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Noynoy: ‘Now, leave some to God’

On the eve of 2010 elections, the man who would be president embraced his destiny and showed unstinting faith

In 2010, in the last leg of his campaign, presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino talks to huge crowd that waited for him for hours in Tarlac. After this, he said he had done his best to reach the people, now 'leave some to God.' He won the presidency a few days later, the biggest public mandate given a Philippine president. (Photo by Jim Guiao Punzalan)

In 2012, President Aquino arriving at Rockwell Tent for the book launch of Thelma San Juan, being greeted by the author (middle), Inquirer CEO Sandy Prieto-Romualdez, Inquirer editor in chief Letty Magsanoc, Ambassador Manolo Lopez (in suit). (Photo by Jim Guiao Punzalan)

From the author’s book, “i am afraid of heights (or why can’t social climb)’ published in 2012, it was first written by the author, on the eve of the presidential election, for the front page of Philippine Daily Inquirer, when she was its Lifestyle editor.

2010

On a bright morning in June 1992, right after Fidel Ramos was sworn in as President at the Quirino Grandstand in Rizal Park, erstwhile First Son Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III was grinning from ear to ear as he walked away from the inaugural crowd.

Now he could breathe easy, he would tell us after the inaugural rites, because he didn’t have to be as anxious about the safety of his mother, he could lead a regular life, say goodbye to Malacañang, and perhaps have a normal love life at last, away from the prying media.

He could not have known then that 18 years later he would be preparing for his own swearing-in.

His imminent ascendancy to the presidency, on what is shaping up to be an overwhelming mandate from the people, comes as a total surprise not just to the political establishment, but even more so to Noynoy Aquino himself.

“But I can’t wear my torn T-shirt there, or my threadbare pants … I really need only two rooms,” Noynoy was telling friends over dinner in Tarlac last Saturday, the weekend before the election, on why he wanted to continue to live in the Aquino family’s Times Street residence, and not in Malacañang, if he should win.

‘If I win the presidency, that’s just a bonus from God, that I’m given the chance to do still more, to deliver on a promise’

His close friend then suggested, not entirely kidding: “So how about if we do an exact copy of your bedroom, so you’ll feel at home?”

“Hay, normalcy …,” Noynoy muttered under his breath. He obviously didn’t care to pursue the topic, knowing that he was in for more ribbing.

The senator seemed relaxed, even at peace with himself that night, less than 48 hours before the polls were to open.

“A man who has totally embraced his destiny, not only his parents’ legacy” is how one campaign volunteer puts it.

“I believe I’ve done everything I can,” he said, gulping down his nth soft drink of the day. “Now, leave some to God. I think it was Cardinal Sin who said that once,” he said.

He has just finished a whole-day motorcade and rally in Tarlac’s second district and Tarlac City, which brought an end to a grueling campaign. But it seemed today, an eight-hour motorcade no longer left him tired or fatigued.

With the campaign at an end, he just wanted to have a good Chinese dinner with his staff, a few volunteers and friends. He was looking forward to a dish of sweet-sour pork in this Chinese restaurant in Tarlac.

Although no one at the table voiced it out, everyone knew how special this moment was. Noynoy Aquino was at a crossroads. He had just ended a backbreaking campaign. The last of the presidential candidates to get started on his campaign, he worked at least three provinces a day, losing perhaps 15 pounds in the process, his hands bruised from pressing the flesh.

(Over the misgivings of his security people who were apprehensive of the night conditions, Noynoy broke away from the motorcade in Tarlac City earlier at 7 p.m. and went onstage to address the huge crowd that had been waiting for him for hours.)

And now he stands on the threshold of the presidency.

For now, however, he’d rather joke and banter, recalling the miracle that was his campaign.

Does he think he’ll win, we asked. “It’s done,” he said.

“That’s not to sound mayabang (smug) … what I mean is, if our purpose was to bring our people together to express the need for change, we’ve done it. If I win the presidency, that’s just a bonus from God, that I’m given the chance to do still more, to deliver on a promise,” he said.

He wasn’t just trying to be philosophical or spiritual, he was just being himself, a guy who’s not self-absorbed at all.

