Monday, January 26, 2009

Et tu, Noli?

Some people simply can’t seem to run out of luck. After working for years as a broadcast reporter, Noli de Castro of the small town of Pola in Mindoro Oriental, broke into the rarefied circle of nightly newscast anchors. He got into the “big time”, as anchor of the highly-rated TV Patrol, the early evening news program of the Lopez-controlled ABS-CBN television channel. Later, he was to host a weekly tele-magazine which starts and ends with him booming from an executive swivel chair on top of a studio dais, “Magandang Gabi…Bayan”. That became his ticket to even “bigger times”.

Politics in this country has become a celebrity game. It all started when Rogelio de la Rosa, the movie actor our mothers and grandmothers swooned over, decided to stake out for the presidency of the land in 1961. He was challenging the incumbent, President Carlos P. Garcia of Bohol, who presided over a nationalist economic strategy called “Filipino First”, and his Liberal Party protagonist, Vice-President Diosdado P. Macapagal, who swore to liberalize the economy and entice foreign capital. Just exactly what the debonair De la Rosa stood for, hardly anyone remembers, except that he happened to likewise be the former brother-in-law of Macapagal, who was widower to Rogelio’s sister Purita, the lovely lady from Pampanga with whom Diosdado sired statuesque and fair Cielo, and tall and handsome Arthur.

As the campaign progressed, it became clear that De la Rosa was attracting a lot of votes, and threatened the possible victory of his own bayaw. Negotiators went to work, and he withdrew, paving the way for the election of the so-called “poor boy from Lubao”. In the mid-term elections of 1963, Roger ran for senator, and won quite handily. Later, he was to serve our foreign service with distinction, in the Hague, along with Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as in Cambodia.

The example of parlaying celebrity status into political office was not lost on many others. Eddie Ilarde of Bicol, who hosted a popular noontime TV musical and variety show called “Student Canteen” soon followed suit, first as councillor of Pasay City, then congressman of the first district of Rizal, finally as senator, a term which martial law cut short. And after the EDSA Revolt of 1986, Orly Mercado, former reporter of TV Patrol turned host of the acclaimed Kapwa Ko, Mahal Ko medical help program, placed third in the senatorial race of 1987, topped only by the veteran Jovito Salonga and EDSA nino bonito, Butz Aquino, brother of Ninoy. Likewise, after having been eased out of his elected mayorship of San Juan, movie idol Joseph Estrada survived the Cory juggernaut in the first elections held under the present Constitution, and from there, to vice-president in 1992, and president by overwhelming majority in 1998.

I was cabinet-member in attendance sometime in December of 2000 when Noli de Castro faced then President Joseph Estrada in Malacanang. Erap wanted him to run for senator under his coalition ticket in 2001. After small talk, the president went up to his bedroom, and came down with a prized gold necktie and matching kerchief, one in his prohibitively expensive collection of cravats. That sealed what I understood to be a political bargain.

In the aftermath of the second-envelope tsunami that swept Erap out of power, Noli ran as an “independent” senatorial candidate, although adopted by the fallen Erap’s Pwersa ng Masa Coalition. Known far and wide as the ABS-CBN candidate, much like Loren Legarda three years earlier, Noli topped that election. And despite lacklustre performance in the chamber of the “august”, as they love to describe their circle of the political elite, Noli became a founding member of another exclusive club called the “Wednesday Group”. These were four senators who dined on good food and good wine after each last session day of the week, courtesy of Manuel Villar, the former speaker who impeached Estrada, who became their acknowledged cappo. The other members were old Joker Arroyo, the House prosecutor in Erap’s Senate trial, and young Kiko Pangilinan, lawyer cum broadcaster who along with his three other dining confreres, were elected in the first election since Edsa Dos.

Noli was chairman of the tourism committee which hardly had business, while his Wednesday Group dining partners got into more powerful assignments. Kiko got the justice committee, later to become majority floor leader. Joker became the powerful Blue Ribbon chair, from which lofty perch he presided lovingly to husband the travails of Mike Arroyo and his brother Iggy, the guys who are otherwise known as “Jose Pidal”. And Manuel Villar got to be the chair of the Finance Committee, with tremendous power over the purse of the Republic, and later, by virtue of a tayo-tayo arrangement brokered by Malacanang, Senate President after Franklin Drilon.

Noli’s luck never seemed to run out. When Loren Legarda decided to partner with movie king FPJ as Erap’s challenger to the incumbent Gloria in 2004, the latter wisely chose her ABS-CBN “kapamilya” as her Numero Dos. Thus did Noli de Castro, less than three years after political baptism, graduate into the most rarefied heights of power. By the wiles of Virgilio Garcillano, the grace of Benjamin Abalos, and the muscle of Esperon, Ebdane, Mendoza, Lomibao, Kyamko, Habacon, and Garci knows how many more, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was proclaimed by Congress in joint session --- “president” of the land she would misrule furthermore. And with her as perhaps unwitting benefactor to enterprise most despicable was her vice-president, Noli de Castro. Pambihirang swerti!

