FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - January 8, 2019 - 12:00am

I am not sure how the political calculus works in this case.

According to the surveys, most Filipinos are scandalized by things that come out of his largely unscripted mouth. The most recent utterance involves a probably apocryphal story about inappropriately touching a maid while still a boy.

It was a subplot to a larger rant the President was making about molestation by clergymen. The President was talking about being egged on by his confessor to reveal more details about a youthful erotic misadventure.

Women’s advocacy groups dutifully expressed outrage over the recounting. They said this underscores the President’s “misogyny.”

When the President went on, in succeeding stream-of-consciousness remarks typical of his public appearances, to question the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, some truly devout groups called him an “anti-Christ.” Spokesman Sal Panelo performed a heroic, although probably ineffectual, job of downplaying the remark as an effort to spark “intellectual discourse.”

The President’s propensity to commit gaffes or make unduly provocative remarks draws from his inclination to improvise live, on the lectern, during public appearances where all that is expected of him is to utter a few ceremonial words. The cure to this is to arm the President with a draft speech or at least some talking points whenever he is due to mount the lectern.

Somewhere in the Palace is something called the Presidential Speechwriting Staff composed of writers who should be receiving regular pay as bureaucrats even if they produce nothing. But Duterte hates prepared speeches. He tends to mumble through a prepared text without any hint of enthusiasm or respect for due emphasis.

He concedes to using a prepared text only during high profile diplomatic events such as, for instance, last year’s ADB Annual Meeting. Even when he delivers his highest profile speech – the State of the Nation Address – he could not resist improvising.

He genuinely enjoys public speaking. He enjoys entertaining crowds. He draws energy from the audience reaction to things he says – which translates into making overblown or absurd statements. When the crowd cheers his provocative remarks, he loads even more provocative stuff. He aims to please.

There is a simple solution to reducing the volume of provocative things that come out of the presidential mouth: reduce the volume of his public appearances. The problem with that, however, is that whenever the President is not seen, people speculate about his health.

So it seems we are doomed to this absurd cycle. The more the President speaks, in the impromptu manner he is comfortable with, the greater likelihood he will say outrageous things.


If gaffes were politically fatal, the Duterte presidency would have been long dead and buried.

No previous president has been so careless with his use of language. None challenged powerful interest groups such as the Catholic Church the way he has.

Recall how early during the 2016 presidential campaign, Duterte was caught cursing at the Pope. His rivals duly pronounced his candidacy dead on arrival. But the Davao mayor went on to win by a landslide – and the Liberal Party hacks are now reduced to insisting our voters are idiots.

 Notwithstanding the regular dose of scandalous utterance the President dishes out, he has maintained very high trust and job approval ratings. At close to midpoint in their respective terms of office, previous presidents experienced dropping approval ratings. Not so with Duterte.

Many people are truly annoyed by the things Duterte says. But it seems they have tucked these things as part of the entertainment our politics traditionally delivers.

If Duterte spoke like a policy wonk, diving into the nuances of one policy option over the other, we would bore his live audiences. People will probably dismiss him as a marionette mouthing the stuff the technocracy produces.

In which case, it is probably more politically astute to leave Duterte as he is. He gets the crowd hilariously involved in his monologues. He was probably a stand-up comedian in a previous life. He is equipped with the accent, the odd fashion sense, the attitude and the sheer gumption to succeed in this.

Let him tell stories about the maid or pick a quarrel over the concept of the Holy Trinity. That is immensely better than making a grievously wrong policy statement.

Duterte has, so far, maintained a good sense about leaving the technical questions to the real experts. He has not joked about Dengvaxia or talked recklessly about the deficit. He mounts the lectern and tells us funny stories about his previous indiscretions, none of which is an impeachable offense.

Like the majority of Filipinos, I can live with a President ready to crack a dirty joke at the drop of a hat. That is immensely more preferable than having a moralizing but incompetent buffoon on that job.

Filipinos have an immense capacity for laughter. When there is nothing else in abundance, we laugh at ourselves. It suits us that we have a leader with a sharp sense of the absurd.

At the core of comedy is some form of vulgarity – whether this is iconoclastic, disproportional or inappropriate. We laugh best when an utterance or an occurrence is unexpected. We laugh best when something completely defies conventional wisdom or even intuition.

This is why Duterte succeeds so well in making his audiences roar with laughter. From behind the presidential seal he says things one does not normally expect a President to say.

This is also why those who condemn Duterte for chronic vulgarity always seem so dour.

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