July 16, 2004  (STAR) By Pia Lee-Brago and Dina Sta. Maria  -  It is thursday, the day after the inauguration, and Vice President Noli De Castro wears his new mantle as the second highest elected official of the land with ease. There is an inaugural address to deliver in Butuan in Mindanao in the morning, and his first Cabinet meeting in Clark Field in Pampanga in the evening.

At that meeting the President gave him his first official assignment: Visit Laoag, Ilocos Norte and report on the extent of damage caused by typhoon Igme, help in the distribution of relief goods and submit recommendations to help the province.

Following his trip up north on Friday, his recommendations for the typhoon devastated province included temporary housing for the evacuees, donation of seedlings to farmers whose crops were damaged and construction of a dam to avoid future flooding.

On Monday, De Castro met the staff of the Office of the Vice President, and while he has yet to announce his decision on whether to retain the more than 20 employees who are co-terminus with former Vice President Guingona, he gave them a brief inspirational talk after the flag raising ceremony. He then proceeded to a briefing at the OVP, a meeting with the Department of Foreign Affairs protocol office and another briefing with historian Manuel Quezon III, who gave him a quick history lesson on the vice presidency. He also dropped in at his extension office in Malacañang.

On Tuesday, De Castro celebrated his birthday by attending a mass at the Our Lady of Manaoag church in Pangasinan. He was joined by his wife Arlene and their children.

It was on Tuesday too that controversy swirled around the new Vice President, when President Arroyo formally announced his appointment as Secretary of Social Welfare and Development following her acceptance with "utmost regret" of the resignation of Secretary Corazon "Dinky" Soliman, who is one of the rare Cabinet secretaries seen by all as having done a good job. Immediately, howls of political payback and campaign deals greeted the appointment, perceived by many as part of the deal Arroyo and De castro entered into when he agreed to be her running mate.

How this will affect his performance when he assumes the post come November remains to be seen. Soliman has said she will work with De Castro during the next four months to effect a "seamless transition" and enable him to "come in with a better knowledge and a support system ready to accept him".

De Castro emerged from a childhood of poverty in Oriental Mindoro and began a career in media in 1976 as a field reporter for radio. In 1986, after the People Power Revolution enabled the resumption of operations of television broadcaster ABS-CBN, he joined the network and began a successful career as broadcast journalist, anchoring such popular shows as Magandang Umaga, Overseas Unlimited, the longest running television magazine program Magandang Gabi...Bayan! and the phenomenal TV Patrol.

As host of these shows, De Castro exuded just the right amount of mass appeal and served as an effective link between the masses and government, helping indigent patients, bringing home needy overseas workers, exposing scams and scandals, even locating missing persons and reuniting them with family. The moniker "Kabayan" fit him to a tee.

With his remarkable broadcast success and his undisputed popularity, it was inevitable that Noli de Castro would run for public office. Despite conspiracy theories of a "big bad business" pulling the strings behind him he won a Senate seat in the 2001 elections with a record number of over 16 million votes.

Bucking the general perception that he was a passive, do-nothing legislator, De Castro cites a creditable record in the Senate: "As a senator, I am one of those first-termers who have a long list of Senate bills that were filed and passed."

He joined fellow first-time senators Joker Arroyo, Francis Pangilinan, Ralph Recto and Manuel Villar in what came to be known as the Wednesday Group that met after sessions in the middle of the week to "discuss matters of public concern".

Again, inevitably, his name came up when talk turned to the 2004 elections. De Castro topped practically all surveys for both president and vice president. After keeping the nation–and many candidates wooing to have him on their slate–guessing for several months, De Castro announced on December 29, 2003 that he had accepted the nomination as the coalition running mate of President Arroyo. When asked why he opted not to go for the presidency despite the convincing survey results, he admitted that he was not yet ready for the post, an answer that won him admiration and many points for honesty and humility, but which also leaves the door open for bigger things in the future.

This from a man who as late as last year was characterized as unhappy being a politician. "It’s not his cup of tea," wife and "best friend" Arlene told newsmagazine Newsbreak in an interview last December. "I can see, I can feel he is not happy in the Senate..." adding that he would be happy to go back to his programs on radio and television. "That’s his life," she told the news magazine, "he’s sad without them."

De Castro himself is reported to have said of the current brand of politics, "If showbiz is plastic, politics is even more so, and it’s the cheap kind."

With the 15-million strong mandate he received in the polls, Noli de Castro is determined to prove those who are doubting his capability to perform wrong. He does not intend to merely wait in the wings as the country’s "spare tire"; with the Social Welfare portfolio he aims to serve the government and the Filipino people faithfully and well. he aims to serve the government and the Filipino people faithfully and well. "With the same fervor and dedication will the Vice President accept any government job that the President may offer," he said in a statement.

But he is realistic too about any politician’s ability to meet the people’s expectations. "Sometimes people look up to you as a superman who can solve the country’s problems," he said in an interview, adding, "I am not afraid (of the responsibility) because once you are there, you have no choice but to do the job unless you want people to curse you. I have not experienced being cursed. I don’t like that to happen to me."

Senator Joker Arroyo, who has said on more than one occasion that De Castro is "destined" te become president, said in an earlier interview with The STAR: " Noli’s ears were cupped to the ground and over the years he responded to matters of public interest. Noli can hack it. People mistake his modesty and disinclination for fanfare as indications of immaturity for public office, which is not the case."

Thrust into the second highest office in the country, the stage is set for Noli de Castro to show himself worthy of the people’s trust.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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