TEODORO BENIGNO: GMA UP CLOSE

MANILA, December 1, 2003  (STAR) HERE'S THE SCORE By Teodoro C. Benigno - It was like that last Friday evening, and it had always been like that whenever we agreed to meet privately. She entered the house alone without any funfare, without any security, in a soft, almost inaudible swish like a ghost metamorphosing. It had the same effect on me as it had way back in 1996 when she was still a senator. And sought me out the first time. That was when we both agreed it was time she sought the presidency. And I would be her senior adviser, no strings attached. That’s how it all began.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had, as she still does, a cute colleen appearance. She was very diminutive, never really physically imposing, girlish even, until you looked at her eyes – and she talked no-nonsense talk. Until you sensed her hidden person. She had a sword there, waiting to be unsheathed. Then you realized she was driven. And the presidency was her destination.

The eyes never wavered. And that was seven years ago. They were riveted on the Palace by the river as probably the eyes of Christopher Columbus clawed at the outlines of the massive geographical giant that was to become America. Even at that time, GMA had been ambivalent about power. She sought it almost mystically. Her father after all was president, a successful one, and now it was her turn. God was probably giving her signals, she told me. She had to go for it.

But the power game had always eluded her, as it continues to elude her today. Was it because she was a woman? And she lived a cloistered, convent-oriented life beholden only to scholastic excellence? And her mysterious God? Always her father had taught her, "Do your best and God will take care of the rest." This is a mantra she intones till today. But it seems God at times gives her conflicting messages. She foreswore the presidency December 2002. Now she is back with a vengeance to the electoral hustings.

La Gloria is highly confident she will be elected May 2004. The latest survey of Pulse Asia had already come out. The message was that she was highly electable in a group of four presidentiables – Raul Roco 30, GMA 28, FPJ 28, Ping Lacson 12. In a group of eight, Pulse Asia had GMA in the lead. Gloria was elated.

And so just last Friday evening, GMA slipped into the residence of a mutual friend in Dasmarińas Village all by her lonesome. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time. I was wondering why the invite. I figured just like me, she had to touch base with an old friend at this, another turning point in our lives. Whatever I may have written about her, whatever she may have said about me when finally she became president hardly mattered anymore. Even when GMA was vice president I was pitiless in criticizing her for moving in with Erap Estrada bed and board and political pajamas. They had a delectable road show going on. And I wrote she was an opportunist par excellence.

Well, now, there she was, lovely as usual in a long-sleeved, close-neck carmine ensemble. I almost stumbled into greeting her "Hi, Gloria" as of old, but caught myself in time.

No, we hardly talked politics. For a solid two hours – could you believe it? – we talked largely about old times. I was like an archeologist often staring at her, looking for worry lines, ridges around her eyes, the first forebodings of creeks on her forehead. There were none. Youth still cavorted like a soaring nymph on her features, and I asked her: How do you do it? Why do you still look so young, you almost look like the elder sister of your children? The cares of the presidency do not bug you at all?

I was about to mention Pidal, the intensifying rumbles of discontent, wicked mortar bombardments that she resign. I didn’t.

GMA said she had gotten used to all these criticisms, "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". But yes, at times, she was "pikon, very pikon" and she reacted. Naku. But she never used cuss words. She was maybe unlike her departed mother, the late and lamented Dońa Eva. She could be alternately charming and tender, Dońa Eva was. She was a rhododendron sprouting out of a bud then suddenly a submachine gun discharging burst of colorful, withering prose.

Even when GMA and husband Mike would quarrel in our presence, the language never really got out of bounds. When Dońa Eva said, "Basta", that was it.

Don’t you miss your mother? I asked. "Oh yes, I miss her terribly," GMA answered. There was a fugitive indication that if her mother were still alive and residing in the Palace, the effulgent Dońa Eva, sometimes the domineering Dońa Eva would have a calming effect on heated marital jousts. Often she would tell me in Ilocano: "Teddy, barok ko, take care of Gloria, be a father to her. She thinks highly of you, she listens to you." I would tell this to GMA. And often she would just smile, a put-upon daughter’s smile. She probably figured Mama was meddling just a little bit too much – at times.

No, she would leave them alone at the palace, she would never move in, Dońa Eva expostulated at one dinner. Mike Arroyo was persistent: "Ma, we just need you at the Palace. There can be a lot of disorder, and we need you to clean up." Mike didn’t know how right he was. Perhaps GMA, too.

The conversation was a little bit awkward at first. I purposely avoided talking about politics, drew her out on largely persona matters. Although at one time, the subjects of FPJ came out, and she said some things that must remain classified.

Yes, GMA had learned a lot since she took over Malacańang after Estrada’s fall. Again, the ambivalence. She said she had never been under the spell of power, and would have gladly carried out her pledge not to run in 2004. But there was a responsibility of power, she added, a responsibility she could not turn her back on. My own opinion is that she loves and she does not love power. It is an aphrodisiac she cannot resist, and yet an aphrodisiac that drives her to seek solace when her cup is full and overflows. And she is close to collapsing because the burdens weigh her down.

I see the same thing in Loren Legarda. Except that Loren is more transparent, more spontaneous, more like André Gide who said: J’aimie tout. Je me donne a tout. I love everything. And I give myself to everything.

Did the trappings of power mean anything to GMA? La Gloria thought that one out at some length. Yes, they did. Many things were at the call of her fingertips. There was something to be said for a president traveling abroad, undertaking state visits, attending international conferences, hobnobbing with and conversing intellectually with world leaders. It felt particularly good when some took an exceptional shine to her like Singapore’s Go Chok Tong and Malaysia’s Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.

And, of course, US President George W. Bush, I added. She said yes, of course. I asked anew why was their chemistry darn good. She replied this was probably because they didn’t reflect too long before making decisions, particularly decisions in the war against terrorism. Bush must have noted GMA warred on Abu Sayyaf long before 9/11, "and when I did not hesitate to support his war against international terrorism, he must have appreciated this and was grateful."

I was glad GMA didn’t ask me to dwell on her leadership and neither did I ask her to assess her chances of victory in 2004. We both knew, I suppose, this would bring out the horned devils of the presidential campaign now heating up with the entry of FPJ. I brought up the physical rigors of the campaign, recalled that in 1996-1997, she must have set records traveling all over the archipelago twice, perhaps thrice.

"I can do that again," GMA said.

By that, she indicated she could out-hustle the competition. She could press the flesh two times, three times more than they could, visit more far-flung places they never could have visited because she had legs made for the twisting, turnabout mountain roads of Ethiopia and Kenya. I have never ceased to marvel at her stamina. She was then sleeping just three to four hours a night, never got sick. Peping Cojuangco was telling me, "Hey, take care of Gloria, she might just collapse." She never collapsed.

We, of course, talked about COPA. When we took GMA in 1996, after three men decided (Peping Cojuangco, Boy Saycon and myself) to gun La Gloria to the presidency. I resigned from COPA about three years ago. But those days, fellowship and camaraderie were at flood-tide. GMA was our muse in twice-a-week meetings. Something like COPA had a little lamb, her fleece was white as snow and wherever La Gloria went, COPA was in tow. Pity that just several days ago, COPA disintegrated with mass resignations. But that’s another subject.

So all night, that’s what we did, GMA and this columnist, tap-dancing and shaking the castanets. It turned out to be fun. No old wounds were opened, no old closets flung open. I remarked she was looking very well, smiling virtually the whole evening. Laughing. Why not? These were two old friends reminiscing, because once upon a time, they did like each other very much.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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