Special to ABS-CBNnews.com (Second of 3 parts)
One day in the heart of the Ramos presidency, then National Security Adviser Jose Almonte stood at the gates of the presidential palace to hold off a woman who could have destroyed the country.
Or so he recalls.
In a way, that’s certainly going to raise eyebrows, Jose Almonte’s memoir, “Endless Journey”, lifts the veil on a subject the press has long been unwilling to touch - the widely circulated stories linking Fidel Ramos to a certain “Baby”.
Almonte describes how he - literally - became a “Baby” sitter and how he protected his boss Fidel Ramos, and the presidency from being destroyed by an enraged woman.
He said, this was “one of the roles I had to assume during the years of the Ramos presidency. It had to do with managing a threat to Ramos's credibility as leader of our country. It did not endanger his physical life, bit it posed a peril to his political life. I took it as part of my duty (as national security adviser) to secure the president from such harm.”
When Ramos ran for president in 1992, Almonte as his campaign manager had to protect the candidate’s image. Ramos was already running with a large handicap: as a Protestant, he was openly opposed by the dominant Catholic Church. On top of that, stories swept the media during the 1992 presidential campaign that Ramos was romantically linked to socialite Rosemary “Baby” Arenas, who reporters nicknamed “Kabuki” because of her invariably heavy makeup.
Ramos’ potential supporters were wary that his administration would turn into a Kabuki government.
Journalists were never able to get a straight answer from Ramos on the true nature of their relationship. To my lady boss, the late Philippine Star co-founder Betty Go-Belmonte, Ramos' closeness to Arenas was a double negative. Mrs Belmonte often told me she was afraid Arenas would form a kind of kitchen cabinet that would serve favor seekers in the Ramos presidency.
When asked about it, Almonte swatted down reporters by saying that this was “something that happened in the past...a matter between two persons.”
Covering Ramos on one of his campaign sorties (he was accompanied by then Pampanga governor, the late Bren Guiao), I decided to directly ask him about Arenas. I did not have Mrs. Belmonte’s go-signal to do this. In fact, she hesitated at first to use my ambush interview.
THE 'BABY' WAS A DONOR
Almonte’s memoir alludes to my exclusive interview with Ramos:
“In the media, as early as during the campaign, Ramos was asked about ‘persistent rumors’ linking him to Baby. Ramos told a reporter, after taking his signature tobacco from his mouth, that she was just a ‘family friend’ with ‘no particular special connection….I am a family man and I would like to assure you that we have a very happy family with Mrs. Ming Ramos.’
I’d like to add now that when he answered me back then, Ramos was calm and very much “steady Eddie”, although Guiao looked at me curiously.
My published Philippine Star interview broke the dam of speculation and yanked this to the public arena.
It now turns out that Mrs. Belmonte was right on the money. In his memoir, Almonte shared a similar reading of the political implications of “Baby”:
“Having contributed substantially to the campaign, Baby expected, perhaps, to be given recognition and some favors. The problem was, the media and civil society openly expected that. It was the core of the speculation against the Ramos presidency that Baby would be a drag on him because he would be paying her back. That did not happen. We tried to avoid the situation that would reach scandalous proportions. I thus became a ‘babysitter’.”
'MING' AND 'BABY'
The struggle to prevent the Ramos administration from being crippled by a boudoir (or kabuki) cabinet went largely unreported by the media, possibly because the administration did its best to suppress or downplay any news about it. When I personally interviewed First Lady Amelita “Ming” Ramos soon after Ramos’ victory, she referred to Arenas as “that woman” who was trying to insinuate herself into the presidency.
First Lady Ming Ramos knew about Ramos’ “affair” but this had ended a long time ago, according to Almonte’s memoir.
However, Almonte did not address the widely-held speculation whether it was true Mrs. Arenas was given a lucrative franchise by the Ramos government.
Still, the previous affair had to be kept secret from the public and Almonte made it part of his job as the national security adviser to be “Baby’s” minder.
Almonte explained why:
“Ramos did not come from the world of movies. And he had never accepted the claim that he was in a relationship with Baby. When she said she could weaken Ramos, it meant that Baby could tell the nation that Ramos was lying and that would diminish the president’s credibility and make him less effective. My greatest fear was that he was going to become a lame duck president.”
It seems rather quaint now to hide a president’s past indiscretion from the public, considering that Ramos’ successor Joseph Estrada openly flaunted his continued serial adultery.
But, not being a brawling two-fisted drunken low-brow action star, Ramos probably felt he had to hold himself to a higher standard. Or perhaps the administration’s support wasn’t so popular, and a Kabuki scandal could be used to cripple it.
THE WEDNESDAY CLUB
Almonte’s memoir also shed light on how a lone woman could have ruined a presidency and how she had access to the highest officials of the land. Almonte said Mrs. Arenas hosted Wednesday dinners attended by businessmen and Ramos’ senior aides.
Almonte said: “This group came to be known as the ‘Wednesday Club’ and the media looked at it as an unofficial power center outside Malacanang.” Almonte does not say whether Ramos himself ever attended. Apparently, though, Ramos did not order his aides to stay away from these dinners.
Almonte disclosed how he once averted a major political scandal involving Baby. This was when he “received information that Baby was on her way to Malacanang to storm the gates and ‘confront’ the Cabinet.”
“By the time she arrived,” Almonte said, “I was already standing by the gate, pale as a sheet, the color of my face in marked contrast to my dark suit. ‘Baby, we’re not going to destroy the country,” I reasoned with her. Tony Carpio (now senior associate justice of the Supreme Court) arrived in time to help calm things down.”
Almonte did not say what had enraged Mrs Arenas so and why a philanthropist and socialite wanted to confront the Cabinet.
On another occasion, Almonte described her as being so enraged that she told him: “You tell your boss that I cannot make him succeed by myself, but I can make him fail by myself.”
It is a credit to Almonte’s skill that the press never got a whiff then of such veiled threats.
During those times I interviewed Almonte, he often pointed out that his job as national security adviser entailed protecting the president’s image.
Now I understand what he really meant by that.
Almonte further disclosed that Mrs/ Arenas wanted his help to run for the Senate in 1995 – and after that the presidency. His refusal led to a bitter falling out.
Unknown to the 200 guests who came to Almonte’s book launching last February 25, Mrs. Arenas’ daughter Congresswoman Rachel Arenas was present - not to congratulate Almonte - but to hand-deliver what we can surmise was an angry letter from her mother.
Remember that trite saying, hell has no fury like a woman scorned? I would love to read that hand-delivered letter from “Baby” to the ”baby-sitter.”
Meanwhile, the ex-president has kept mum over the status of his friendship with the socialite. But as far as Mrs Ramos is concerned, it’s been a closed book for years.
(Raissa Robles is an investigative and political journalist behind raissarobles.com: inside Philippine Politics and Beyond.)