The man who didn’t fanatically seek power for himself will be the 15th President of the Philippines any day now. Don’t you see the irony of your life, we pressed on. We felt we had to ask him that because not only have we known him for 26 years—“since 1984, to be exact,” Noynoy calculated—we’ve also tracked his political and private life through the decades, especially his love life, a topic the media never once let go of.

He merely looked at us, half-shrugged and proceeded to talk about other things. Obviously, to him, even his date with destiny was still not about himself.

No wonder he seemed calm. He wasn’t thinking of himself, not even about what could be his last weekend as a private person, no matter that the muckraking campaign didn’t spare anything about his persona, not his pate, not his smoking.

That Saturday in Tarlac, the last day of the campaign, children could be seen racing alongside the motorcade as it negotiated the narrow road in Victoria. People young and old, men and women, half-ran on both sides of the truck that he was riding as it inched along. They were crying out his name: “Noynoy! Noynoy!”

Amazingly, from his perch on the truck about two feet above the ground, Noynoy exchanged banter intermittently with the crowd as his motorcade moved on. From time to time, he would shout at the children, warning them to stay away from the moving truck lest they hurt themselves. Or he would tell the more playful ones to stop snatching the baller IDs from the elderly who were not fast enough to catch the wristbands being hurled at the crowds. He actually kept eye contact with the people even as his truck was in motion.

At one point, he pointed at a frisky hardheaded boy tailing the motorcade, singled him out, and shouted: “Hindi tayo naglalaro! … H’wag … baka masaktan ka!” (This is not a game. Don’t, you might hurt yourself!)

The boy froze on his tracks, his jaw dropped, and he stared at Noynoy. He obviously couldn’t believe that the object of the crowd’s adulation had spotted him. Amused by the boy’s stunned expression, senatorial candidate Dr. Martin Bautista turned to the senator: “I think that boy will grow up a good boy, because he has just been admonished by the President (to-be) of the Philippines. He’ll always remember this day.”

Indeed, on this last day of the campaign, the crowd was no longer shouting “Cory!” or “Kris!”—the two famous personages in the family whose fame was believed to be propelling his campaign. They were now shouting, “Noynoy!” or “Noy!”

His candidacy was triggered by the people’s clamor following the death of his mother, the icon of democracy and revered former President Corazon Aquino. Yet city slickers have hardly caught a glimpse of how this “people power” candidate is truly at home with the people, and they with him. He doesn’t have to fake it.

From where we stood behind him on the truck, we could look down and see the faces of the people, a moving mosaic of raw emotion, their eyes misting up with hope. It was hope that we saw, not only the cheering or adulation, but a people’s hope that their lives would somehow be better under the governance of Noynoy Aquino.

City slickers have hardly caught a glimpse of how this ‘people power’ candidate is truly at home with the people, and they with him. He doesn’t have to fake it

“This raw emotion is far better than what the numbers could show,” said Chris Tio, a volunteer who left his family and thriving retail business in Cebu to join the campaign. He was referring to candidate preference surveys, as he looked at the crowd that massed along row upon row of ramshackle homes. (When Noynoy Aquino first ran for a House seat in the 1990s, he visited each of these houses.)

Whenever he talked about the campaign at the end of what seemed like an endless day, Noynoy was always at a loss for words trying to describe the reception he would get from the crowds everywhere he went.

He recalled how at the start of the campaign, he found himself wondering what he would do for funds or resources.

“But when I went to Masbate and saw the crowd who stayed with us throughout our appearance there, then I began to believe,” he told us.

“They said people power is long gone, but what I had seen was actually people power every day, wherever I went … it was dark, the streets were not lit. But people beamed their flashlights at the motorcade just so they could see us. Or they’d stay for hours in the pouring rain.”

And he didn’t always have the showbiz celebrities around on these sorties. According to one volunteer, he realized whom the crowds were really coming to see when, in Cagayan, they swarmed around Noynoy’s car and banged on its windows, shouting: “Pakita ninyo si Noynoy!” (Show us Noynoy!) Noynoy and his companions had to roll down the tinted windows.

At the end of such a day, Noynoy would always say that it is the people who keep him going. “Now you know how exhilarating (it can be). The people recharge you,” he told us.

