RICHARD J. GORDON: Step up to the plate, swing that bat
By Cathy C. Yamsuan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
(First of a series)
During a debate on the Manila campus of De La Salle University, Sen. Richard Gordon waves a thin black and white contraption roughly the size of a notebook. “Kindle,” he shouts.
“Here’s a little computer where you can put the entire school curriculum, from Grade 1 to high school to college. Every kid in public school should have one because he who reads, leads,” Gordon exclaimed.
Gordon talked about providing the country’s 17 million public school students with the Amazon.com product and raising the quality of education in the process.
“The government purchases textbooks for public schools. Oftentimes, these books are full of errors. That’s why we have book scams left and right. Why not get a Kindle for every student, download the accurate, factual books needed for the year, do the same every year. So every school year, we just buy new Kindles for the incoming Grade 1,” he explained.
Gordon later admits the plan is simplistic but doable.
Gordon tells reporters that a P0.50 tax on every text message could fund this e-book project.
If there are 2 billion text messages sent every day, he says, that could raise P365 billion annually, enough to buy a $100 Kindle made in China for each pupil and even raise teachers’ monthly salaries to P40,000 from P12,000.
“Our education is now on the level of Zambia and Tanzania. Education should not be a choice. Poverty is the absence of choice,” the senator says.
Gordon, who is running for president in the May 10 election under his newly formed Bagumbayan-Volunteers for a New Philippines Party, fancies himself a “transformer,” pointing to his record as a no-nonsense mayor of Olongapo City.
In the early 1990’s, Gordon captured the country’s attention when he elevated Olongapo from a honky-tonk town hosting American servicemen at the then US Subic Bay Naval Base to one of the country’s more progressive cities.
Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption in 1991 devastated Olongapo and hastened US troop departure from the base following the Senate’s rejection of the extension of the Philippines’ bases treaty with the United States.
Rather than grieve, Gordon reinvented himself as chair and administrator of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) and became the most prominent salesman of the former naval base as a trade and investment hub.
With its duty-free shops and the first class facilities in the base that was previously off limits to Filipinos, Subic became a prime domestic tourist destination. Olongapo was swept in the boom.
Gordon sought to instill discipline among his constituents, plastering signs all over the city declaring that “bawal ang tamad sa Olongapo,” or laziness is not allowed.
“Everything I did in Olongapo was a reaction to colonial culture. We have Juan Tamad who is a bad role model,” says Gordon, who served as mayor for a dozen years.
Gordon boasts that Olongapo was the first city to have tricycle drivers wearing uniforms.
Public utility vehicles were color-coded long before the scheme was adopted in Metro Manila to ease traffic jams.
But Gordon also had another reason for the project. When his father James L. Gordon, Olongapo’s founding father and its first mayor, was assassinated in 1967, the attackers escaped using tricycles. He figured that public vehicles and drivers should be identified easily.
In 1998, Felicito Payumo replaced Gordon as SBMA chief. Pundits trace a reason that went all the way back to 1992, the election year after the Senate’s rejection of the US Bases Treaty.
Posters showing the faces of the so-called “Magnificent 12” senators who voted for the rejection of the treaty were hoisted around Olongapo. People were told not to vote for them.
The urban legend goes that when Sen. Joseph Estrada, one of the Magnificent 12, became president six years later, he appointed Payumo to the SBMA to get back at Gordon.
Besides, Gordon was perceived to be more sympathetic to the Americans, a detail that could hurt the newly elected Estrada’s pro-poor image.
Asked if he considers himself a nationalist, Gordon was quick to respond: “Why shouldn’t I be?”
Gordon grew up in an Olongapo with a hovering American presence. “The bases were rammed down our throats,” he said.
Gordon grew up in a comparatively affluent family with humble origins. His father was a cochero—a driver of a horse-drawn carriage. He built a hotel, a grocery store, a bakery, a piggery, a fleet of jeepneys, movie houses and four restaurants.
The father taught the senator and his siblings—Veronica, Barbara, Cecille and James Jr.—a strict work ethic. “We were richer before we came into public office,” he says.
Growing up under the shadow of the US base, Gordon played baseball with both American kids and “the poorest of the poor” Filipinos that gravitated around the base looking for opportunities.
As a child, he worked as an usher in their theater and as a waiter and dishwasher in their restaurants, shined shoes and rented out comic books. He also collected slop from American households to feed their pigs, sold hand-stitched teddy bears and ladybugs and cajoled bar girls to promote his products with their American boyfriends.
Fist fights and judo
Gordon went to school in Manila. He remembers attending Grade 1 in St. Theresa’s College in QC and Grades 2 to 4 in Letran College, where he had fond memories of fist fights with Spanish mestizo classmates.
