(Editor’s Note: The presidential profiles will be running in no particular order but as the stories come in from our reporters in the field.)
(Eighth of a series)
MANILA, Philippines—He looked more like a cockfighter’s kristo—a bet caller —than a presidential candidate as he waved a fistful of paper notes with one hand and held up the back of his sliding Paddock’s jeans with the other in a late-night rally in Zamboanga City whose size could rival that of an Eraserheads’ reunion concert.
With his thinning hair, stooped shoulders and awkward gait, Sen. Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino III could not care less about his looks in a campaign where he faces the most expensive political bid ever mounted in the Philippines and one of the most vicious personal attacks against a presidential candidate in history.
In the course of the 90-day campaign, Aquino has proven that looks, and a person’s biodata, can be deceiving.
Put down by his critics at the start of the campaign as “walang alam”—a know-nothing—just like his late widowed mother who dared to challenge a brilliant but ruthless dictator in 1986, the 50-year-old Aquino has surprised a lot of his cynics with his self-confidence, keen grasp of major issues, and his diligence in doing his homework before facing the media and other organizations.
His opponents claimed that he would be unmasked in the presidential debates, but Aquino appeared intelligent, well-prepared and poised in these forums and was never the one to pass up on answering a thorny issue such as the Hacienda Luisita case and doubts on his state of mental health. He was modest, warm, folksy and appreciative when meeting people in motorcades and town rallies far from the cold and snotty hacendero he was pictured to be by his foes.
“He has grown before our eyes in the campaign and proved himself worthy as our next president. I never saw this side of Noy before, because he always looked ordinary to me being the son of a martyr and democracy’s saint,” said Albay Gov. Joey Salceda, an adviser to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a strategist of the administration candidate Gilbert “Gibo” Teodoro until a month ago, and a classmate of Aquino at Ateneo de Manila University.
“He has earned and gained a stature that is his own and has shown his mettle under pressure and amidst criticisms from his opponents. It was actually there all along and I have seen it up close, but I guess it’s only now that he is given the opportunity to show it to people other than his close friends,” said Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero, who backed out of the presidential race and has openly campaigned for Aquino’s election.
Ramon del Rosario Jr., chair of the Makati Business Club, was surprised at how Aquino had weathered all the challenges in the campaign and remained as the leading candidate heading into the elections.
“I first met Noy in 1986 and I think he demonstrated throughout the campaign his leadership qualities, honesty, maturity, consistency and to take principled positions. He will be a strong, trustworthy president,” Del Rosario said.
Aquino admitted having reached a new level of maturity since he took on the family’s virtual franchise as this country’s savior.
“I’ve grown up in the sense that I gained more knowledge of so many things. I have clearly witnessed the strengths and weaknesses I have and the limits I can go to. Plus, all the principles I have, have been put to the test,” he said in an interview at a seafront rest house in Bacacay, Albay.
Still, Aquino insisted that he was just being himself throughout the campaign. “I just did not get that much exposure when I was in the House and the Senate. I have become perhaps more polished but the fundamentals have always been there. My focus is not self-aggrandizement but to go for results to correct what is wrong,” he said.
When asked why it took his mother’s death for him to come out of his cocoon, Aquino replied: “Is being on the center stage important? What is important to me is that I see the problem and I solve it and improve the situation of the people. Whoever ends up being the hero is just secondary to the strategy.”
Behind the scenes
Aquino explained that he had always worked behind the scenes since he was suddenly thrust into politics with the declaration of martial law and the arrest of his father, former Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. He said he did not feel any need to draw attention to himself because his parents were still there.
His family might not have been poor, but Aquino said he also knew how it felt to suffer, especially with the tragedy that befell his family. He opened up to the public how it felt as a 12-year-old to suddenly become the man of the house and take care of his mother and four sisters, Ballsy (Maria Elena), Pinky (Aurora Corazon), Viel (Victoria Eliza) and Kris (Kristina Bernadette); the feeling of helplessness at seeing his family humiliated by soldiers and his father imprisoned for seven years and seven months; his anger at the people who treated his assassinated father like frozen meat; and the pain of seeing his mother go through a fatal illness.
His rivals have criticized him for authoring zero laws in his 12 years as a lawmaker (nine years as representative and three years as senator) and working only for companies either owned by his family (Intra-Strata Assurance Corp. and Central Azucarera de Tarlac) or were run by friends of his parents (Nike distributor Mondragon Philippines).
But what the public did not know was Aquino’s role in his mother’s administration, when, as a 26-year-old, he became the confidante of his mother who was learning on the job how to fend off coup plotters, opportunists and backstabbers in the Palace.
Aide to his mother
Aquino was hands-on in managing the security of his mother, especially after he took five bullets in one of the military uprisings staged by then Col. Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan just 18 months into his mother’s term (this event fueled his fascination for guns and military hardware).
President Aquino constantly turned to her son for his personal take on policy reforms and proposed deals which was why he has become adept in doing research on his own, a trait he would carry in the elections.
“Whenever my mother wanted a background check on someone or some project, he went to me for help. There are only a few people she trusted during those days and as his only son, it was my duty to protect her and I did,” Senator Aquino said.
