By Jose Paolo S. Dela Cruz (People Asia) - Firstborn may not always be first choice, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from being at the top of his game.

Take it from Senate President pro tempore Jinggoy Estrada, a man who had to prove himself worthy of being the torchbearer of one of the country’s most prominent political titans.

One day, I want to be just like him.”

That was the dream that resonated in the heart of a wide-eyed boy named Jose Pimentel Ejercito, as he tagged along with his father, Joseph Ejercito “Erap” Estrada, long before his short-lived presidency.

Back then though, everything was roses, with the prospect of politics seeming all too foreign to Erap’s first son. By “like him,” the boy nicknamed “Jinggoy” actually meant “actor” — a frivolous aspiration, especially when compared to what he was unknowingly bound to become.

Soon after graduating from UP-Manila, Jinggoy asked his father if he could follow his footsteps by jumpstarting a career in entertainment. The action superstar-turned-politician was less than thrilled with the idea, citing a number of reasons reminiscent of catty mockeries from some nighttime telenovela. “He said I didn’t have what it takes, that I didn’t look half as good as him, that I was too fat,” Jinggoy recalls with brazen laughter.

Still, sensing his son’s burning desire for stardom, Erap gave him the green light on three conditions. Jinggoy vowed to take acting workshops, fulfill his responsibilities as the eldest son, and last but absolutely not least, lose the spare tire. Number one and two proved easy, being the responsible young man that he is. Number three? It had to wait a bit — three decades to be exact.

While sharply criticized for his “lacking” genetic gifts (by the man who’s half-responsible for it, at the very least) Jinggoy never harbored bitter feelings towards Erap. For all it’s worth, he took every criticism in stride — from the constructive, all the way down to the just plain hurtful. “My father and mother are very strict disciplinarians. They want you to be the best that you can be. It’s tough at times, but it’s also just fair,” he explains. Such stern standards also helped him steer clear of the sense of entitlement that has brought many a firstborn to their downfall.

Contrary to common belief, Jinggoy was rarely — if not never — Erap’s first choice in a lot of political decisions. One clear example is the 1988 local elections, which paved the way for Jinggoy’s successful entrance to the political arena. “Coming into politics was an accident for me. I was a substitute candidate for vice mayor of San Juan,” he starts off, divulging that the more bankable ’80s heartthrob Gabby Concepcion was Erap’s first choice for the position. Erap, a former San Juan mayor, was then running for senator (a successful bid).

However, Gabby had his eyes on a much bigger prize — that of mayorship. And so when he jumped to another party to fulfill his political desires, the Estrada camp was left without a vice-mayoralty candidate. Jinggoy took Gabby’s place and sealed the first of his many political victories.

It didn’t take long though before Jinggoy discovered that politics was, is and will always be a cleverly disguised snake pit. “After I won, the new mayor was less than cordial because he saw me as a threat. Zero budget. Laging gipit (always harassed). That’s when I went down to the barangay level,” he reckons. Proving the he is indeed Erap’s spawn, he appealed to the masses and explained how his second-in-command status has stunted his vision for San Juan.

The people listened and by 1992, he became the youngest mayor in the Philippines. He held on to that post dearly, with palabra de honor being his ultimate weapon across three terms.

And then came the fall from power, albeit temporarily, and Jinggoy’s world was never the same again.

Boys don’t cry

Even Erap seemed to think so.

When the late Gen. Angelo Reyes, President Estrada’s former Armed Forces Chief of Staff, withdrew his support on that fateful day in 2001, Jinggoy knew that a shift in power was inevitable. And that was exactly how the cookie crumbled. As it did, the firstborn wept.

“I could not stomach what people were saying about my father. My father is a good man. If there was one mistake that he committed, it’s probably being too trusting. He’s too kind with friends,” he claims.

People began to flood EDSA in revolt. The man of the country’s most powerful household stayed still, as every subject — his family included — braced themselves for the worst. “I looked for my dad, I cried to him. I was hysterical and on the floor,” he confesses.

On that momentous occasion, Erap showed Jinggoy how it was to fall, how even the most powerful leaders can be stripped of power but never of hope. “My dad was calm, quiet. ‘Stand up and just support me’,” he said. “All I could do was listen and obey.”

At that point, Jinggoy realized that he had a long way to go, before finally being worthy of taking his father’s place in the annals of history. “It was a very, very painful experience. It was really a nightmare for us. I had a lot of sleepless nights even long after the tragedy,” Jinggoy explains.

Hurt but choiceless, he manned up for his father and opened his eyes to the nightmare that began to unfurl. Soon after, he found himself in jail for two years, as he and Erap were arrested for allegations of plunder. That moment behind the steely bars of jail heightened Jinggoy’s anger. For the elder Estrada though, it cultivated forgiveness. And then, like a real miracle, there was a transfer of spirit.

