A personal essay
By Raïssa Robles
I didn’t mean to. It wasn’t even planned.
But that morning, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was positively glowing in a very becoming emerald green silk that I blurted out the question whether she still had time for sex.
And she blurted back – “Plenty.”
That single reply swept the world as far as Africa and touched off a firestorm of debate back home.
The question had popped out unbidden at the last moment like a thought from heaven. It was not on my list of questions for the President’s single, yearly meet with the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (Focap) that October 2002.
But sometimes a journalist has to seize the moment. This was one of those times.
Barbara Mae Dacanay of Gulf News opened the forum by asking the President – the second female Philippine head of state – her beauty secret for looking younger than 55 and whether she still had time for her family.
The mother of three beamed: “I’ve never been overly concerned about my looks. Maybe God gave me genes to look young.”
“My father,” she said, referring to the country’s fifth post Second World War president, Diosdado Macapagal, “always used to tell me that for a public servant, the priority should be God first, then country, and the family should be last.”
Did she still have time for Jose Miguel her husband, Ellen Cruz of Tokyo Shimbun inquired.
“Well–the husband is in the family,” was her reply. “Sundays are my family days.”
Waiting behind Ellen, I whispered to her in wonder – “Does she still have time for sex?”
When it was my turn, I asked about the continued presence of American soldiers in the country and her position on the death penalty. Before I could ask my final prepared question, Focap president Gabby Tabunar of CBS News told me to keep it short and to the point.
That somehow plucked from my mind a different question altogether. In the silent ballroom packed with foreign diplomats, businessmen and journalists, I carefully prefaced my question saying, “I’m sure a lot of women are dying to ask you this question.”
“And since you are not a widow, they would like to ask you this question. You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but a lot of women are dying to know – do you still have sex?”
A microsecond pause, she replied – “Plenty” – and gave a toothy smile. The cavernous room erupted in a howl.
Her smile broadened into a grin – “That’s going to be the headline.” The grin vanished as she implored, “please make foreign policy the headline.”
Later, several diplomats, a news bureau chief and fellow correspondents later asked me why I did not ask a follow-up question.
Since then, I have had this feeling that she has not forgiven me, not so much for asking that question but for causing her first major foreign policy speech, which she had so finely crafted, go to waste. All further interview requests have been met with silence.
I was publicly castigated by men mostly, who turned apoplectic over that question. By crusty, old male journalists squirming with discomfort and squeaky outrage over a question about sex in marriage, but who don’t bat an eyelash over male philandering.
It was not the proper venue, they said. That puzzled me. It was a press forum where guests knew the unwritten rule – all relevant questions were allowed.
It was not the proper question to ask a head of state, especially a female president. That set me thinking. When is a sex-related question asked of a politician merely lewd? When is it a political and therefore relevant question?
I had shamed the profession, they also said. I thought that curious. Colleagues had slammed me not for what I had written, but what I had asked in order to confirm with a primary source certain speculations.
A male newspaper editor personally scolded me, saying it practically sealed the victory of opposition Senator Panfilo Lacson over Mrs. Arroyo in the 2004 presidential race. No news sense, that one.
All these criticisms parted the waters and provided a moment of clarity – journalists were not the impartial arbiters but were as human as the president. And the most hilarious thing – the president did not mind nor get angry or outraged.
In a journalistic system as free for all as in this country, some questions are still taboo, perhaps because even media remain tinged with chauvinism and male arrogance.
Maybe journalists forgot they were brought into this world by their mothers, not by parcel post. And they live in a nation where four babies are born every minute – or nearly two million a year.
Criticisms and praise were divided along gender and age. Women, except for one elderly who claimed to be Malaysian, lauded the question and the reply. The alleged Malaysian phoned the very next day from a phone near my place to admonish me never to do it again.
President Arroyo was not spared. She was tweaked for not ignoring the question. Her reply, Catholic running priest Robert Reyes intoned, devalued her image of a “devout Catholic”. And he advised one of the most hardworking Philippine presidents to turn celibate like “us priests” because “celibacy makes us more productive.” I wonder why he spared her more laid-back predecessor, Joseph Estrada, that advice.
I think what this all boils down to is, females are not allowed to enjoy sex.
But whether President Arroyo does or not was not the real intent behind my question. From nearly day one of her presidency, opposition and even members of her ruling coalition had repeatedly told me that the First Couple was long estranged and leading separate lives. She was even romantically linked to another official.
