Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A celebration of hope

We interrupt our series on those who are labeled “presidentiables” because of two events. The first is the celebration of hope that we witnessed happening before our very eyes live on television, in the late hours of Tuesday night, well into past midnight, when a peaceful transition of power happened at the west rotunda of the Capitol of the United States of America.

As early as dawn, eastern time, Americans from all over the country started flocking into the magnificent National Mall that begins at the steps of their capitol, well past the Washington obelisk, in a huge expanse of open space flanked by the museums of the nation’s capital, and thence into the fringes of the lake that front the Lincoln Memorial. All that was filled with perhaps a million people, maybe more, the biggest crowd ever in a presidential inauguration. I was in Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington D.C. when Ronald Reagan took his oath of office as the 40th president of the United States. From what I saw on television then, the crowd was definitely much, much less, and the rites, though a tad more formal than Obama’s, was less the celebration of hope that we saw Tuesday night.

Focused by the camera were the grizzled faces of America’s workers, their wives and sons and daughters, gazing at a future with which to entrust their hopes amid a season of near-despair. You could see it in the welling eyes of the millions who listened to every word that their new president spoke --- from the Mall to the viewing stations in Times Square and Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco to Memphis in Tennessee. And all throughout the ceremonies, they sang, danced and waved flags to demonstrate the ardor of their hopes. I particularly liked the quartet that performed, not so much for the virtuosi assembled at the balcony of the rotunda, truly without equal in their chosen art --- Itzhak Perlman the violinist, Andrew McGill with his clarinet, Gabriella Montero on the piano, and Yo-Yo Ma and his incredible cello. The significance of putting them together was truly inspired --- a Jew, an African-American, an Asian, and a Latino-American. It was as if the America of “E Pluribus Unum” was celebrating the new spirit of national unity and purpose that the promise of real change brought. President Barack Obama was its personification --- “a man whose father, less than 60 years ago, might not have been served at a local restaurant, can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

It will be a different America from the one George W. Bush, Gloria’s “great” friend, misruled for eight long years. I particularly took note of that line where the new president castigated those “corrupt” governments that keep their people in bondage and oppression. A sensitive soul would have been shamed. But I guess that is one character that exists nowhere in the Malacanang of these benighted islands.

The event was replete with symbolisms, from the Republican red cravat that Obama wore, balanced by the Democratic blue that his vice-president Joe Biden wore. And swearing to the same bible that Abraham Lincoln used in his first inaugural was another great symbol of great significance.

“The challenges are daunting, but anyone who underestimates this nation has forgotten about its past perseverance”, he said. And asking for greater sacrifices in a time of utmost difficulty, where there is “a sapping of confidence across our land --- a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable”, Obama exhorted his people thus: “Greatness is never a given. It must be earned”.

Great men through great words inspire hope. The Americans, by electing their 44th president, Barack Hussein Obama, “have chosen hope over fear”. Little men (and women), through insipid words and uninspiring vision, give only portents of mediocrity and continued decline. When, oh when, shall we witness true and meaningful change in this country, one that can make us all reach for the stars and achieve genuine progress where all are blessed and none are oppressed?

Can this happen in our lifetime? Can we have a celebration of hope in 2010? Or shall a people so moved by the hopelessness of their fate under a government most corrupt and most immoral, finally unite to break the chains of despair that bind them to a fate so bleak, even before the legally appointed hour?

* * *

And what did the little woman, hours before the American Caesar took his sacred oath, mouth before the diplomatic community gathered in the new year’s traditional vin d’honneur?

“We look forward to working with the new president and we welcome him to the world stage”. World stage, my foot. Such gall from one given cold shoulder treatment by world leaders in conferences abroad.

Such arrogance, such misplaced sense of self, from a woman who presides over a nation whose second name is corruption, whose dignit and honour she has stolen.

* * *

The second event that occurred last week was a glimmer of hope in these islands where the shameless rule, and the ruled are not inflamed any longer by the shamelessness around them.

In remarks delivered at an Anvil Exchange Forum on the night of January 14, Chief Justice Reynato S. Puno compared Confucian values and good governance.

When asked about good government, Puno quoted Confucius’ reply: “That it must be able to provide --- (1) sufficiency of food, (2) sufficiency of military equipment, and (3) it must have the confidence of the people. He was then asked: “If it cannot be helped, and one of these must be dispensed with, which of the three should be foregone first?”

To which Confucius replied --- “the military equipment”. And if one of the remaining two must be dispensed with also, which of them should be foregone? After serious thought, he answered: “Part with the food. From of old, death has been the lot of men, but if the people have no faith in their rulers, there is no standing for the state”.

Thus did the chief justice define good governance: “The wisdom of Confucius’ answers speak for themselves. More than economic prosperity, more than military might, government needs the trust of its people in order to govern effectively”.

“The political history of our nation – recall the first and second EDSA revolts – are testaments to the lesson that governments that forfeit the trust of the people have unhappy exits” , Puno recalled, and once more segued into Confucius words. That “He who governs by means of his virtue is, to use an analogy, like the pole-star: it remains in place while all the lesser stars do homage to it … If your desire is for good, the people will be good. The moral character of the ruler is the wind; the moral character of those beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends”.

“There is thus an unbending obligation on the part of those who lead government to provide its moral ballast…To be sure, a government afflicted with moral leprosy deserves nothing but the graveyard. We need leaders with moral character. History tells us that people will forgive leaders for lapses in ability but will not forgive those who slip in character. Character is who we are when no one is watching”.

CJ Puno’s words virtually zeroed in on the real issue behind why life in this benighted land has become so bereft of hope. It is because we allow ourselves to be led by the least of us, which I keep repeating in this space. The least in character; the least in moral uprightness. The kind of leader who would conspire with an elections commissioner she appointed despite checkered record, in order to ensure she would “win by a million votes”. The kind of leader who would fly to China in the dead of night, and sneak back in the wee hours, just to bear witness to a deal so scandalously over-priced, and would thereafter forbid her officials from telling the truth, under oath. Absolutely, definitively bereft of any “moral ballast”.

That speech about morality in politics created quite a stir. First off, it brought about an offer from a presidentiable, Sen. Ping Lacson, for Puno to consider running for the nation’s top post, to which he would defer his own presidential quest. Lacson made it clear that the self-abnegation of presidential ambition would yield only to a man of Puno’s record of integrity. There were voices of support from even rather unseemly quarters, whose provenance is suspected to come from Malacanang itself, whose immediate goal, it is speculated, is to remove the Chief Justice from his perch so that they would have the power to appoint someone who would willingly castrate himself for worldly goods and pelf.

Whatever the digressive brouhaha, the Chief Justice wisely disclaimed personal ambition for higher office. Only the pristine desire to inspire a “moral force” that would regenerate a nation which has forgotten, if it ever imbibed, the lessons of two EDSA’s, “where governments that forfeit the trust of the people have unhappy exits”.

Read between the lines, Madam Gloria. And you too, Mr. President Estrada. And all those who wish to be president but who did things injurious to the people’s welfare “when no one is watching”.