MANILA, September 15, 2003  (STAR)  By Marichu Villanueva By Jose Katigbak STAR Washington Bureau  - All’s well with the First Family.

This is what President Arroyo tried to impress upon her critics when she brought her husband, children and daughters-in-law with her to watch the annual "Gridiron Night" of the National Press Club (NPC) Saturday at the Manila Hotel.

The President and First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo made their first public appearance together since opposition Sen. Panfilo Lacson accused Mr. Arroyo of opening the Jose Pidal accounts with his personal secretary Victoria Toh to launder money.

Aside from money laundering charges, Lacson also romantically linked Toh with the First Gentleman, who earlier admitted these innuendoes of infidelity have affected Mrs. Arroyo herself and their three children.

Since the controversy broke out last month, the President has been keeping a hands-off policy on her husband’s case.

Mrs. Arroyo, at the end of her speech for the NPC Gridiron Night, finally came to her husband’s defense — the First Couple hugged in public and the First Gentleman kissed the top of her head. They were joined on stage by their children Mikey, Dato and Luli, and daughters-in-law Angela and Kakai.

In what she admitted was a "pre-planned" media event, the President brought along the members of the First Family except 10-month-old granddaughter Mikaela Gloria, to show all is well with them despite the controversy surrounding her husband.

"I’d like to ask you to see my family, who are here with me tonight," the President said. "I am very glad to have my family tonight."

The Chief Executive wisecracked that communication experts from Malacañang’s "media group" thought of coming out with their own "drama" for the Gridiron.

"Matinik talaga ang aking media group. Sabi nila, dalhin ko ang aking buong pamilya kasi ang unang plano nila, gagawa sila ng eksena na maghihiwalay kami ni Mike para sa mga tabloids," she said.

"Pero sorry, nahihirapan iyong aking media group for me to change my image from taray to martyr. So sorry na lang iyong sob story," Mrs. Arroyo added, alluding to previous statements made by the First Gentleman that his alleged liaison with Toh has affected their 35-year marriage.

She hastened to add, "Saka na. Because I’m still (trying) to comply with my New Year’s resolution not to be mataray."

The President said she tries hard "not to be mataray even if there is so much dirty laundry, so much filth, so much disorder, so much noise to deal with — and that is just my granddaughter Mikaela — plus I have a government to run, too."

She also said she "obliged" several members of her official family to attend the NPC Gridiron Night, led by Executive Secretary Alberto Romulo, Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople and Press Secretary Milton Alingod. They joined the First Couple at the presidential table with NPC officials, headed by its president Antonio Antonio.

Aside from Alingod, other members of the Palace’s media group who were present included Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye; presidential chief of staff Rigoberto Tiglao and his deputy Renato Velasco, concurrently director of the Philippine Information Agency; and spouses Antonio and Annabelle Abaya.

"The others have better things to do," the President said, referring to other members of her Cabinet. "But here I am, just the same, in this yearly ritual where the President has to grin and bear it while the press pokes fun at our mistakes and our problems. Yes, I am here even for somebody who’s mataray. The mataray usually don’t like to be made fun of."

The STAR learned that the President’s speech was a product of the combined efforts of her Palace media group, but comedian Gary Lising and junior speechwriter Manuel Quezon III crafted the main body of the speech.

In her speech, Mrs. Arroyo joked that her female military aide, who has a thick Visayan accent, once asked her if she will wear her "pidal" pushers for her aerobics session.

The First Gentleman, on the other hand, suffered in silence while characters in the play inspired by the "Wizard of Oz" made fun of Lacson’s innuendoes of his alleged infidelity.

Taking potshots at the half-filled ballroom where the show was held, the President cited for the second time why she brought along only Cabinet members whose agencies are "related to the press" aside from Romulo and Ople, because the rest have "better things to do" than to attend the show.

"Just like those who did not even bother to come tonight, they bought tables… but they did not bother to come because they have better things to do," she joked.

Though the President hurled broadsides against the media, she also poked fun at some of the controversial members of her "security team," particularly former Intelligence Services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Brig. Gen. Victor Corpus, who she has reassigned to her "war room" at the Palace after he resigned following the failed mutiny last July 27.

She alluded to the case of Ador Mawanay, whom Corpus took into protective custody last year after he implicated Lacson in narco-politics. Mawanay subsequently recanted.

Mrs. Arroyo joked about a supposed intelligence report submitted to her by Corpus that she and opposition Sen. Gregorio Honasan have one thing in common — their love of dancing.

Corpus supposedly reported that Honasan "likes the folk dance coup-racha" while she likes the "Cha-cha."

"At last, Victor Corpus’ intelligence is accurate. He’s really traveled the learning curve from his Mawanay days. Noon, nama-Mawanay siya, ngayon Mahusay na!" the President punned, referring to Eugenio Mahusay, Jr., who blew the whistle on the joint accounts of Pidal and Toh.

Mrs. Arroyo did not spare her own Palace media group, whom she fondly chastised for their failure to prevent "leaks" to the media while they called her attention to her "lack of bonding" with journalists, which they said is making their jobs difficult because they cannot convince journalists to report about "the good news," the positive things she does for the country.

"At present, it’s the opposite. The media always make it appear that our country is in deep trouble," she said. "So my request to you, ayusin ninyo sana ang inyong report even if you and I know the good news do not always make it and seldom make… good copy. I wish it did."

The President also took the opportunity to reaffirm her commitment to uphold press freedom in the country, and even made jokes about allegations that she plans to impose martial law to silence Philippine journalists.

"In Malacañang, the order of the day is always two things: feed the beast and try to influence the agenda," she said. "But I think for the editors, the order of the day is bite the hand that feeds the beast and kill the good news."

The President, however, promised the NPC she will create a task force to speed up the solution of the growing list of unsolved murders of Filipino journalists, the most recent being that of hard-hitting Davao broadcaster Jun Pala.

"Jun Pala was a hard-hitting radio broadcaster. He was one of the few who used to say nice things about me and that makes me doubly sad," she said.

Mrs. Arroyo, who saw Philippine National Police chief Director General Hermogenes Ebdane Jr. in the audience, asked him to form this task force to go after suspected killers of slain journalists even as the PNP is trying to recapture escaped Indonesian terrorist Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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