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Opinion

Only two persons have President’s interest at heart

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Vic Rodriguez quickly squelched last Friday’s newsflash that he had resigned as Executive Secretary. Still, it was intriguing. That rumor could only have sprung from the Malacañang snake pit. Rodriguez hinted as much to Palace reporters. Asked about P100-million payolas for plum presidential appointments, he told them to “go to your source for details… before asking me.”

It has happened before. Two weeks into Fidel Ramos’ presidency, gossip circulated that ES Peter Garrucho was on the way out; he did leave in two months. Joseph Estrada got Filipino-Canadian professor Aprodicio Laquian as night-shift chief of staff to backstop daytime ES Ronaldo Zamora. Estrada’s midnight Cabinet of mahjong and drinking buddies resented Laquian’s screening of papers they were making the boss sign, so conspired against him. The president did sack him six weeks into the job. Ominous?

In Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s first week in office, media commentators blamed Rodriguez for unfit nominees. More so since one of the four shipping businessmen named to the Ports Authority is his brother-in-law’s partner. Allegedly, Rodriguez is behind other conflicted appointees. Attributed to him too is Marcos’ veto of two bills of the past admin that dismayed investors and government lawyers. Also, the memo circular that new agency heads misinterpreted as signal to fire Career Executive Service Officers at will.

Expected of Rodriguez is “complete staff work,” including thorough background checks, before making Marcos sign appointments. As well, all facets and implications of executive orders. Rodriguez must meld policy with politics and implement programs by consensus. The vetoes surprised Marcos’ Congress allies, even his sister Senator Imee Marcos and cousin Speaker Martin Romualdez, who had supported the bills. Still, Marcos Jr. must see in Rodriguez an alter ego, as his campaign spokesman-lawyer for VP in 2016 and president in 2022.

An ES is called the Little President for the power he wields. But he must be ready to take the fall anytime for the real President. One of an ES’s unwritten duties is to cover the President’s back – for the latter never errs or admits to have done so. The Philippines copied “presidential infallibility” from America. The ES is likened to the White House Chief of Staff, nicknamed the co-President.

Picking the ES/CoS is tricky. “Presidents sometimes make the mistake of hiring as Chief of Staff somebody who brought them to the dance rather than the person who needs to be the dance partner once you’re governing,” noted Kenneth Duberstein, US president Ronald Reagan’s last of four CoS. “In campaigning you demonize your opponent. In governing you make love to your opponent. That’s how you put coalitions together.” Campaigners do not always make good presidential aides. (“The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” Chris Whipple)

In Malacañang or the White House, two persons have the President’s interest at heart: the ES/CoS and the presidential spouse. The former must be a sharp manager-adviser; the latter has the advantage of pillow talk. Care must be taken for them to not clash.

Outsiders sneer at interloping by the presidential spouse, but that’s sometimes necessary. After president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s “Hello Garci” and “I am sorry” fiascoes of 2005, a Cabinet faction convinced her to banish first gentleman Mike Arroyo to California. The latter was suspected as behind many admin shenanigans. To his credit, he rushed home months later to alert Macapagal-Arroyo about and stave off a coup d’état. Nancy Reagan was instrumental in positioning then kicking out her husband’s second CoS Donald Regan. He had become power-drunk and had once even hung up the phone on her. Reagan’s popularity was then crashing due to his and Regan’s flops.

The ES should do dirty jobs for the President. He must know how to fire and be fired. Most Philippine presidents changed executive secretaries several times. Those brilliant men were either former or later generals, legislators and justices:

• Cory Aquino had Joker Arroyo, Catalino Macaraig Jr., Oscar Orbos, Franklin Drilon;

• Fidel Ramos: Garrucho, Edelmiro Amante, Teofisto Guingona Jr., Ruben Torres, Alexander Aguirre;

• Joseph Estrada: Zamora, Edgardo Angara;

• Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: Renato de Villa, Alberto Romulo, Eduardo Ermita, Leandro Mendoza, plus four CoS Renato Corona, Rigoberto Tiglao, Mike Defensor, Joey Salceda.

Noynoy Aquino and Rody Duterte had one each, Paquito Ochoa and Salvador Medialdea. Marcos Jr.’s father Ferdinand E. Marcos, 1965-1986, had four: Rafael Salas, Ernesto Maceda, Alejandro Melchor Jr., Ponciano Mathay. He abolished the ES position then made do with two executive assistants, Jacobo Clave and Juan Tuvera.

Although primus inter pares among Cabinet members, Rodriguez knows he is dispensable. Behind any appointment in Malacañang is the tacit agreement that one can be let go anytime, he told reporters. His previous stints in government were as barangay chairman, then special assistant to the business licensing chief and temporary community relations officer at Quezon City Hall under mayor Sonny Belmonte.

VIC RODRIGUEZ

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