“One by one, the people who betrayed our family visited us while we were incarcerated. All of them, my father forgave,” Jinggoy tells. Their list of visitors even included Erap’s constitutional successor, former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whom Erap also claims to have forgiven. When asked if Jinggoy would extend the same courtesy to the woman who became his father’s downfall, now that she, too, is being tried for corruption, he couldn’t help but crack a joke. Even in laughter, a feeling of anger seemed to well in Jinggoy’s answer. “I can forgive but I can’t forget. Pero bata pa naman tayo, matutunan din natin yan (But we’re still young, and one day, we will master that),” he says with a smile.

Jinggoy was cleared of plunder in time for the 2004 senatorial elections, while Erap was pardoned by Mrs. Arroyo, just a few days after he was found guilty by the courts. Better days seemed to wait for this father-and-son tandem.

An updated version of him

Even mistakes — corrected or otherwise — have become part of Jinggoy now. He wears them proudly on his sleeve, like a badge of his imperfect humanity. Somehow, it is amusing to see that even successful men like him could easily admit to the weakness of their being. “I’m only human,” he said more than a couple of times during the interview, especially whenever I raise questions on forgiveness or hurt due to political and personal betrayals. But there is one badge that Jinggoy is proudest of — his hard-learned lesson on humility.

Long after the Estradas have regained some — if not all — of their political clout, the once-fallen and now risen gentleman from San Juan has finally learned to bow his head and keep his feet firmly on the ground. “When I was mayor, and perhaps even when we were in Malacańang, I used to be too tough, sometimes to the point of being arrogant. But after that humbling experience, when we were no longer on top and the rest of the world treated us na para kaming may ketong (like we had leprosy), I realized the value of humility.”

Slowly, Jinggoy started to recover from life’s mockeries. He began to mend relationships. But while Erap’s love for his son is unquestionable, he didn’t seem to play favorites with him still — even at a time that could have been very convenient for both of them.

Jinggoy admits that his inclusion in the late Fernando Poe Jr.’s senatorial lineup in 2004 was yet another stroke of luck. “Nobody wanted me on that lineup because everyone seemed to believe that we were bad for politics. Even my father trusted his advisors on that,” claims Jinggoy. But when two senatorial candidates from FPJ’s Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino decided to abandon ship, an opening was made for Jinggoy. He grabbed the bull by its horns and ended up 10th in the senatorial race.

One with the Law

While initially bored by the prospect of legislation, Jinggoy admits that he took this new step in his political career very seriously. He soon studied the law, reviewing it with passionate madness in his attempts to show the he, too, can be the brightest bulb in the room. The gesture proved healthy for him and his career, what with his first interpolation on the floor being conducted by no less than the fiercest one of all, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

By his second term, Jinggoy saw to it that people took him even more seriously. He even underwent bariatric surgery to curb his appetite, eventually losing him some of that dreaded weight.

He even perfected the style of his hair, all at the advice of Erap, who saw his son’s more serious trajectory in politics. “I’m no longer the arrogant fatso I used to be,” Jinggoy even jokes.

More than the physical improvements though, the second-term senator burned even more midnight oil on his law books and invested in being more articulate. And, if his performance during the overly publicized Corona impeachment was any indication, one could easily say that Jinggoy has indeed grown to become one of the Senate’s fastest-rising stars.

Staying true to his namesake “Anak ng Masa” (son of the masses), most of Jinggoy’s proposed bills are geared towards alleviating widespread poverty. Among his most notable propositions of late is Senate Bill 78, also known as the Kasambahay Bill. This new piece of legislation is designed to help safeguard the tenure and livelihood of maids and household staff, who are prone to being victims of unjust compensation and other trade disadvantages. If passed, this law will entitle household staff to basic safeguards such as written employment contracts, basic salary guidelines, 13th month pay and other mandatory benefits like SSS and Philhealth — the kinds enjoyed by regular Filipino employees in other fields.

“I remember the first time I became senator, when my father walked up to me and said: ‘Anak, senador ka na. Wag na wag mong dudungisan ang pangalan ko. (Son, you are now a senator. Don’t you ever do anything that will tarnish my reputation),” recalls Jinggoy, as he looks on at the distant sky. If his ledger, at least as a lawmaker, is any testament to his work, then it’s safe to say that Jinggoy has taken his father’s stern warnings to heart.

As Joseph Estrada once so (in)famously said, “Weder, weder lang yan. (Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down).” This knowledge on the temporal rings true in the reality that is their lives. Erap himself, like Jinggoy, seems to have recovered from his tragic unseating — even going as far as to purchase an P80-million house to stake his claims at the upcoming mayoralty race in Manila this 2013.

Jinggoy, however, is in no way too bold about his plans for the future. And while rumors are swirling that he will team-up with Vice President Jejomar Binay come 2016, the senator opted to keep mum on the subject. “That’s four years away and we have a lot of work to be done. Let’s not waste time politicking,” he answers firmly.

And with that, the man who says he never had it easy — as a son, a man, and a politician — went back to work. All in the name of the father he has revered, all for the sake of the masses he claims to love so much.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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