“It’s like a runner’s high … the adrenalin … then you stop, you feel it. When I ran for the Senate, when the campaign ended, I felt the sudden dip in adrenalin and mood. I was watching a comedy yet found myself sad, even crying.”

While he didn’t plan it, Noynoy was on his way to becoming a People’s President. Volunteerism and donations propped up his people campaign. (The array of merchandise—T-shirts, baller IDs, caps—given by all kinds of donors was bewildering. And because most of the campaign merchandise had been donated, they had no uniform design, except for the yellow color theme and the ribbon.)

“This wasn’t man alone … everything, the confluence of events, we couldn’t have done it alone. Diyos ’yon (It was God),” he would tell us over and over.

Indeed, on his journey to the presidency, people everywhere have come to define Noynoy Aquino as the People’s President. His was a campaign that drew mobs, with or without the presence of showbiz celebs, unlike the sorties of his well-funded opponents.

“At the start of the campaign, people were really looking for Kris. But midway into the campaign, people were already clamoring for Noynoy and would stand there, listening to him speak,” said another volunteer.

It was at this point that Noynoy decided to take charge of his campaign, deciding which sorties to make and which issues to tackle.

“He has come into his own. The people, the crowds meeting us everywhere have buoyed his confidence so much,” said one volunteer.

He also plunged into a diligent study of the issues and the demands of governance. Right after announcing his candidacy, for instance, Noynoy set out to study the budget deficit and other pressing problems.

Not many know that Noynoy can speed-read. He was on the plane when the Supreme Court handed down the decision that an incumbent President has the power to appoint the next Chief Justice, and he knew the media would be asking his views as soon as the plane landed.

 According to an aide, Noynoy had the Supreme Court decision downloaded on the laptop and proceeded to read the entire manuscript, go over it with his lawyers and mentally mark the salient points.

“It was then we realized how he could speed-read and that he has a photographic memory,” the aide said.

His is a people’s presidency in an era when the Filipino masses have been exploited by demagogues like props in a circus or like a sucker-of-an-audience in a game show.

His governance will have to transform, not just reform.

Will Noynoy be able to lead a new generation of leaders that will finally deliver the country from the morass of corruption and decay that has condemned it to an inferior status in a region of ascendant powers?

This he must do with enemy fire, even friendly fire, directed at him in the days and years to come.

“If he stems corruption and brings back a sense of decency in government, that is good enough for me,” said a matron who planned to vote for Aquino.

If the presidency were his grand, consuming ambition, he could have kept the blood-stained, tattered polo shirt we had been reminding him to keep for posterity.

When we asked Noynoy about two months ago where the shirt was, he sounded disinterested and said it must have gotten lost or was thrown away as he and his mom were preparing to leave the Arlegui House (the official residence of the Cory Aquino administration) to return to the family residence on Times Street.

But why, when it’s a dramatic piece of your life?

“It already stunk!” he said of the shirt.

A regular guy who’s not full of himself—that’s a side to Noynoy the public hardly knew in the three decades that his family has occupied the national stage, perhaps because he never deliberately hopped on that stage.

They said people power is long gone, but what I had seen was actually people power every day … it was dark, the streets were not lit. But people beamed their flashlights at the motorcade just so they could see us’

Had he been a “trapo,” he could have paraded the shirt around for maximum media mileage and votes. That was the shirt he was wearing one late night in 1987 when he was ambushed by renegade military forces in a coup attempt against the Cory Aquino administration, one of eight attempts. With a security detail, he was on his way back to Arlegui from the south of Manila. His bodyguards, except one, were killed in the ambush.

Barely a week after that bloody night, he asked us over to the Arlegui House to recount in graphic detail his near-brush with death. But he asked us not to write about it, and we didn’t. His left shoulder was on a sling, his neck bandaged and his head tilted. (A microscopic speck from what must have been a shrapnel—he believes a grenade was lobbed at his convoy, apart from other firepower—is lodged beneath his left ear to this day, but which apparently can’t be operated on.)

“They didn’t intend to leave us alive,” he recounted to us what seemed like his group’s endless wait for rescue. He spent an insufferable length of time pinned to the floor of the Mercedes-Benz, his dying bodyguard, crumpled on top of him to shield him, muttering intermittently, “Okay ka ba, sir?”

