We are suffering from a drought of statesmen and a flood of politicians. It’s like a diet full of calories with almost no nutrition. Statesmen are like vegetables. Many people don’t like them, but they’re good for you. Politicians are like too much ice cream. Yummy. I’ll worry about the stomach ache later.
Several scandals and controversies in national politics have withered away public trust and confidence on our so-called public servants. From the Rolex 12 controversy of the 1970s up to the recent Pork Barrel Scam, the image of the present-day Filipino politician has been mired down. And so stuck in the rut is this image that it has become easy not to distinguish anymore the difference between a political imbroglio and the latest celebrity sex scandal. Social media stewards are always on the lookout not only for the latest confession from some pregnant starlet but also for an interesting below-the-belt altercation between two senators.
It has come to a point that we no longer differentiate an erring celebrity from a grandstanding politician. Both have become entertainers, and they do succeed in entertaining us. It’s that bad. Yet we don’t find this repulsive anymore because such news puts a smirk on our faces. It’s that worse.
Public servants, most especially our supposedly esteemed senators, are now regarded as smartly dressed comedians grandstanding behind podiums. Gone are the days when the august halls of the Senate were just that — august, venerable. filled with grandeur and eloquence. They deliver speeches (most of which were in Spanish) in a manner as if they were the treasured epic poetry of a generation. From the peanut gallery of the Senate, debates (most of which, again, were in Spanish) were highly anticipated by an audience who were eager to listen not only to the sense of the arguments but also to the artistic eloquence of the debaters. Each and every senator displayed the highest respect for each other and for their individual selves. Although some of them do not agree on each other regarding various national issues, they do not in any way regarded each other as enemies even if their respective political parties were warring against each other.
Simply put, they were not just politicians. Even “public servant” is too hackneyed a term to apply to them. These gentlemen of the old school were statesmen. And of the highest order.
Many are in agreement that a statesman is usually a politician, a diplomat, or other notable public figure who has had a long and respected career at the national or international level. But there is a vast difference between a politician and a statesman. Various people, from movie stars to boxers to obscure money launderers, can be elected into public office, turning into bona fide government officials in the process. But not all politicians can be statesmen. While being a politician can be learned through experience, people management, and even cunning*, being a statesman is something that is more of a responsibility. Of course, being an elected official entails having responsibilities to his constituents, but as often is the case nowadays, a politician is tied to the goals and objectives of his party while a statesman is tied to the state, whether half the state dislikes him or not.
But what does it take to be a statesman? Brilliance and clarity of mind, a cultured environment, lofty ideals for the state. And most importantly: CHARACTER. And while both politician and statesman can claim to have a genuine concern for the people, only the latter can rouse his people into action against social apathy by injecting into them the same fiery passion, the same patriotism, that he has in his noble heart. Statesmen are not just sagacious thinkers but also masters of the oratory. It can be argued that being a masterful public speaker is an imperative element of a statesman because projecting elegance is also a political necessity. And it really was during the days when our country was not bereft of “philosopher kings”.
Yes, our history is replete with statesmen. Names of legendary luminaries such as Claro M. Recto, Lorenzo Tañada, Cipriano Primicias, Manuel Briones, Eulogio A. Rodríguez, Sr., Mariano Jesús Cuenco, Lorenzo Sumúlong (an uncle of former President Cory Aquino), Enrique Magalona (a fierce defender of the Spanish language; grandfather of FrancisM), Rogelio de la Rosa, Quintín Paredes, José P. Laurel, Gil Púyat, Francisco Rodrigo, and a host of others still continue to echo grandiose trumpets celebrating the grandeur and glory of Filipinas from a not so distant past. And even when they iniquitably stumble down from time to time, as is the wont of all human beings, the prestige that was built by their statesmanship easily displaces any discomposure, like a torrential rain washing a soiled window pane. And no matter what political principles and beliefs they brandish, whether it was popular or not, the public never dared deride them. They were like ancient priests that commanded both fear and respect (but with the latter, of course, superseding the former). Indeed, theirs was an epoch filled with conviction, with respect, with honor.
Great statesmen of a bygone era. Senators Cipriano Primicias vs Quintín Paredes debating in Spanish (circa 1951). Photo taken from the book “Senator Cipriano Primicias: Great Statesman, Most Outstanding Parliamentarian”.
We can liken statesmanship to a “Super Soldier Serum“. But instead of soldiers, it will produce the compleat politician. Politicians are elected. They are made, not born. But statesmen are not just born nor made but bred. A rare species they are nowadays because we no longer breed such people. But statesmanship is part and parcel of the Filipino politician’s identity. Have we completely forgotten how our forefathers at a very young age were trained into statesmanship? Filipino nationalist and statesman Salvador Araneta offers us a glimpse of how young Filipino children were prepared to be silver-tongued orators:
During one of my birthdays as a very young child, my parents organized a banquet where we were treated as grown-ups. A formal dining table for sixteen was set up for my cousin José Tuason and his cousins Tony Prieto and Ben Legarda, for our neighbors and friends, the Paternos, the Valdeses and Roceses, for my eldest brother José and me. After the banquet, a few of us gave prepared speeches, with one acting as the toastmaster. As honoree and celebrant, I stood up to make the final speech on that occasion.
Today, a children’s party for the Filipino child is entrusted to fastfood party hosts and clowns.
And what kind of government leaders do we have now? Instead of passing and upholding laws, they bicker at each other, they walk out if they cannot take the heat anymore, some dance while others prefer to sing. Some even curse on national television. Worse, even neophyte government officials already have the gall to issue death threats! Todays privilege speeches were meant to either accuse colleagues or defend one’s self from them. And in worse case scenarios, such speeches are filled with unparliamentary language.
Alas, the clownish comportment of today’s politician has killed statesmanship and parliamentarianism. And not only that, it has left a rift among themselves. In the aftermath of the aborted impeachment trial of then President Joseph Estrada, Francisco “Kit” Tátad (an unappreciated statesman if I may add) ruefully observed in his book “A Nation On Fire”:
Meantime, the tradition of civility that had previously characterized all relationships in the Senate now disappeared. At the lounge where majority and minority used to sit together, even after the sharpest clashes on the floor, senators now sat in two opposing camps, separated by an invisible wall that may not be breached by camaraderie or fellowship. On the eighty- first anniversary of the Senate, only 12 of the 24 members joined Mrs. Arroyo and a few former senators at the Senate President’s dinner. And the few who were there ate dinner together without breaking the ice between and the few who were there ate dinner together without breaking the ice between and among seatmates.
The decline of civility among senators is matched only by their increasing lack of regard for the Senate as an institution. Seniority rule, which is honored in every parliament, has been jettisoned without a hearing, and neophytes, who have yet to learn the ropes, have been given senior posts. Against all rules of parliamentary decorum, senators now smoke freely during committee hearings, and consume their victuals inside the hall during plenary sessions. Those with floor duties also tend to their handheld phones more than they listen to the deliberations and often lose track of what is happening on the floor.
Arguably, the last such statesman that we had was former Vice President Salvador “Doy” Laurel. During the relaunching of his biography last year, journalist Teddyboy Locsín, Jr. aptly said that when his uncle Doy passed away, “that old world of honor passed away with him”.
You may regard me as a hopeless romantic, because despite my frustrations on modern Filipino society, I still believe that we can bring back that old world.
*What I meant here is the skill to wield political reality to one’s advantage. Once this skill has been utilized effectively, then political power will fall into one’s hands easily. The only question now is if the person who gains political power is worthy of such power. Such are the risks of electing a government official.