MANILA, December 19, 2003  (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - Alas, this belongs to the "I-told-you-so" department.

Two weeks ago, I said two things in this corner. The first is that President Macapagal-Arroyo’s perceived "weakness" is her strength. Everybody thinks that he can beat her. So, everyone is jumping into the ring.

Second, and more importantly, I warned that the Opposition would self-destruct. There could never be a "United Opposition" because the leading rivals would refuse to give way to one another. Pride and amor propio would doom the Opposition, this was my conclusion, and GMA would then streak ahead of the pack to the finish line – with the help, of course, of God and probably the Comelec, God’s instrument – well, something like that.

It’s only the first week of registration, but already we’re seeing that "unity" talks between the two P’s, – Ping and Poe – were only a sham. They died a-borning. FPJ is going to run, come what may. Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson has declared he’s running, too, come what may.

Raul Roco, naturally, is plodding on, buoyed up by his survey ratings, which remains high but are perceptibly going down.

ABS-CBN Talk Show celebrity and part-time Senator Noli de Castro? He’s got everything to gain, and nothing to lose – whether he wins or loses. If Noli runs for the Presidency and doesn’t make it, he can keep the money and return to his job in the Senate. (No, Virginia, you don’t have to resign from the Senate if you run for the presidency – talk about having a golden parachute.) Can we expect Magandang Gabi Bayan to announce shortly?

As for Brother Eddie Villanueva of JIL (Not the German fashion designer Jil Sanders, but "Jesus Is Lord" movement), is he on the side of the angels, or of GMA – not to say the two are on opposing sides? When Brother Eddie and GMA met in the home of her step-brother, Arturo Macapagal, three days ago, in a powwow attended or brokered by, who knows, former President Fidel V. Ramos (Brother Eddie’s original sponsor) and Speaker Joe de Venecia, was GMA asking the preacher to drop his candidacy, or urging him to push on with it, with the blessings of heaven and the manna that drops from the skies – i.e., the political treasury?

Many can’t imagine Brother Eddie would ever oppose GMA. He has been getting two many protégés appointed to ranking and very plum positions in the government, thanks to GMA’s powerful patronage. Do you bite the hand that . . . er, blesses you? It’s not in the Ten Commandments, but if you’re told "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods", and, sounding like a follow-up to the previous commandment, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife", certainly, "Thou shalt not covet thy sponsor’s job."

After all, Jesus declared: "My kingdom is not of this world." C’mon, Brother Ed. Come clean with us. Did the Angel Gabriel inspire you (as he did the Prophet Muhammad) or the Angel Gloria?

Whenever cynics encounter a holy man, the query springs unbidden into their jaundiced little brains: Is it the Prophet motive, or the profit motive?

Forgive me, Father, if I have sinned by uttering such a monstrous thought.

* * *

The participants in that meeting in Arthur’s residence in Valle Verde will have their own versions of what transpired. (The late Cong Dadong, GMA’s Presidential papa, liked to use the French word, tête-à-tête, which he pronounced Kapampangan-style, titi-a-titi.)

Sad to say, GMA cannot emerge from that conference smelling like a rose. If Villanueva persists in pursuing his bid, people will say he was fielded as GMA "Trojan Horse" to draw votes away from FPJ or Lacson, or Roco. On the other hand, if he now withdraws from the contest, people will be inquiring what "concessions" or "gifts" were given to him for his dropping out.

In the recent past, the JIL religious head has had, among others, an Undersecretary appointed in the Department of Justice (DOJ), a Commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and, lately, a Justice in the Sandiganbayan.

This new anti-graft Court member is an unknown 49-year-old lawyer whose only claim to . . .uh, fame, is that he was a Property Officer in the defunct Juvenile Domestic Relations Court and a former legal researcher in the law firm of former Chairman of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) M.A.T. Caparas, (He "bested" several experienced and deserving Judicial and Bar Council nominees from the ranks of the judiciary. Does this speak well of divinely-inspired "intercession"?)

* * *

Last Wednesday night, I met Brother Mike Velarde, the prophet of El Shaddai, in a glittering dinner hosted by our envoy to Rome (the Quirinale), Ambassador Philip L’Hullier, and his lovely wife, Edna, in honor of His Eminence, Jose Cardinal Sanchez.

As you know, while our most high-profile Cardinal has always been the just-retired (but never-silenced) Jaime Cardinal Sin, it is our other Filipino Cardinal, Sanchez, who is literally closest to the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. Cardinal Sanchez has spent the past 18 years in The Vatican, and it’s reputed his room is right next to the Pope’s.

