In the waning days of the Aquino presidency, President Benigno S. Aquino III called his speechwriters in. “One day you’ll write about these years, but please wait for me to die,” he told us. “After I die, you can write whatever you want.” So here I am, Mr. President, having respected your wishes, writing the truth about what I saw, though I wish I could have done this decades from now:
Whenever I had a difficult time with my Boss, I would remind myself of the stories he told me. Once, his family killed his pet chicken and cooked it for dinner, and he was since unable to eat “any kind of fowl.” Another time, when his father found out Little Noy wouldn’t share his candies, he confiscated the whole bag and redistributed it to the entire house. And lastly—before Ninoy Aquino left the United States to return to the Philippines in 1983, he took his only son aside, and told him that if the worst came to pass, then he would have to be the man of the house. He was 22—and was spending most of his days listening to records in their basement.
In the wake of Ninoy’s assassination—Noynoy Aquino tried his best to keep it together. The exact quote eludes me, but he told us something to the effect of: His mother was crying, his sisters were crying, and if he cried too, then who wouldn’t be crying? He needed to be unemotional. He needed to be the man of the house.
I repeated these stories to myself because I was attributing to trauma what some might attribute to coldness. PNoy was a demanding Boss who, congruent to public perception, was insensitive and stubborn. Among our frivolous disagreements were about translations. Instead of “utak talangka,” the President preferred to translate crab mentality to “utak alimango.” Instead of “panganib” or “peligro,” he preferred translating risk to “risko,” which we would always have a laugh about.
Sometimes, he would lambast us in public: “Pinababa ko po ang teleprompter dahil hindi ko nagustuhan ang naihanda ng aking mga speechwriter,” which stung. But he would always eventually invite us to a meal, which was the closest we ever got to an apology.
Of course, there were many moments when the mistakes would be undeniably ours: Confusing “millions” and “billions” (yikes), inadvertently renaming military vessels, inserting too many jokes about his baldness. “Pwede ba, pabayaan niyo na akong magbiro tungkol sa pagka-kalbo ko?” the President told us. PNoy had this way of half-laughing when he was annoyed or exasperated. Paired with his hyper-practical and unemotional responses to crises—perhaps a result of the tragedies in his own life—this got him in trouble with the media (and the public) several times.
Regardless of the common office tensions between us, we had deep respect for him. He never made us do work that he wouldn’t do himself. On foreign trips, we stayed up with him until past midnight to work on his speeches. He would call up his Cabinet Secretaries himself to ask for the correct data. Perhaps most importantly, he never asked us to compromise our values. We were never scolded for writing in progressive statements that could turn out to be policy—unless we did it three or four times in a row! Issues were always up for debate, but at the end of the day, the President made a decision, and everyone had to stand by it.
People often asked me whether he spent a lot of time playing video games, to which I would always say: “I wish.” He pushed himself. He would take calls at two or three in the morning, like when the Arab Spring broke out—and he had to help ensure safe passage for OFWs who wanted to go home. He read briefers and intelligence reports diligently. He once wrote a memo to our Correspondence Office—where I worked in 2010—because we sent in too many templated messages for his signature. Yes, he read all of them—hundreds in a week—before signing; and he wanted us to write a unique message for every requesting party.
During SONA season, we would sit with him every morning with a new draft and take note of his comments as he smoked cigarettes, drank Coke Regular, and ate chicharon. He knew by heart all the numbers that defined his administration: 4.4 million households receiving Conditional Cash Transfers—up from 800,000 in 2010. $6.2 billion in net foreign direct investments, up from $1.07 billion. 66,800 classrooms. 12,184 kilometers of national roads. This was when we saw that he was Ninoy’s son—how much he read, how much he remembered, how much he cared.
Perhaps the difference was in how undisputedly kooky he was. Once, he told us: “The intro of the speech needs to be catchy, like: ‘Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy.’” I had to ask myself: Did the President just quote Ke$ha?
There was one meeting where, for some reason, we ended up listening to and discussing the merits of Regine Velasquez’s “Dadalhin.” And on the morning of his audience with Pope Francis, he sat in his music room and listened to an entire Bukas Palad album, before switching—finally—to Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode” (It’s the motherfucking D-O double G!) and departing to meet the Pope. Once, he hid in a dark corner of his residence in Bahay Pangarap and made a few subtle noises, so that he could jump out and frighten one of his bodyguards.
Nevertheless, work was always work. During a state visit to France, his entourage was treated to a night visit to the Louvre—which lasted for only one hour. The Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and done. The President didn’t allocate time for such things because our trips were paid for by the Filipino people. And anyway, he was excited to bring us to the Chinese place next to our hotel to get siomai and spring rolls… in Paris—a restaurant choice we all secretly resented.
I realize I may sound ungrateful, but I assure everyone I am beyond grateful. It just feels right to talk about who he really was as a person—which naturally includes some harmless complaining. When I open the 2010-16 folders in my memory, I jump straight into these oddities and moments of minor annoyance. But of course, when I zoom out and view the entirety of his life, the picture looks quite magnificent.
Whether one agrees with his policies or not, it takes nerves of steel to take on Arroyo, Enrile, Estrada, and Revilla all at once. It takes a person of character and fortitude to stand up to China. During this time, we also climbed every possible global index of success—the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness Rankings, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, among several others. The DPWH saved 28 billion pesos just by reworking the bidding process. The BIR collected the highest revenues in history. Out of school children went from 2.9 million to 1.2 million. These results are well-documented, but they admittedly remain nauseating for me and my colleagues—who had to read these briefers every single day.
Of course, as there were high points during his term, there were also regrettable ones. For instance, I choose to believe it was his predisposition to be pragmatic and unemotional that made him go to the opening of a car factory instead of welcoming the bodies of our men who fell in Mamasapano. He spent a long time denying the distressing statistics about the damage and death toll of Typhoon Yolanda. It feels wrong to use his trauma as a shield from accountability for such disastrous moments. But it says something about the magnitude of the job of the President—how such simple frailties can have such devastating effects.
At the beginning of his term, we tried to make “Daylight” happen. It was an ultimately unfruitful branding exercise, though the logic made sense at the time—daylight to expose what once dwelled in darkness. No more under-the-table deals. No more wang-wang. Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap. Now, as the day turns to night on this man’s life, I can say without doubt that I am grateful to have worked with Noynoy Aquino—that my admiration outshines any resentment. He was a good person who was born into the center of our nation’s political story—who lived an unusual and remarkable and difficult life—who did what he could to make things better.
If we think we can do better, we should. That’s what he would want too. During his 5th SONA—my favorite—he said: “At kung dumating nga ang panahong iyon, at natapos na po ang ating pangalawang buhay, masasabi ko ho bang, okay na rin? At sasabihin ko po sa inyo, mata sa mata… kontento na po ako dahil panatag ang kalooban ko, na kung ako po’y mawala na dito, marami po ang magpapatuloy ng ating tinahak na. Baka iyon lang po talaga ang papel ko: umpisahan ito.”
I am trying to imagine his displeasure at being remembered this way—both the good and the not-so-good. But this, too, is something I learned from him. I am heartbroken that we have lost Noynoy Aquino. He was my first Boss, the gravity that pulled in so many people I met and idolized in government. But if we all spent this time crying, then who wouldn’t be crying? The worst has come to pass, and we have work to do, picking up where he left off.
[Gil Nartea was the official Palace photographer during the presidential term of Benigno Aquino III.]