The campaign period showed how meticulous and precise Aquino was in preparing for his speeches, debates and campaign rallies. Over the last eight months, Aquino said he had spent his free time and rest days soaking up on issues.
He does not go for off-the-cuff remarks, he thinks deeply before answering any question. He rarely answers with a yes or a no as he makes sure that the audience gets his answer in the proper context.
Not a dictator
Closure is the byword of Aquino in his reply to what he would do in his first 100 days. “They call us bengatibo (vengeful), but isn’t that a way of admitting that they have done wrong? But again, we will give them what they have not given us—due process. I might have my opinion of them but it does not mean it will be the law. I will not be a dictator,” said Aquino, who plans to put up a special commission on his first day in office that would investigate all unfinished probes on corrupt deals under the Arroyo administration.
His campaign slogan is “Walang Mahirap, Kung Walang corrupt”—there’s no poor where there is no one corrupt—and he plans to achieve that in two ways—punish the guilty and reward the bureaucrats with a handsome pay.
Aquino said the only way to instill fear among corrupt officials was to ensure that justice would be swift, certain and painful by improving the conviction rate of government prosecutors, landing a big fish in jail.
But a stick would not work without a carrot as Aquino noted the absurdity of a P50,000-a-month president presiding over a P1.5-trillion annual budget. “What we want is to lead government officials away from temptation because the pay scale they have right now practically guarantees that they will be corrupt,” he said.
Aquino has stayed true to himself even in his vices, the most visible of which is his smoking which he fondly calls his “oxygen breaks.” He never said smoking was good and he never tried to quit, not even at the risk of this becoming an election issue.
He has not weaseled his way out of the raging reproductive health bill debate as he stood firmly for sex education and providing parents with a choice for alternative ways to stop pregnancy even though he knew how sensitive this issue was to the leaders of the Catholic Church, specifically Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales.
“We are not talking primarily about overpopulation, but the lack of capacity of the state to start addressing the problems that are already here such as lack of vaccines for newborn babies and classrooms. You have so many other statistics that say that the youth are not being attended to and are relegated to making do with what is available,” Aquino said.
While he takes the campaign very seriously, this has not stopped him from having fun. Despite the sizzling heat, Aquino said he enjoyed riding on six-wheel trucks with makeshift roofs in his motorcade because he could give away his yellow rubber wristbands to the crowd, like throwing rings in an amusement park.
“There’s a certain style of throwing it, depending on how far you want it to go. I can proudly say I’ve become an expert in throwing these baller IDs,” Aquino said. (The team gives out 15,000 to 20,000 baller IDs worth P2.80 each in every province Aquino visits during a motorcade).
Coke and ‘chicharon’
Aquino proudly shows off the scratch marks and bruises on his arms from the grabbing and pulling in his sorties like a warrior would his battle scars.
“Everybody I saw was smiling, they were happy to meet me. Their enthusiasm was enough to bring me through the day even if my first and last meal for the day is dinner,” he said.
One of the biggest surprises in the campaign was how he has held up with his Marlboros and a diet of chilled Coke, and chicharon from Cagayan de Oro City. “I have sinusitis, but I haven’t had any serious episodes on my health during the campaign period despite foregoing so many meals and not having enough rest periods in between motorcades and long trips,” he said.
“This must be how the Beatles felt,” quipped Florencio “Butch” Abad Jr., the Liberal Party (LP) campaign manager, in describing the throngs of people who have swarmed Aquino’s motorcades and rallies with arms wide open and their hands flashing the ubiquitous “L” sign.
Part of the family
Abad said that when people come near Aquino, they look at him not as a rock or movie star but as a part of their family. “It seems that they know him intimately since his family’s life has played out like a telenovela for decades,” he said.
With the fervent response of the crowds to Aquino’s presence, his campaign team felt no need to juice up his personal appearances by bringing in celebrity endorsers and supporters. Kris and husband, basketball star James Yap, only accompanied Aquino twice in his provincial sorties, while actors Dingdong Dantes and Coco Martin came on stage with Aquino only three times.
In between sorties, Aquino gave a glimpse of his playful side, especially with the children whom he interacts with like it was his second nature. His eyes brighten up whenever a child approaches him and he lets their guard down by immediately asking them: “Who’s your playmate?”
During late-night coffee sessions, Aquino regaled his friends and reporters with his funny anecdotes on the games he played with his nephews, Joshua and Baby James (sons of Kris), and how he always kept tabs on their schedule and their appetite.
Aquino, however, clams up when asked whether he would marry Valenzuela City Councilor Shalani Soledad. He has met her sparingly throughout the campaign, probably to emphasize that he has his priorities set. They are not a showy couple and the most personal gesture they displayed in public during the campaign was when Soledad fixed Aquino’s disheveled hair on stage in a rally in her city.
No punching bag
Aquino might have grown up with the who’s who of the country’s richest families and political shakers, but his feet are clearly on the ground as attested to by the company he keeps and the types of jokes he makes. “Wanna buy watch, Joe” is a standard punch line in his campaign spiels and the joke is lost on the predominantly youthful crowd.
