”
I choose to think that Chiz, armed with a law degree from the University of the Philippines, knows exactly what I was driving at, and knows exactly why he frantically needs to persuade me that political naiveté leads to “our hope for the country and the government.”
Sigh… This Artful Dodger has an entire arsenal of verbal maneuvers and sound bites for every question.
So I am not surprised that he can still deify Da King’s failure to list in his Certificate of Candidacy his illegitimate offspring, saying that FPJ’s readiness to admit his extramarital liaisons (after somebody else made the discovery, of course) underscores his honesty and transparency. “FPJ has talked to Ms. Roces about this years ago. That speaks of the character of the person: he’s not afraid of telling the truth, unlike others.”
I scratch my head. Does Chiz mean others like, say, himself?
Anyhow, Chiz continues, “That is another factor to consider. When you’re president, you will stand as father of the nation, and the lines of communication have to be open between the father and his children.” I wince, not only because I cannot imagine FPJ as the father of the nation, but also because there are, particularly now, definitely no lines of communication between me and the Honorable Chiz, spokesperson of FPJ, the father of the nation.
And when I ask him which presidential candidate FPJ would vote for should he withdraw from the presidential race, Chiz threw me a bone: “That’s a very good question.” Translation: I can answer that, without hedging, quibbling or dithering.
He smiles, and it almost reaches his eyes. “If you look at the platforms, there are similarities between him and Bro. Eddie Villanueva, about where they’re coming from. They both seek to inspire new hope in our people. They do not come from politics and have no bad record of unbroken promises. People can hold them to their word.”
Bravo. While Chiz did not actually talk of platforms but personalities, he has chosen the safest presidential bet, one in whose perceived morality and integrity FPJ can take refuge, particularly since Villanueva lags far behind FPJ in the polls. Contrast this with GMA’s curt email reply to the same question: “But I am running.” Or Lacson’s pointed comeback: “I will not vote for GMA.” Or Roco’s obsequiousness: “I’m sorry but I don’t engage in negative thinking. I learned in Journalism 101 not to engage in speculative thinking.” Or Villanueva’s caution: “I will have to carefully study their qualifications.”
But Chiz’s—and hence FPJ’s—crowning comeback is still to come. When I ask if FPJ had done any social or charitable work, he replies: “Only in his private capacity. He has chosen, and this is known in the movie industry, for his charitable acts to be kept private for the simple reason that as stated in the Good Book,”—and he grandly gestures to the Bible peeking through my backpack, caught up in his religiosity—“once a charitable act has been made public, then such charitable act is considered paid for and will no longer receive a grace. That’s why he’s admonished every person he helped to keep the kind act to themselves.” Translation: Whether or not FPJ did any charitable work, you have no means of verifying.
The waitress arrives with more coffee. That is all he takes with his cigarettes. “You are going to die early,” I say, glancing at his breakfast. Then I compose my face into a smile, so he will not think I made a threat.
“I know,” he says. He looks at his watch, and asks for my leave to attend another meeting. He stands, courtly: “I’ll just go to the restroom. Please wait for me. Let’s go out together.” Translation: If I am seen leaving with you and if I grace you with my presence, will you be nice when you write your article about me?
I motion for the waitress to bring the bill, but she politely says that “the congressman has paid for it.” Set, game, and match. There goes my budding journalistic integrity.
I look at the remains of my scrambled eggs hardening in the bacon fat, all the calories trapped in the cholesterol, and I think maybe I should join Fr. Robert in his next protest run.