Wednesday, 3 February 2010

My Lunch With the President

Originally published 1 February 2010
John Mangun
Outside The Box

You may have happened to see that President Arroyo visited the offices of Business Mirror last week for lunch. We are told that this is part of an effort on her part to make her more easily accessible to the press and perhaps at the same time, meet in a friendlier environment.

The luncheon was hosted by Business Mirror owner Ambassador Antonio L. Cabangon Chua, one of the very few men that I hold with the highest degree of respect. Tony would have made a good president except for probably failing as a politician. I think he is too straightforward and outspoken for the political arena. But that is another story.

I have to say that I felt honored to be able to attend this lunch with the President. I know that in the Philippines, we tend to behave and have the mindset of a small village where everyone is ‘equal’ and everyone knows everyone else’s business. I mean tens of millions of Filipinos are constantly and intimately involved in Kris Aquino’s terrible relationship life. Maybe a little too involved. But that is the Philippines.

Sitting and listening to President Arroyo though, made realize some things.

I am not a total stranger to politicians. I have had the pleasure of numerous business meetings and the inevitable after-business-beer with a current presidential candidate with whom I have attended several purely social functions. I have shared an afternoon coffee and brandy with a former President on a couple of occasions. A Vice-President hopeful used to occasionally attend a casual lunch for some local columnists. My local Congressman is a very good person who is always accessible to his ‘ordinary’ friends.

Nevertheless, this lunch with the President was different and made me realize a few things.

I had briefly met the President once before, soon after she became Vice-President. Of course, that was a ‘lifetime’ ago and the responsibilities and the years change people. But I can say that then she seemed ‘fresher’, less burdened than she does now. Of course, that is to be expected now that she has weathered nine years as the leader of 90 million Filipinos.

But as I listened to the chat at the lunch table, I realized that there were actually three persons sitting at the head of the table. There was Gloria Macapagal Arroyo the President of the Philippines, Arroyo the politician, and Gloria the person, all three very different personalities.

The President struck me as someone who had grown into the duties and responsibilities of the job well. If the President is the Chief Executive Officer of the country, then this lady knows her job. She had the facts and data at her fingertips as a good CEO should. And when she was unsure, she had the professionalism and self-confidence to both admit that and to pledge to find out what the truth of the matter was. The President had a sense of self-confidence that was both appropriate and satisfying.

The Politician was more predictable and in truth, as with all politicians, slightly annoying. It is just the nature of the game. A politician must by definition cast themselves in the most favorable light and defend the record without being too obvious in defending their record.

The Person was much more interesting and enjoyable to be around than the Politician. She spoke with one of the other women at the table about a slight allergy she was having, her doctor’s advice, and the exchange between the two women was typical and pleasant.

The three personalities of the President, Politician, and Person were always there and came out in intriguing ways.

Mrs. Arroyo began speaking about education and the needs of the country. She said, as the Politician, that her Administration had built more classrooms than any other President. But then the ‘President/CEO” said that she had fought hard to make the bureaucracy understand that it was acceptable to just build even first and second grade classrooms for the time being until a full elementary school could be completed because it was a good positive start. Then the Person, who obviously does have a keen interest in the children’s education, took over describing what she had seen and heard visiting schools around the nation. She sounded like a parent who could identify with other parents trying to build a better life for their children.

Certainly when you vote for an officeholder, you must consider all the three parts including the Politician and Person as well as the Position. However, the political and election process keeps us from ever getting a clear picture of the Person, who after all, maybe the most important part . . . or maybe not. I know of one Senator who is perhaps one of the most disagreeable people I have ever met. I personally cannot understand how anyone could ever like this person. Yet as a Senator, I do not think you could find any more knowledgeable or hardworking office holder.

We take too much of our impressions of the candidate and existing office holders from the press and media. The campaign trail is about as close to reality as Disneyland. One new aspect of American politics is the Town Hall meeting where a small group of citizens go one on one with the candidate as the exchange is televised. This might be something that should be tried in the Philippines. I think it would be good for both the people and the politicians. And more importantly, I think both could handle the familiarity and closeness, free of press and media interference.

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