He has an anecdote or a joke to share for each person he meets in the rallies or who hops on his float. His top aide, Zaldy de Layola, said Aquino’s way of relaxing was having mindless chatter with his friends from politics, school and media usually exchanging jokes (the kind Joey de Leon makes) and making fun of other people.
“It keeps my mind at ease after long hours of studying,” Aquino said.
He also makes fun of himself, especially his balding head, and this comes as a surprise to most people who meet him for the first time. But he does have a temper and he fights back when he and his family are insulted.
“I wasn’t raised to be a punching bag. I am Catholic but I am not ready to turn the other cheek all the time,” Aquino said.
When his sister, television host Kris Aquino, the country’s version of Oprah Winfrey and Paris Hilton combined, approached him for a makeover shortly after declaring his run, Aquino initially gave in just to please her but eventually returned all the expensive clothes and shoes and immediately went back to wearing his “comfort” clothes—soft-collared shirts, high-waist jeans and soft-soled leather shoes.
Aquino was also firm on not getting Botox or hair implants as Kris suggested.
Aquino keeps his wardrobe simple—blue jeans, white underwear, basic shirts and jeans, and off-the-rack formal wear—because he does not want to waste time on deciding what clothes to wear. He also has an assistant to do his shopping for him.
Aquino explained that his message was for honest change and transparency and he would not be truthful to the public if he marketed himself as a suave, fashion-conscious guy in the campaign.
To maintain his credibility, Aquino has made it a point to screen all campaign funders and political allies to make sure that they are not tainted by any corrupt deals with the Arroyo administration or are instigators of the shady transactions themselves.
Aquino said his campaign might be running on a limited budget from the contributions of volunteers and sales of campaign materials, but it did not mean they cannot afford to be picky.
One of Aquino’s biggest regrets in his presidential bid was the lack of time for preparations. He described his campaign as being “rushed” compared to the three-year window of others, and he has used it as an excuse for the sluggish start of his campaign team and the slight drop in his ratings in the opinion polls.
“Just imagine if we had the same preparation time as our opponents. But this rushed campaign also showed how the people wanted to get involved in the process and not just looking in. In that way, our process has matured, which made the experience okay,” Aquino said.
Aquino took control over his campaign in February to ensure that it worked smoothly with his coalition partners’ brain trusts, mainly his uncle, Paul Aquino, and LP senatorial candidate Serge Osmeña.
That he has remained at the top of the surveys should be no surprise if you base it on hard work. Aquino has probably been to more provinces, attended more debates, and conducted more interviews than any other candidate.
His critics have also belittled him as just a pushover, overshadowed by his more glamorous and more glib sibling, Kris, and that he would wilt under the pressure of incessant attacks on his character and family during the campaign.
Aquino, however, has weathered the worst mudslinging a candidate could endure. He has been labeled witless, a spoiled brat, a womanizer, a nightlife habitué, a chain smoker, and a loony, while his family has been branded as opportunists, slave drivers and even murderers. Yet he has emerged smelling like roses based on the most recent Pulse Asia survey which showed him having a 40-percent share or nearly double his two closest rivals.
Aquino said his opponents tend to exaggerate their claims to gain a greater effect, such as in their charges of corruption by “Kamag-anak Inc.” during his mother’s term and the long-standing struggle between his family and the farmers in Hacienda Luisita.
“They say our relatives were corrupt but have there been cases filed against them when we were not in power from 1992 when my mother stepped down and 1998 when I ran for Congress? They say Hacienda Luisita was wracked with many labor disputes, but there have been only four labor cases in five decades,” Aquino said with some irritation.
But Kris herself would be the first to say that Aquino makes his own decisions and stands by them even if it meant going against a friend or relative. Not even his parents could make Aquino change his mind once he has come to a decision.
Kris has already declared that she and her siblings would leave Aquino on his own if he became president that they would only give him sisterly advice. “We have our own homes, so why should we live in Malacañang?” asked Kris, who clarified that her mother lived on Arlegui Street across the Palace during her reign.
Parents behind every step
Aquino said that if it was his obligation to lead this country out of Ms Arroyo’s hell, he would do it within the mandate given to him. “If I’m elected as president, I would have spent close to 20 years in politics. I think that’s enough for one man. When it’s time to pass your papers, I hope that I will leave this country in a better position,” he said.
With the confluence of events at this stage of his life—his mother’s death, his reluctance to run, his sudden jump to the top of the presidential surveys, and his continued stay at the top despite the deluge of black propaganda—even Aquino could not help but feel a sense of destiny in his presidential run not unlike her mother’s fate.
“I guess they (his parents) have always been behind me in every step I took in the campaign. Every time I have problems, I seek their help, including my lolo (grandfather) and lola (grandmother), who are major influences in my life,” Aquino said.
But will history repeat itself in the sense that his mother was cheated in the 1986 snap polls and it took a People Power revolution to fulfill her destiny? She was also 50 years old when at the cusp of the presidency.
“Hopefully not. We will try our best that it will not happen. I cannot look at this as a personal fight. This is not a question of Noynoy winning the presidency, this is a question of whether or not the people will be able to choose and their choice is reflected without question in the proclamations to be conducted.”