My question was the sort only a female could ask another female. It had an underlying assumption only females understand – a wife usually stops intimacy with an estranged spouse.
If malicious gossip persisted and Mrs. Arroyo ran, her marriage would come under microscopic scrutiny. Political enemies would spread vicious rumors and publicly say if she cannot fix her marriage, what more the country.
While our macho society would vote into the highest office a philandering male, it expects married female politicians to be model wives and exacts the most impeccable behavior from them.
The state of Mrs. Arroyo’s marriage became political fodder the following year 2003 when Senator Lacson trotted out an eyewitness who implied that the First Gentleman was having an affair. The witness later recanted.
Presidential spokesman Ignacio Bunye put paid to the issue by quoting Mrs. Arroyo as saying that she was “married” to her country. By election year 2004, the issue was dead and buried.
As my Hong Kong newspaper, South China Morning Post, wrote in its October 13, 2002 editorial regarding my question – “Once the moralizing and the heated talk ebbs — as it certainly will – Mrs. Arroyo may well find she has quietly snookered any opponent seeking to use malicious gossip come the next election, puncturing any potential for scandal. She has also shown herself to be human and a most modern leader.”
That question to Mrs. Arroyo was only my second sex-related question in 24 years of journalism.
The first was in 1992 aboard a flatbed truck on which Fidel Ramos was campaigning for president in Pampanga, along with the late governor Bren Guiao.
At the latter part of the interview, I asked him about persistent rumors linking him to socialite Rosemarie Arenas and about a son. Taking the unlit tobacco from his mouth, Mr. Ramos said she was just a “family friend” and those were just rumors.
Initially, the late Betty Go-Belmonte, majority owner of Philippine Star to whom I reported directly as investigative reporter, chided me for asking such a direct question. But she herself saw the political relevance – because the same rumors claimed Mrs. Arenas would serve as “the back door” to a Ramos presidency.
Mrs. Belmonte published the interview verbatim. Afterwards, she told me the Ramos couple was angry with her. Despite this, she said she would personally continue to support Mr. Ramos, whom the Holy Bible had identified to her as the “Joshua” who would win another battle of Jericho. Later I learned the very same issue was asked Mr. Ramos at a FOCAP forum.
That sex can affect the Philippine presidency and the fortunes of an entire nation was impressed on me early on as a newbie political reporter covering the Metro Manila Commission and its governor, First Lady Imelda Marcos, for Business Day newspaper.
Mrs. Marcos, according to my late lady boss Leticia Locsin – who was close to the former First Lady then – had deliberately listened to the tape of her husband President Ferdinand Marcos making love to the buxom Hollywood starlet Dovie Beams so she would learn to love him less. The incident had publicly humiliated and hurt her.
Later, a chastened Marcos could hardly turn down her requests for this or that post, other sources close to him told me.
Mrs. Marcos wanted to succeed her ailing husband. Instead, her exact opposite became the first female president – widow Corazon Aquino with her unpainted nails, ho-hum hairdo and shapeless dresses – everything that the well-coifed First Lady detested.
By a strange historical twist, a male head of state has twice been replaced by a woman following a bloodless, military-backed “people power” – Mrs. Aquino in 1986 and Mrs. Arroyo 15 years later in 2001.
In the first instance, the choice of the person’s gender or sex was deliberate. In the second, accidental.
Marketing man, William “Billy” Esposo, recalled how he helped position the brand “Cory” as the exact opposite of Marcos. He turned her being a housewife with no experience in government into a distinct advantage – she had no experience in stealing.
In the case of Mrs. Arroyo, she topped the senatorial race in 1995 by selling herself to voters as the look-alike of rags-to-fame actress Nora Aunor. Her resounding victory convinced her husband and mother, former First Lady Evangelina Macapagal, that she was presidential material.
The family turned to Mr. Esposo for help. He agreed, declined to be paid and told Mrs. Arroyo, “I believe you have the best chance of derailing” the actor Estrada.
His intuitive assessment then was: “She can appeal to the same crowd that goes for showbiz types because of the la Aunor thing that made her number one. Compared to Estrada, Gloria had credentials, had better qualifications, and being a woman provided a contrast that could somehow be beneficial.”