He wanted social services or tourism as de rigeur cabinet portfolio, but was instead awarded the role of housing “czar”, as chair of the HUDCC, presiding over cash-rich agencies such as Pag-ibig and the housing programs of the NHA, NHMFC, and the like. He has not given up his love for broadcast and continues to host a tele-radyo program over DZMM each Saturday mid-morning. And is generously featured in a television infomercial paid for by Pag-ibig, advertising “murang pabahay” loans. Goody-goody roles for Gloria’s “vice”. As HUDCC head, he had to clear up the squatter colonies that were homes along da riles to the lumpen, in order to make way for a grossly-overpriced Northrail project, one of Dona Gloria’s treasured gifts from China.

He has remained uncontroversial, if unheard in the many raging storms that have buffeted the stolen presidency of Dona Gloria. Even when Hello Garci brought her presidency to the brink in the middle of 2005, Noli was coy about assuming power. He was offered the chance to succeed by a cabal of Liberal Party power-brokers who reportedly offered him a power-sharing deal in Hongkong, where he took off for a break from the tempestuous political climate of Manila. On the day he returned to the country, he went straight for counsel to his Wednesday Group confreres --- Villar, Joker and Kiko. They advised him not to take the bait, especially because the cabal of power-trippers wanted too much “flesh” from a vice-president overwhelmed by the swirl of fast developments. The archbishop of Manila had paid a visit to Malacanang, along with another bishop, and asked Gloria to consider resignation. Cory Aquino publicly called for resignation, as did the Liberal Party after a controversial caucus at Club Filipino. Even her then chief of staff, Efren Abu, issued a statement of cautious support, promising merely to abide by “constitutional processes”. It could have been curtains down on Gloria. But Noli refused to step up to the plate. And later in the afternoon, FVR and Joe de V trooped to Malacanang to keep Ate Glo glued to her seat. Thus was Dona Gloria saved, and thus began governance so egregious because it was held hostage by those who conspired to “elect” her, and those who were “bought” to keep her, as the un-elected but ruling president. What followed has been mis-governance without parallel in shamelessness and deceit.

But ironically, part of the “glue” that has kept Gloria in the seat of illegitimate power has been a fear of the unknown. That “unknown” is Noli de Castro.

What does he know about wielding power? What does he stand for, if any? Could he hack it? These were, and likely are, the nagging doubts about the competence and the character of the man who could be president of the benighted land.

Amid controversies hounding the presidency and government, he has kept still and quiet, preferring merely to appear as a kind purveyor of Dona Gloria’s housing munificence. He is regarded as the re-incarnation of then Senator Genaro Magsaysay, younger brother of the “Man of the Masses”, President Ramon Magsaysay, who was elected to the Senate following the untimely demise of his brother, and kept his silence sepulchral throughout his political career. “No talk; no mistakes” was about the only quote attributed to him.

Yet despite the silence, the lumpen consider him, if we are to believe the tales of the surveys, as Numero Uno in their esteem of who ought to be the supreme leader of the benighted. He is followed, not too closely now, by his rival for the vice-presidency in 2004, Loren Legarda, and his Wednesday Group cappo, the multi-billionaire real estate magnate with broadcast advertisements falling out of his ears, Manuel Villar.

He remains an “independent” by preference. He has nimbly eschewed membership in Lakas, the flagship built by Jose de Venecia for FVR and later Gloria, and similarly, Kampi, the flagship fortified by Ronaldo Puno for his bosses, the Arroyos. As a broadcast journalist, he knows how to read the public mood and has his ears on the ground. Those ears and that mood tells him his benefactress’ political endorsement is likely “kiss of death”.

But pragmatic politics tells him it’s too early to show his hand --- whatever that may be. He is yet in the process of making up his mind --- to run under which flag. For a brief political interlude, he was rumoured to have considered being a repeat Numero Dos, this time to serve the ambitions of his cappo, the ultra-rich Manuel Villar, but after his cappo was decapitated in a Senate coup, and his chances perhaps blurred by real estate and road right-of-way transactions which a plethora of TV commercials might not be able to cover up, Noli de Castro seems to be on the verge of finally becoming his own man.

In the next few days, the Lakas of Jose de Venecia is set to give him a time-bound invitation to join their party of trapos, at the expense of their own original member, Bayani Fernando, who has openly stated his desire to be the party’s standard-bearer. If De Castro still plays coy to the second most-unpopular Lakas, then perhaps, just perhaps, Gloria and Ronnie’s most unpopular Kampi would embrace him. What will be the determinant of Noli’s political fate? It’s a no-brainer --- will he remain on top of the surveys by October this year? If he is toppled down, by Manny or Mar, Ping or Chiz, or (he,he,he) Loren, then he just might find these doors closed to him.

Nimble … nimble, Noli plays the field, a Mona Lisa smile pursed on his face.
His motto, “kung ukol, bubukol”. Will his amazing streak of luck hold?


AdB said...

Hi Lito,

Happy to discover your blog!