“I once came home with a bleeding upper lip. My father urged me to take up judo. He told me, ‘stand your guard and fight.’”
Gordon finished elementary at Lourdes School in Quezon City. Long after graduation, a teacher remembered Gordon fondly as the only boy who could spell “yacht.”
“I was always president of the class,” he says.
Gordon recalls that a visit by the New York Yankees to Subic was a turning point in his life.
Life is like baseball
“I saw them with my dad. They defeated the Pinoys, 20-0,” he says. After the game, the elder Gordon told his son that life was like baseball. “It teaches you to ‘step up the plate’, to ‘swing that bat.’ Both are idioms for accountability,” he says.
The assassination of his father—after three failed attempts—brought to Gordon the harsh reality of politics. He says his father was killed for exposing the involvement of the vice mayor in illegal logging and smuggling.
“The case was never brought to justice. That’s why I wanted to become a lawyer,” he says.
Before entering law school at the University of the Philippines, Gordon was brand manager of Tide and Safeguard at Procter and Gamble. ‘I introduced Safeguard to the market. It’s still number one, kiddo,” he says.
“We worked like dogs. We were taught to be assertive. It was like a boot camp. Our American and Filipino bosses were dictators,” he recalls.
At best, the experience was a reinforcement of what his father had taught him years before.
Lessons in discipline
“In Olongapo, my exposure to life in the bases taught a lot about discipline, the accountability of one man and the responsibility of officers. If we had a navy like that, we Filipinos would be more arrogant,” he says.
He admits he was for the extension of the US lease at Subic.
“Why am I pro-bases? I’ve proven my point. We are saddled by a culture of weakness. And in this culture, I’m quickly judged as arrogant,” he says.
“Everybody’s afraid of change. I’m a man who changes things. I can do things that men who do not want change cannot do.
“Look what happened to Pinatubo and Subic. Pinatubo was the end of the world for us. It showed there was no governance. All we had were shovels and prayers. Our hospital collapsed from the weight of the ash fall. I told God I’m willing to die, just that He not make me panic while all this was going on,” Gordon said.
Fraternity with Erap
Gordon insists that voters examine the track records of all candidates. He cites former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada, the former mayor of San Juan, as an example.
“Erap won because he was a mayor. Of course, he was liked because all his movies were pro-poor. But he was trusted because he was a mayor.”
Gordon feels a certain degree of fraternity with Estrada because both of them were unceremoniously booted out of their offices in 1986 by then President Corazon Aquino after the ouster of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Unlike other politicians compelled to trace some form of bond with Aquino, Gordon again points to his track record as a stronger proof of leadership.
A lawyer, he was the youngest delegate to the 1971 constitutional convention, had been mayor of Olongapo, founding chair and administrator of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, tourism secretary, is currently senator and chair of the Philippine National Red Cross.
Gordon admires President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s work ethic. “She has improved the economy. What the world looks at, she has improved. But from where we look at, she hasn’t improved,” says Gordon.
“We want better schools and no corruption. People do not like her because of the First Gentleman. She broke her promise not to run, plus there’s ‘Hello Garci,’” he says.
Gordon says he is running for president for the sake of the “vulnerable”—referring to the impoverished Filipinos. “We have really done bad as a country.”
He always emerges as best or second best speaker during informal surveys taken after presidential debates but is doing poorly in the Social Weather Station and Pulse Asia surveys.
“Who cares about the ratings? If you want me, you will vote for me,” he barks at a television reporter.
“Take out the names, take out the money of all the candidates and just look at the persons, their platforms, their track record, their record of integrity and competence and people will know who to vote for,” he says.
Gordon’s running mate is Bayani Fernando, who as mayor turned Marikina from a backwater into one of the country’s modern cities and as chair of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority brought order in the streets of the Philippine capital.
They call themselves “the transformers.”
“This will be a transformational, instead of a transactional leadership that only deepens the root of corruption in government. My strategy is plain and simple, people want new leaders who can deliver,” he says.
“Leadership is not a title, it is not a position. It is action.”
Gordon’s office in the Senate looks like a shop of curiosities. Nearly all walls are lined with books. Scale models of ships are moored on tables. A museum quality diorama of the Knights of the Round Table rests on a dinner-sized table in his quarters. “King Arthur is about chivalry,” he said.
There are also various figures of horses “because I love to ride horses.”
And a statue of Don Quixote. “A friend gave me that. When I was a child, my father cranked up the volume of the stereo and played ‘Impossible Dream’ in the morning. This was before it became a Ninoy song,” Gordon said.
Does the mile-a-minute Gordon know that he talks too much?
He pauses for about two seconds. “But I make sense, don’t I?”