COLUMN: AT LONG LAST, ERAP IS GOING TO AMERICA

MANILA, December 24, 2003  (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - Yesterday’s decision by the Sandiganbayan will surely arouse a storm of noisy and angry protest from the usual civil society militants, the EDSA DOS activists, and the "crush Erap and his Evil Midnight Society" bunch. But let’s face it. The plunder charge still hasn’t been substantiated. Former President Jose Ejercito Estrada, incarcerated though he’s been for years, has not been convicted. Let him go to the United States, then, for the two knee surgeries required to save his spine from further damage.

What can our country lose? When the time comes, if it does, the US will "give" him back. That’s the deal, and Erap not only agrees to it (whether he wants to or not), but he’s even expressing the fear that the GMA government, or whoever’s in authority afterwards, might not allow him to come back. This latter thought may, of course, only be theatrics or cosmetics, but at least Erap has been expressing it.

President Macapagal-Arroyo, it’s inevitable, will be accused of having "persuaded" the Sandiganbayan to let the ex-President depart – thanks to an alleged "deal" with Erap arch-rival FPJ, alias Ronnie Allan Poe. She’s already being dunned for going soft on Erap to court his favor. Indeed, through Housing Secretary and ex-Spice Boy, her spokesman today, Mike Defensor, GMA had a couple of weeks ago sent Mr. Estrada a golf cart to enable him to get around (despite his frozen knees) his place of detention in Camp Capinpin, Tanay, Rizal, and navigate the grounds within his fenced-off compound. When it was pointed out that the golf cart was only "second-hand", GMA – again through Mike – sent a second golf cart, this time brand-new. Why do I know this? My former neighbor businessman and industrialist I. G. Atendido is the one who makes those golf carts, and he confirmed to me he had sold one second-hand, and two brand-new golf carts to Defensor. So, there you are.

* * *

Indeed, my sources who returned yesterday from seeing ex-President Erap in Tanay said he’s ready to go "before New Year’s Day".

He had earlier said he hesitated to go to the US for treatment, since a Feng Shui "prophet" had reminded him that the two Presidents who previously went to the United States and were treated there, died there, unable to return to Manila (Manuel L. Quezon and Ferdinand E. Marcos). Now that he’s convinced no such sad fate will befall him, Erap is packing up to leave, accompanied by his wife, Senator (and Dr.) Loi Ejercito, his personal physician Dr. Larry Hocson, a nephew, and two or three others. He will head for the Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto, California (not far from San Francisco) where his American doctor, the renowned Dr. Christopher Mow, is scheduled to operate on his two bum knees.

I’m told the period of recuperation from such operations is normally two months. This will effectively get Erap, it is expected, out of the eye of the political storm and the byzantine political intrigue now ongoing, but shucks, there’s still the cellphone and e-mail. It’s expected, as well, though, that now Erap and his financiers won’t be financing mutinies, coups, and other disturbances out of the desperation of being cooped up in jail. Don’t you think that didn’t come into consideration? But hey, most people will point out – the Sandiganbayan, or anti-graft court, is independent and outside the influence of the Palace and the Executive Branch.

In a perfect world, this would be true without cavil. Under Philippine conditions, where Realpolitik is practiced, my retort to that idea is: Tell it to the Marines! The long arm of Malacańang extends almost everywhere, and is utilized even by those who misrepresent what the President wants. Erap’s departure, unless something happens between today and the hoped-for departure-date, will also get FPJ off the hook, and GMA has to know that, too. FPJ is accused of being Erap’s candidate and surrogate – which is why he was irritated when a mischievous media trumpeted that Senator Loren Legarda has been "endorsed" by Erap to be FPJ’s vice presidential runningmate. Ronnie Poe’s immediate reaction to this "news" report was negative, even heated. Having Loren foisted on him by Erap would make him look like Estrada’s puppet.

