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Culture Spotlight

The Last Good Senator: Ernesto Maceda

While many remember him as a grandstanding trapo, he was also Mr. Expose, a "showman" whose bombshells inside the senate halls were backed by solid research and investigation
Peter Purisima | Mar 24 2019

Seven weeks before we head to the polls to vote for our senatorial bets, do we really know what we want out of the personalities we will elect? What does it really mean to earn a seat in our senate halls? In this series of ANCX essays, some of our distinguished journalists and opinion makers reflect on the careers of past and present senators whose careers have made the most impact, and created a significant difference.  

 

First, some ground rules: I’ll have to limit myself to the senators I covered in my days as reporter. That was batch ’87, the restored senate after Marcos. Since then my definition of “good” has had the benefit of hindsight.

I’m not going to say Sen. Rene Saguisag. That would be an easy and predictable answer. Besides, Saguisag was beyond “good”; he was saintly. During afternoon recess when senators retired to the Senate lounge, Saguisag was alone at the session hall, eating his sandwich or baon, because he was against using taxpayers’ money for the snacks of senators. One notable journalist put it best when she wrote that Saguisag “wore his poverty like a badge of honor.” There was cockiness to his display of virtue. Saguisag refused to stay in the Senate longer than the time it needed for the Cory government to secure the transition back to democracy. He happily faded to private practice in 1992 while his colleagues all elected to run again and again and again.

One of them was Sen. Ernesto Maceda, who was unloved by those who knew him from the disparaging remark made by Manila’s beloved Mayor Arsenio Lacson: the rising city councilor who was so young, so brilliant, and so….

The rumor mill was never kind to Maceda. His departure from the Marcos government early in the “New Society” was similarly clouded in intrigue. (Was it the first lady who would have none of him?). But that Marcos made him executive secretary in 1969, when he was 29 years old, is evidence he was a wunderkind. Marcos was always fond of those sorts.

It was the grandstanding trapo (traditional politician) many remember. There was never a shortage of suspicion of what motivated his numerous investigations. Was it money? Was it fame? Or both?  These investigations by his Blue Ribbon Committee earned him the moniker “Mr. Expose.” The motives didn’t matter when the evidence and the groundwork put into them seemed solid. I distinctly remember a crying Ruffa Gutierrez, Sen. Nene Pimentel by her side as counsel (Pimentel run and lost in the preceding presidential election), pleading before the Blue Ribbon Committee investigating the Bruneiyuki Scandal that she has never been to Brunei and that she was “powerless before the Senate”.

Photograph by Philippinepresidency [CC BY-SA 3.0] on Wikimedia Commons

 

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Maceda had let Ruffa deliver her masterfully-crafted statement and win over the gallery crowd, sans cross-examination. The following week, Maceda presented an airline ticket and passenger manifest with Ruffa’s name on it. Ruffa had gone to Brunei. Maceda simply didn’t want to shame a lady in public. For Maceda, it was not enough to expose and accuse. There was research put into every bombshell he dropped. Someone’s words were not enough. He required material evidence to back his claims.

Other legislators will measure their work by the number of bills filed, passed, or enacted. I don’t recall a significant bill he authored. But Maceda vigorously participated in every bill of consequence. It was not the quantity but the quality of his legislative work. He bragged of perfect attendance, and we can be assured that it was time well spent. Taxpayers who paid for his salary, however gross the amount, can be assured they were not shortchanged.

Maceda eschewed saying things or espousing positions that just sounded warm, nippy, and nice. Perhaps for that reason he will always be held with derision by a liberal-minded, bleeding heart crowd. Yet he was part of the Magnifcent 12 that narrowly won the vote against the US military bases. I’d like to think he thought this one out. He may have been on the side of history in this one.

Maceda was many things we miss in today’s senators. He had an incredible work ethic and possessed a deep understanding of what the job required of him. Nothing was haphazardly done – whether it was an interpellation of a bill or an investigation in-aid-of-reelection. Pulido magtrabaho. None of today’s sloppy exposes or sweeping accusations that generate hype and clicks but often lead to brick walls and dead ends.

Maceda stayed a senator until 1998. By then he had risen to senate president. President Estrada later appointed him ambassador to Washington. He tried to return to the Senate in 2013, running as the oldest candidate. He felt the Senate needed an experienced hand. His defeat must have been deeply disappointing. He always prided himself at having a keen sense of what the people wanted. But celebrity culture had taken over. A new game was in place.

Yes, Maceda may have been a trapo. I prefer total politician, not unlike President Quezon who, to my opinion, is the first trapo. (Quezon wrote the playbook). Saguisag was a misfit, really. Politics is no place for saints. Saguisag knew as much. That’s why he quit early, before he could be consumed, corrupted by it. Politics is compromise; the art of balancing competing interests – of those who voted for you and those who helped get you elected. Maceda embraced all that, perhaps even early in his career as a twenty-something councilor in Manila. Mayor Lacson took notice. Was he disparaging the young pol? Or was he simply describing someone with a fruitful future in politics?