MARRIED TO THE COUNTRY

Manila, August 25, 2003 (STAR) SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan  - Queen Elizabeth I declared, after being betrayed by her lover, the Earl of Leicester Robert Dudley, "I am married… to England."

Filipinos remember this not from history lessons but from the 1998 movie Elizabeth. President Arroyo must have had history in mind when she declared at the Philippine Military Academy last week that she would not intervene in her husband’s current woes, that he was on his own and "I am married to my country."

After her betrayal, Elizabeth must have believed that behind every great woman is a man trying to bring her down. So she became England’s "virgin queen" and forgot about men, but spared the Earl of Leicester from execution or imprisonment. She then presided over the Elizabethan era, a golden age in English history.

With President Arroyo’s avowed marriage to the country, has she effectively divorced her husband? And will the First Gentleman take the hint? Or is the "divorce" just a conjugal gambit for political survival in the run-up to 2004?

From text jokes and coffee shop comments, opinion seems to tilt toward the gambit. If the President really wants a divorce of sorts, she may have to give a more categorical statement.

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These days even some of the President’s supporters seem to think that her husband has become too much of a liability for her, whether she’s running in 2004 or simply wants to fulfill her promise of becoming a "good president."

There are people who see nothing illegal about soliciting millions of pesos in campaign contributions, especially if the money doesn’t come from drug dealers, kidnappers and robbers of banks and armored vans. All politicians raise campaign funds, with no cap on the amount of allowed contributions. There are also people who see nothing illegal about putting excess campaign donations into secret accounts using an alias, which is allowed under the country’s banking system.

The First Gentleman, however, is not dwelling on these details. His defense seems to focus on his denial that he owns the "Jose Pidal" account. He needs a good handler to finesse his case, because his presentation of his side has been clumsy at best. Lacson, on the other hand, is so far winning on the PR front, even if some of his accusations are starting to crumble.

Lacson is also milking for all it’s worth the special ties between the First Gentleman and Victoria Toh and her family. If the First Gentleman appears at the Senate investigation, he must prepare to talk about his association with the Tohs, who have claimed ownership of the Jose Pidal accounts.

There is naughty speculation that the President would have defended her husband as usual in this latest scandal, were it not for that detail about Vicky Toh. So now the President would rather be married to the country.

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Then again, we’re probably reading too much into the President’s statements. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, after all, is a devout Catholic, and one of the pillars of her faith is the family. She wouldn’t break up her family over politics, and especially not over allegations hurled by one of her political enemies.

Shortly after EDSA Dos, when critics suggested that if she really wanted to become a good president, she should send her controversial husband into exile until her term was over, her supporters responded by attacking the heartless critics who wanted the Arroyo children to be deprived of a loving father. End of story – until Jose Pidal came along. (And coming soon, Ping Lacson’s version of Clarissa Ocampo – or at least that’s what he claims.)

But then if the President’s main concern is her family, then the announcement at the PMA, that breeding ground for violent malcontents, should have been, "I stand by my man." Why, even Hillary Clinton, in the face of her international humiliation over the Monica Lewinsky affair, decided to stand by Bill. And what do you know, that marriage seems to have survived the Monica tempest. And Hillary even went on to become senator.

Instead what we got from our President was: "I am married to my country."

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Since the President has decided to distance herself from First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, the next question is whether it will work. Will her enemies feast on her husband and spare her? This will depend on how much distance she will put between her and the First Gentleman in the coming weeks.

It’s no secret that the First Gentleman is deep in preparations for the President’s candidacy in 2004 – just in case she changes her mind, of course. The talk is that he’s the one behind those streamers that pop up periodically in the city of Manila, displayed close to police stations and barangay offices, urging the President to run.

Between the two of them, it’s the First Gentleman, not the taray queen, who has natural people skills. Mike Arroyo is the one who feels your pain and should have been the politician. He might even like the "Incredible Hulk" tag – Marvel comic book fans know that the green giant is a tragic hero.

But the First Gentleman attracts too much heat, and people aren’t sure if it’s all due to plain political mudslinging. So far all the earlier accusations against him failed to stick, although he suffered scratches and bruises along the way. But he remains the best target for anyone who wants to hit the President.

The Lacson camp seems unfamiliar with the story of nuclear physicist Robert Bruce Banner and the Hulk. But it’s clear that they intend to keep the First Gentleman inextricably linked with President Arroyo in the Jose Pidal controversy. So don’t expect the opposition to buy that marriage to the country. And don’t expect any let-up in the attacks on the First Family.

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SENATE TRUANT: Another week, another interview with the "inaccessible" Gregorio Honasan. Saturday night it was with another group of journalists, with Honasan saying basically the same things. Honasan is accessible to his relatives, lawyers, the press, his Senate colleagues – practically everyone except cops and soldiers. He’s played truant from the Senate for a month now. Can taxpayers get a refund?


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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