LAST time I saw Letty Ramos Shahani was at the beauty parlor where we both go. She was frail and being helped to the door. It was the one time I did not go to greet her. I would not have another chance.
When I was lucky to be in the parlor at the same time I’d take the seat beside her, eager to learn from what she said and her way of saying it—a minimum of words and a maximum of impact. Elegance. Once she told me to cool off. Chinese incursions are a matter for careful thought, not blowing off steam. It may not even be our national territory involved, as I so vehemently insisted. I did not argue, I listened, and thereafter steered clear of the South China Sea.
The seeming vindication of my fulmination came without help from me, even though it was our territory after all. But she was working quietly—I noisily—for the Philippine position. Was she wrong in her circumspection and I right in ranting? No. Her way was the diplomatic and correct approach.
A perusal of the high tribunal ruling starts with our disclaimers of this or that assertion we could have made—but for the strategic decision to pare down our cause to the most basic requirements of the law. That in part explains our victory at the Hague. Less is more. That approach sustained us all the way, and it was Letty’s way.
She acquired it as a young editor for a UN publication where she learned the need for elliptical, even dense expression—not to conceal the truth but make it easy to swallow. But the formalism did not come naturally, for we learn that beneath her formal demeanor seethe passions for great causes—like the inherent dignity of womanhood without regard to circumstances as a stand alone value. She broke ranks and violated protocol on at least two occasions, one earning her a lengthy rebuke from Carlos P. Romulo no less—but the respect and support of the United Nations nonetheless.
And again when, without giving it more than a thought, she came out for Cory Aquino. She was surprised at the astounding effect her declaration had on political events. It was a massive crack in the armor of the dictator, delivered by no less than his cousin, sister to a martial law administrator, and a widely honored diplomat. In speaking out, she had the attention of the world.
She seemed born for the foreign service as it must be done—with tact but never obsequiousness. Tact means doing the right thing without ruffling feathers. Doing the wrong thing just calls for deceit. A foreign service marked by a willingness to compromise but never on matters of morality. A foreign service aware of our modest capabilities but also with a correct estimation of our tall standing in the community of nations as a country that has never done wrong and done much exemplary good in the world—not least in the cause of advancing democracy.
She was fortunate in her choice of a career that requires the highest intellectual and therefore the highest moral qualities in the public service. For mind and morals go hand in hand there.
The foreign service is the place from which the ability to speak out, which the weak possess in equal measure with the strong, can achieve the same publicity but with rather more credibility. And so it remains today.
The first time I crossed her path professionally was when she proposed recognizing Palestine as a state as the first diplomatic initiative of the new democracy. Even in my rashness then I could see the symmetry of her proposal: the country whose tie-breaking vote tipped the balance in favor of the admission of one country, cannot shirk the responsibility to restore the balance by voting to admit the other at whose expense the first was established.
But at the time we had just come from defeating a US-sponsored dictatorship. The Americans had lost. Why provoke them into becoming sore losers. Letty’s proposal would annoy them. So I opposed it with an inelegance I regretted and never ceased to apologize for. But if I thought my vehemence carried the day it was she who had her way. Cory took her advice. The moral balance was restored in Philippine diplomacy.
She should have stayed in the foreign service. She ended up in the Senate.
She tried to bring to that contentious body the same uncompromising standard, yet also the same tact in side-stepping quarrels arising from pride and continuing with vitriol; opting rather for polite discourse proceeding with reason ineluctably toward the right. She was inflexible in the right.
She was twice elected; the second time she survived the near wipe-out of her brother’s senatorial slate, having garnered nationwide admiration.
She got bi-partisan support for the position of senate president pro-tempore, the first woman ever. But she deserved a different and a more exalted context in which to play a part; a moral realm where she could in part administer a wider effort, involving those of a shared caliber, in the pursuit of a common cause; a cause beneficial to everyone and hurtful to none.
There one could behave, not like a politician nor even a diplomat, but like a public servant in a national government except this one spans the globe: one government for all the peoples thereon; seeking conditions of sufficiency, wellbeing; justice, peace and lawful order that a public servant might work for in a national government.
That is why we are not ambassadors representing our own to another country—but permanent representatives in permanent missions to the United Nations of which we are a charter member. That is to say that we are ambassadors to ourselves—in community with other peoples of the world’s nations united. All this toward a time when, to borrow the words of Tennyson,
the war drum throbs no longer, and
the battle flags are furl’d
in the parliament of man, the federation
of the world.
there the common sense of most shall
hold a fretful realm in awe,
and the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in
Goodbye Letty. I stand where you did too briefly and should have stayed. It is a well-deserved rest to which you go, with much regret and grief on the part of your colleagues, who have much yet to do—and far far yet to go.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.