7/24/2017
State of the leader

Noynoy Aquino had many shortcomings when it came to delivering speeches, especially ones that pertained to policy. He always rushed through his speeches, breathlessly going through the paces, never pausing to let what he just said sink in for his audience. Sometimes you could hear - or at least you imagined to hear - his saliva accumulating in his mouth, poised at any moment to trigger a choking fit. Almost all of the time, however, he coughed.

It's basic speech, but then, that could be forgiven if he had something substantial to say. Well, sure, he did, but his other problem was how he wrapped everything in hyperbole. His six State of the Nation Addresses carried variations of how things are much better now that he is in charge. His presence, he contended, has ushered in a newfound confidence in the country, one that has brought it to irresistible new heights. To some extent, it is true, but as the years passed and his administration was rocked by allegations of corruption and accusations of incompetence, he stuck to his message - and looked like a tone-deaf politician at best, or a typical lying politician at worst. Or, for me, a petulant kid refusing to listen to anybody else.

Rodrigo Duterte has tonight delivered his second State of the Nation Address, and like his first, it shows off his shortcomings when it came to delivering speeches. While he seemed more comfortable this time - perhaps aided by the less outrageous cinematography of Brillante Mendoza - to an extent he still wanted to be somewhere else, or do something else. He progressively mumbled through his prepared remarks, seeming uninterested, at one point even telling the teleprompter operator to skip some parts.

He got animated only when he was speaking off-the-cuff. It's something he clearly relishes: his prosecutor mind clicking into place, him spouting anecdotes off the top of his head, going with the flow, never mind whether it was a misconception or a troll-fueled conspiracy theory. He would make for a fun college professor.

Chances are, if you missed the whole address and are just watching highlights on the news, you would not get much in the way of policy. Not that there aren't any - there was something interesting in his speech about reforming procurement law, for one; you're also likely to hear about his call for the United States to return the Balangiga bells to the country - but it tends to get lost in his more outrageous pronouncements, the ones where he springs to life. "When you add 'human rights' and 'due process', you stink." "Talagang bully ako, putang ina, especially to the enemies of the state." "This media, lalo na 'yung ABS, kunin lang nila 'yung 'kill them'."

That last bit is interesting. Duterte was ranting about how the media always cheery-picks from his statements, supposedly to make him look bad. (It's a pet peeve of his, being made to look bad. Also see: his different opinions of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, his thinly-veiled anger towards human rights advocates, his castigation of opposition senators who didn't clap throughout his address.) And yes, he may have a point about that: the media, through a combination of limited time, financial considerations and a need for shock value, will grab the most succinct encapsulation of a long, rambling speech. But then, Duterte enjoys making sound bites. Duterte enjoys making outrageous sound bites. He wants to rile people up. He wants to look like he's on top of things. He wants to look like he's in control. After all, what else screams "independent foreign policy" than constantly throwing middle fingers at his sworn enemy, the United States?

Duterte has made a political reputation for being off-the-cuff, for speaking his mind. It's what his supporters like about him. Unlike, say, Aquino, whose insistence on positivity just made him a delusional loony particularly to those who always see the opposite, Duterte at least is real, frank, straightforward - and that, supposedly, makes him a better leader, one who can bring genuine and lasting change to a country that's thirsty for it. I will have to admit that it is refreshing, especially after six years of "tuwid na daan", but at the same time it does get in the way of what needs to be said.

If you take away the adlibs, you'll notice that he said little that we don't already know. He barely sold his tax reform package, only congratulating the Lower House for passing it (and begging the Upper House to do so) while Filipinos have expressed apprehension about whether it would mean rising prices. He failed to connect the dots between his much-paraded "golden age of infrastructure" and his calls for manufacturers to build more facilities in the country. Even his pet subject - peace and order, as signified by his campaign against illegal drugs and his battle for Marawi, the subject of recently extended martial law - didn't get much shrift. While that got him excited, as he recalled his love for the armed forces, he spent more time castigating his critics, hoping, as nicely as possible, that they see things his way.

Duterte may love this country more than you ever will, but you wonder if he is really on top of things, or if he is leaving his lieutenants to handle what he deems the least appealing parts of being president, while he gets to focus on the things he finds fun: giving away guns, making sure they are shot at the "right" people, and ensuring the elites get screwed over by his disjointed take on social democracy.

Instead, you got a series of rambling rants about whatever strikes his fancy, vaguely aided by a script he would not stick to. If he was up on the podium to talk about the state of the Philippines, a year after he rode a populist (and all-encompassing) wave to power, you might think he's better off writing his own speech - at least you wouldn't have to suffer from constant whiplash stemming from his off-script adventures. But I don't think he cares about that. He's president. He gets to do what he wants. At one point, he suggested that he only cares about pleasing the people that voted for him, the 16 million people he erroneously called a majority. (He only got 39% of the vote.) Those people are likely to walk away from his address believing it to be substantial, informative, better than that guy he replaced. They may think that, at last, the change every other president promised and failed to deliver is finally here. And they may be right, to an extent.

The rest of us, however, saw a man who feels aggrieved all his life, despite trying his best, and now that he has a soapbox, he's complaining about everything he could complain about. It may seem more like a State of the Leader Address, but come to think of it, he's not the only one frustrated. All of us are. That, in all its polarizing glory, is the state of the nation.

And your responses...

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