Politics, again

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - July 14, 2018 - 12:00am

Ten years ago, J. Neil Garcia and I edited the third volume of the landmark Ladlad 3: An Anthology of Philippine Gay Writing,  published by Anvil. I wrote an introduction about the political life that I am updating for this week’s column, now that the pre-election campaign season has begun. Or didn’t you notice the mug shots of previously sullen and silent men now plastered on billboards all over the land?

It is on a day like this, on a fine Saturday afternoon in 2009, that I am going to a big restaurant beside Manila Bay for my next political meeting. I was the chairman of the controversial party-list, also named Ladlad, and I am meeting a senator to ask him for funding. He had paid for the restaurant for a whole day and it closed for his political meetings. And so the political party that began with a book was now meeting politicians for funding. I made my presentation (facts, database, analysis) but Mr Senator’s mind was somewhere else. He just said, “Very good, Danton, but remember. You run because of the campaign funds: you can keep half of it and the rest you use for the campaign.” Then off he left with his convoy of 12 vehicles.

But Mr Senator shifted political parties, and the next time I saw him was in the 2013 elections. He had joined another political party, the chameleon that he was. I was on the stage with other party-list leaders and when he bounded on stage, slick and shallow as before, I told Liza Maza of Gabriela: “Sister, if you let that guy raise your hands, I am no longer your friend.” She snickered and we both looked down when Mr Senator was casting glances at us, waiting for us to stand up so he could raise our hands – as sign of endorsement. I looked down at my fingers and pretended to examine them, unwittingly reminding me of James Joyce’s line, God being outside our lives, paring his fingernails. Mr Senator, needless to say, was so pissed with Liza Maza and myself.

I never saw Mr Senator again, thank God, because kindness and intelligence I could not get from him. Such qualities I got from the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, who had always been kind to me.  As a young reporter I once interviewed her when she was the Immigration Commissioner. In the late 1980s. Day one of her appointment the Immigration office looked like a pig sty: dimly lit and smelly. Day two of her appointment I came back and lo and behold! The offices were well-lighted, and the smell – of collected sweat, perhaps of corruption down the ages – was gone.

I went to her and she said the first thing she did was to ask them to install light bulbs and clean the office, “for certainly,” the feisty Commissioner told me, gesticulating with her hands, her Ilongga-Michigan accent gliding in the air, “germs die when exposed to light and air, don’t you agree, Danton?”

The next week I came back for follow-up questions and I was on the first floor when a woman came running downstairs. “She threw a chair at me!” the woman – a highly placed officer at the Immigration Commission – told the reporters huddled on the floor.

I was young and my reflexes were quick so I ran up to the office of Commissioner Santiago and knocked. The secretary let me in and she was there, radiant in red. “Yes, Danton, how can I help you? Oh yes, your follow-up questions. Sit down , please.”

But instead I asked her if it was true that she threw a chair at the officer.

Commissioner Santiago fixed her famous stare at me, without smiling, and told me sternly. “Well, she told me that if I just kept quiet about the shenanigans going on here” and she uttered “shenanigans” with such obvious glee, “I will receive a big, fat envelope with an extra P100,000 every month.”

“So you said no and you threw a chair at her?” I insisted. Lady Miriam just looked at me, like a mother explaining to her six-year-old child, “Danton, I did not throw a chair at her. I just rearranged the furniture.”

Our loud laughter together could be heard way down the hall.

The next time I saw Miriam Defensor Santiago, she was already a candidate for President. My father voted for her and he asked me to join him at the Araneta Coliseum, where Lady Miriam was having her initial campaign salvo. The humongous coliseum was filled to the rafters (30,000 people crowded together), and the candidate gave a speech that was true to form, invoking darkness and light, using Star Wars as her central metaphor (“Beam me up, Scotty”). This speech has been uploaded in YouTube, and you can watch it if you want (or dare).

She lost that election, which she bitterly contested. I was already a Fulbright scholar at Rutgers University in the United States when she ran for senator under the party of then Vice-President Joseph Estrada. She lost that election, her son later killed himself, and when I saw her years later, she had lost weight and was still mourning: “I should not have run for political office,” she told me. “I could have written more books of fiction [she had a collection of stories]. And my son, he would not have been gone by now.”

But like a phoenix she would always rise from the ashes, brushing the flakes of defeat from her wings. She ran for senator in 2004 and won. I was in Batangas on the first day of the campaign and when she gave her speech, everybody was standing and jumping up and down with laughter. She talked about her platform (“anti-corruption”, as always), segued to images of Batangas (“you balisong boys”) and cracked jokes about her enemies (“I told my enemy he was a paramecium and he asked me what it was. O ayan, one-celled creature lang hindi pa alam. Tonto talaga.”) She was such a joy to watch, owning the stage, such that the candidate after her began to quake in his boots. How to follow that stupendous speech?

In 2008 she ran again for senator and won, hands down. I was then working for the United Nations Development Programme and visited the Senate to meet with a senator who was helping us with our environmental project planting mangroves in the south. I ran into Senator Santiago in the hall and she loudly told the media people gathered around here, “Hey, ladies and gentlemen, this is Professor Danton Remoto. He and I are the same.”

My jaw fell. She looked at the media people waiting for her explanation, then she added: “We are the same. We are both brilliant!” And then she cackled with laughter. Quickly I said, “You are more brave, Ma’am, than me.”

One of my officers in Ladlad came from the Visayas and during one of Lady Miriam’s campaign sorties in the south, there was another attempt on her life. The first was when she ran for President and a car rammed the side of the car where she was seated. She almost died there.

Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com

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