In any event, there, big as life, in a checkered brown shirt was Brother Mike. If Brother Eddie claims to have seven million adherents (counting the little kids perhaps). Brother Mike’s El Shaddai has eleven million disciples. Who’s Brother Mike going for in this Vale of Tears and Fears? He didn’t say anything about that to me, being very cautious. However, while my Alikabok in spiritual matters insists he’s going for FPJ, I can’t quote this as holy writ, even my driver thinks so. My driver believes FPJ means "Food, Peace, and Justice". But again, he’s a movie fan, and has admired most of Da King’s flickers.

Another interesting friend I spotted at the L’Huiller party was the fabled movie Director-Producer Cirio H. Santiago. Knowing that FPJ, as Cirio used to say, "practically grew up in his studios," I queried my old pal about the FPJ phenomenon – and how Cirio thought Da King was doing.

"He’s following an excellent script," Santiago grinned, "and going to the STARGATE Christmas party so successfully was part of it."

What about the ending of this present movie, The Candidate? Will it have a happy ending? Not for Poe, but for the Filipino people?

Not even Cirio, I’d say, could answer that.

* * *

It’s interesting that GMA should have met with Brother Eddie in the home of her older step-brother, Arturo, who was poised to challenge her own son, Mikey M. Arroyo – currently Pampanga Vice-Governor – for a congressional seat in their home province. (He’s backing out, I hear.)

Arturo, a soft-spoken international rifle champion and a good fellow indeed, is the son (together with his sister Cielo, a former Pampanga Vice-Governor) of the late President Diosdado Macapagal and his first wife, the beautiful sister of Da Superking ("Emperor") of Movies, the late Rogelio de la Rosa.

Another uncle, Roger’s brother, Angel, was also a top draw at the box office in the 1950s. They were all from Lubao.

In truth, GMA is not underestimating FPJ – far from it – because she knows from the painful past, the power among the adoring public of a Super-Star of the movies. Roger de la Rosa almost defeated Dadong Macapagal in the 1961 Presidential elections, meaning that in the early weeks of the campaign he far outpointed both his former brother-in-law Dadong and the incumbent President Carlos P. Garcia. What saved Cong Dadong’s presidential bid, probably, was the fact that Roger de la Rosa ran out of money. As publisher of the now-defunct Evening News, I had nailed my flag to the mast, strongly and unequivocally supporting Macapagal in our editorial position and personally. But I knew Roger very well, too, and liked him immensely. De la Rosa was not only the handsomest man in moviedom, with a rich baritone voice and charisma oozing from every pore, but he was decent, dashing and gentlemanly in a very masculine way. The masa idolized him, men tried to emulate him, and women swooned over him. But he was not a ladies’ man, being faithful to his beautiful wife, the former movie actress Lota Delgado.

What Roger asked, when he and Dadong finally agreed on Roger’s withdrawal from the race, was to be reimbursed for the millions of pesos he had already spent on his campaign. De la Rosa quitting the contest gave Dadong the edge over President Garcia – and he triumphed. Afterwards, he rewarded Roger by appointing him Ambassador to Cambodia.

I learned about the appointment from Roger himself, who rang me up as soon as he left Malacañang and asked me to lunch with him in the New Europe (on Isaac Peral, now United Nations street).

"Max," he said, "you’ve covered Cambodia and know Norodom Sihanouk very well, so, please tell me what I should do. I’m a complete novice in this ambassador business."

I laughed and replied: "Straight to the point, Roger, simply do two things; Learn to speak French, and, even more urgently, get to be a good friend of Snooky" (which is what we foreign correspondents called the charming and outgoing Sihanouk, who loved to sing The River of No Return and play the saxophone).

De la Rosa did just that. In time, at all Palace receptions, he was seated on the left side of Sihanouk, while the French Ambassador, having pride of place in that kingdom along the Mekong, sat on Sihanouk’s right.

"Sanamagan, Max," Roger exclaimed afterwards, "you were right."

After his successful stint in Phnom Penh, De la Rosa became our Ambassador to The Hague, and my wife and I used to stay with him there. God rest him: He was the greatest, and I’m sorry the younger generation never got to enjoy his movies.

Anyway, Cong Dadong went on to become a good President, doing his best – only to be overthrown by the dynamic and cunning challenger from the North, Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Now you know why GMA, though, doesn’t take the FPJ challenge lightly. Here comes another celluloid hero, on horseback, and – I kid thee not – more people than you suspect are rallying around him.

But a divided Opposition cannot win, no matter how gallant its competing leaders may appear. They will cancel each other out.

There’s jubilation in the Palace and in the LTA.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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