But his efforts and image building of her ran aground early on. The three heroes of people power declined to back her. Outgoing president Ramos preferred to endorse his province mate, House Speaker Jose de Venecia.
Catholic Archbishop of Manila Cardinal Jaime Sin made sexist remarks. “What would you do when there is a coup d’etat? Cry? I am not against women but with the problems of the country, like criminality, I think we should give the leadership to a man.”
The most revealing reaction, though, came from another woman – Mrs. Aquino. She declined to back Mrs. Arroyo despite the personal prodding of her brother Congressman Jose “Peping” Cojuangco, Philippine Star columnist Teodoro Benigno and Pastor “Boy” Saycon.
I asked three separate sources why. One quoted Mrs. Aquino as telling the three – “I find her too pragmatic. She will do anything to gain the presidency.”
Another quoted her as saying she’s “too pragmatic for her own good.”
A third, Mr. Esposo, confirmed hearing that was what transpired in the meeting. He also revealed that right before the three met with Mrs. Aquino, he had a private chat with the former president about the political situation, whether an Estrada victory meant a Marcos restoration, and “to feel out what she feels about Gloria.”
Mrs. Aquino’s only comment on the presidential hopeful was – “don’t you find her too pragmatic?”
It was this very trait that caused Esposo to quit the Arroyo campaign. His disillusionment started when Senator Arroyo paid a post-midnight visit to a jailed congressman who was on trial for raping an 11-year-old.
“We were shocked when she paid a visit to Romy Jalosjos. One of your (political) strengths is that you are a woman, Teddy (Benigno) and I were telling her. You are supposed to be very sensitive to women issues.”
One of Mrs. Arroyo’s justifications then was that the lawmaker was not yet convicted. When she became Vice-President and head of the Department of Social Welfare, however, Mrs. Arroyo suddenly became a champion of sexually abused children. She even joined a street protest to pressure Supreme Court to lift a six-month stay of execution on convicted child rapist Leo Echegaray. He was later put to death by lethal injection.
After Mrs. Arroyo won last year’s presidential race, her justice secretary hinted she would grant Jalosjos – who was serving two life terms – a presidential pardon. I can only surmise why Mrs. Arroyo treated both men differently. Was it because Echegaray was dirt poor, while Jalosjos has money and political clout? His clan had carried Mrs. Arroyo to victory in his bailiwick last year.
Her Jalosjos visit, Mr. Esposo claimed, showed that “she seems to have very loose moorings. To her, everything is expedient. That bothered me. These were insights of a character that given pressure and a bigger theater is going to be more pronounced.” The flaw was not gender-based, he added.
I have felt the same misgivings. Before becoming president, she had blamed the old “politics of personality and patronage…(as) a structural part of the problem of poverty” and championed “new politics”.
I thought new politics meant not fielding for office one’s own son, entrenched warlords or a newsreader whose main qualification was popularity. I was wrong.
Apparently aware of such criticisms, Mrs. Arroyo told a recent foreign investors’ forum: “But let me also be very clear, I’m also a realist.”
She has of course her own set of admirers. Cabinet officials swear by her work ethic and her deep concern for the nation’s welfare.
Rodney Ward, chairman for Asia of the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS), expressed optimism she would ultimately succeed just like Britain’s longest-serving and first woman prime minister.
“Margaret Thatcher was for a lot long time very unpopular when she was going through all these programs but ultimately ended up being very popular,” he told me. “By the time she came to the end of her reign, the good things had come through which initially were painful and had aroused deep hostility.”
“I am extremely impressed by her (Mrs. Arroyo’s) vision, leadership, commitment and dedication,” he said.
Too bad most Filipinos don’t feel the same way. Astro del Castillo, director of the Association of Securities Analysts, criticized her flip-flop on the current fiscal crisis: First she warned of an economic collapse, then suddenly pronounced the crisis over even before her proposed tax hikes were approved.
“She alarms but she doesn’t inspire,” he complained.
During this first year of her fresh six-year term is a palpable sense of a nation standing still, not moving forward. With the president running like a hamster on a toy plastic wheel.
Having said all these, I know the Philippines is not the easiest country to govern. It is doubly hard for a female president. I’ve asked men from various social strata how they rated Mrs. Arroyo. All remarked that she’s weak “because she’s a woman”.
Note – This was written in April 2005, before Mrs. Arroyo morphed into a high-grade steel butterfly.