Team captain

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Fidel Valdez Ramos had guideposts for approving any proposal. First, it had to be legal. Second, it had to be doable, both financially and technically.

Third, it had to be “politically correct” – not in the sense that we understand political correctness, but meaning it had to produce the most benefits to many people at the least cost.

These glimpses into FVR’s work ethic were provided by Leonora de Jesus, his Cabinet secretary and head of the workhorses under his watch, the Presidential Management Staff.

De Jesus, dubbed the “Dragon Lady” during the Ramos presidency by those who resented her perceived power at the time, said FVR began his working day at 4 a.m., worked even in his car, and meticulously pored over documents requiring his attention.

Former Senate president Franklin Drilon, who served as Ramos’ justice secretary and worked with him in Cory Aquino’s Cabinet, describes FVR’s work ethic as “sui generis” – in a class by itself.

De Jesus told us on One News’ “The Chiefs” last Monday night that as part of security protocols, FVR required specific type fonts for documents emanating from particular offices, and the use of bar codes. This was to ensure the authenticity of the documents, she explained.

Ramos was a demanding taskmaster who as much as possible personally went through the fine print of every document reaching his desk. The documents were often returned with marginal notes handwritten in red ink, for “CSW NLT…” – meaning, “complete staff work not later than… ”

It says a lot about the man that his former officials did not resent the demanding work environment, and in fact admired him for it, remembering all the marginal notes with fondness.

All that meticulousness in the nitty-gritty of staff work may be boring, but it made for efficiency in governance, De Jesus pointed out.

It was easy to get down to the boring details, she said, because there was a road map. Ramos clearly set out both his short-term and long-term objectives, and his vision for the country whose democracy he fought for and defended, over and over again.

*      *      *

That role in defending democracy was a key reason for Corazon Aquino’s decision to endorse Ramos as her successor instead of her close family friend Ramon Mitra Jr., according to Drilon, who served as Aquino’s executive secretary.

Ramos did not seek the endorsement; it was purely president Cory’s choice, Drilon told The Chiefs.

Mitra, the House speaker at the time, was also saddled with the image of a “trapo” or traditional politician – a tag that also doomed the bid of FVR’s chosen successor, then speaker Jose de Venecia Jr. These days the trapos are back in full force. Voters don’t even care if the trapos are murderers and plunderers, as long as some of the loot is shared. But this is another story.

Following his victory in 1992 (questioned by closest challenger Miriam Defensor-Santiago), FVR then set out to strengthen the hard-won democracy, through structural reforms that accelerated economic growth and insulated the country from the worst of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Ramos espoused the “CHCD” for counterinsurgency and peacebuilding: clear, hold, consolidate and develop. His six years, unfortunately, ran out before the country could consolidate the gains achieved through his reforms.

In his retirement, FVR refused to slow down, reading and writing books, reading newspapers. Until illness and the debilitation of old age weakened him, he regularly sent me clippings of my columns, carefully pasted on bond paper, with marginal notes in black ink providing useful commentary and with certain lines or paragraphs underlined. He sent me copies of his books.

*      *      *

FVR before his presidency was much less amiable. In fact it was a pain to interview him when he was Cory Aquino’s military and then defense chief. He snapped at reporters, making us feel that we asked stupid questions (maybe we did).

But when he secured president Cory’s endorsement, he changed overnight. Perhaps he recognized the role of the press in the attainment of his vision for the nation.

Gone was the impatient crankiness and the terse responses. His sense of humor emerged, along with a can-do spirit that would mark his tenure as captain of Team Philippines.

The remarkable transformation was sustained all the way to his retirement. Cranky Eddie never returned, permanently replaced by Cheery, Steady Eddie, a real elder statesman with infectious optimism and abiding faith in the Filipino.

It was always a delight to visit him at his office in Makati, where he regaled us, in between jokes, with little known stories about his life. Our visits always concluded with us joining him in flashing his trademark thumbs-up for photos.

When you win the presidency by a narrow margin (5.34 million against Santiago’s 4.46 million), there must be greater urgency for consensus building. You can’t afford to indulge in the arrogance of the majority. And it becomes perilous to pay lip service to national unity (while producing revisionist, divisive movies).

FVR’s peace initiatives with Islamic secessionists, communist rebels and mutinous soldiers were not without controversy. But there was not a single coup attempt under his watch, and a formal peace deal was forged with Nur Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front.

While no formal agreement was hammered out with the communists, Ramos said talking was still better than shooting it out.

FVR’s military background probably helped in making him a genuine teambuilder.

He was the able captain of Team Philippines, and the team delivered an exemplary performance under his watch.


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