The report wasn’t good for Erap either. It made him appear a meddler, somebody "dictating" to FPJ, and stupid: Loren had, after all, been vicious to Erap during the Senate impeachment "trial", and had, indeed scored tremendous brownie points with the televiewing public for her fighting spirit and her determination to see "justice" done when she shed tears before the camera – tears of frustration that the second envelope, in which it was hoped "Jose Velarde" would be exposed was blocked from being opened. (In truth, when the envelope was finally forced open, it contained nothing much, really.) Hurt worst of all by the alleged Estrada "endorsement" was Loren Legarda herself. What had happened to the tears she shed "on camera", if, indeed, she had made a pilgrimage to visit Erap in Tanay to seek his "endorsement"? This would have made her a balimbing of the most hypocritical sort; i.e., an opportunist so hungry for nomination as FPJ’s Vice-Presidential team-mate that – like King Henry walking barefoot in the snow, in sackcloth and ashes, to beg the Pope for forgiveness in Canossa – Loren had begged Estrada for his blessing.

There are now "denials" of this so-called "malicious" media spin going around. Will the public believe them? The way our politicians are behaving, people are beginning to grumble: A pox on all your houses! Coming back to Erap, what I hear is that he hopes to visit his ailing mother, Mary, 98, in her home in Polk St., North Greenhills, before leaving for San Francisco. Well, that’s it for now. Abangan – the next chapter.

***

There’s no discounting the Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ) phenomenon. Everywhere – except among the educated classes and the Makati Business Club, of course – people I’ve encountered are raising their fingers and saying, "We’re for FPJ." Why? They don’t attempt to argue. They simply say, they believe in his sincerity, or say almost curtly: "He’s my idol." It’s irrational. It’s something near inexplicable. But GMA knows all about this and is taking counter-measures. Let’s see what the following weeks will bring. Somehow, I’m reminded – forgive the heresy – of the Ramon Magsaysay tsunami.

Monching, "The Guy", was scorned and sneered at, called a mere mechanic, a comedian, a grand-stander, a clown and an ignoramus. A graduate of Jose Rizal College – in what? "He barely passed," his detractors followed. Yet, when Monching walked into a room, he was such a vibrant presence that he seduced everybody with his charm, his earnestness, and the tidal wave of his sincerity. I say this as one of the boys of Magsaysay, and his memory moves me to tears still. We cried together once, in the loneliness of his Malacańang room, over what he mourned was his "inability" to solve the problems of our nation – he was that frank about his own shortcomings – but in retrospect he was a man who transformed our nation. For one brief moment, we had a Camelot within our grasp. One shining moment which will shine forever in the hearts of all who know him. Even those who were touched briefly by the warmth of his nature.

Can FPJ be another Magsaysay? He may prove a fake, a flop, a mirage. An actor on a stage, mimicking radiant reality. But, in our time of doubt and despair, he’s the man on the white horse, riding gallantly into the fray. The horse looks like it’s stumbling though, even before the first hurdle. The opposition is disintegrating. Butz Aquino has "expelled" Ed Angara. In turn, Ed Angara has "expelled" Butz Aquino. If you ask me, Ed Angara is right. He's the secretary general of Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) and Butz Aquino had no business breaking ranks by insisting that Ping Lacson should be the proclaimed candidate. It sadly looks like the opposition is not fighting GMA, it’s engaged in civil war – or, worse, an uncivil war of words in the media, hurling harsh accusations, allegations, and outright lies at each other. Are these the "saviors" of the nation? Heaven help us, observers and disillusioned friends are now asking.

GMA? She’s jubilant.

What about FPJ? The way he’s sounding in intimate conversation with friends, is that in his disappointment he may try to organize an FPJ party – and the heck with the cling-ons, hangers-on, and would-be coat-tail riders. Can such a jerry-built phalanx of Knights Templars succeed, or will they falter from inexperience? One thing is clear. We’re in for a very interesting New Year.

Before we forget: Merry Christmas! Jesus came down from Heaven, a Babe in swaddling clothes to save our souls, and redeem us from sin. It is up for us sinners, as He himself reminded us when He "grew up", to save ourselves.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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