The shirt he wore was soaked in blood—his and that of his bodyguard—and torn in shreds in some portions. It was even “redder,” we told him then, than the safari jacket worn by his father, political martyr Benigno Aquino, Jr. when the latter was slain on the tarmac in 1983.

While he had a second lease on life after that night, his also became a life lived under siege. This was the same young man who, flying in from Boston in August 1983 where the family had lived in exile during the Marcos dictatorship, stood for the first time before the coffin of his assassinated father and, even before he could break into tears, turned around to face a reporter waiting to attack with a question—“So how did your dad get the false Marcial Bonifacio passport?”

“I probably looked naive then, and clueless, jet-lagged, that the reporter thought I’d take the bait,” he recalled his early vulnerability. (He didn’t respond to the reporter.)

While his mother was president, living under siege entailed the cultivation of a mind focused on military intelligence. He picked up target shooting and indulged his love of guns—a hobby he hasn’t stopped pursuing.

During Noynoy’s presidential campaign, an aide noted how, during a land trip late in the night, when their convoy was passing through deserted fields, Noynoy casually asked that one gun from his security staff be handed over to him. He placed the firearm on his lap, at the ready, just in case.

Yes, the incoming president is a good shot.

While his mom was president, Noynoy was preoccupied with efforts to ensure her personal safety and that of the rest of the family. He used to tell us that he could sleep well at night only after he was certain that everyone was already home safe, including his only nephew then, Jiggy, who had started going to school.

His mom’s presidency, he now stresses, gave him an insider’s pass into the workings of government. “I was the bringer of bad news to her,” he’d often say.

It’s no exaggeration to say that as the president’s only son and being the man of the house, he subsumed his life to that of a presidential mother. Perhaps this was why his own campaign drew mothers in droves; time bore out that he had been not only a protective son, but also a good son—even where his love life was concerned.

Being the president’s only son also impacted on his romantic relationships. He regularly dated and had a string of girlfriends. It was known among his friends how conservative Noynoy could be when it came to the women he dated. Like many Filipino sons, he liked them to have the simple traits and old-fashioned values of his mother.

We knew—in those days— he liked his girls to be simple, especially in dressing, and low-key because he himself valued privacy. He still values his privacy, even as he remains candid with the press.

To this day, he gets attracted to a woman he can have great rapport with—and who is pretty. (If we say model-pretty, he might protest.)

A good, stimulating conversation is something he continues to look for in a woman. If he hits it off well with a woman, he can talk with her for hours.

In his younger years, he wanted his girl to be simple, not “ma-arte.” He once had a date who seemed to be always on a diet; he found it a turnoff because it spoiled his own appetite.

Not only should the woman be the type one could bring home to mother, she should also not bring embarrassment to his mother’s stature. That was his concern as a young bachelor who lived with his mother.

Above all, the woman must share his (and his mother’s) values—if he was to be serious in the relationship. He could be uncompromising when it came to this. If one needed proof of how firm or even stubborn he could be—and how he’s not the type to be easily swayed—one had only to remember how he handled his relationships, and even his associations (with male and female friends alike) when his mother was president. He didn’t particularly relish “users.” One couldn’t find a better proof of character than that.

And one hopes he replicates this now that he himself could be president who will inevitably attract vultures.

Asked why he’s remained a bachelor (time was when he resolved to marry before age 30, then it became 40, and so on), he’d always tell us, “As you can see, it’s not for want of trying.”

He once told us—“Ours has not been an easy family, starting with my father’s detention.… Somebody (I will marry) has to be someone who can withstand all the things I’m getting myself into. When you’re looking for a partner, she must be somebody who can join me in all these things. I can’t have a normal relationship.”

We now realize what an understatement that was.

A good, stimulating conversation is something he continues to look for in a woman

Yet despite the odds, Noynoy believes in marriage and hopes to get married. There is an example he looks up to. “The perfect union was my parents. They were together even as they were apart,” he told us once about how his family was during the Marcos rule.

We once asked him why the women he’s been linked to were usually in media, he told us, “Eh that’s my milieu, I interact with them often. Why, how many congresswomen and senators are there for me to court?”

He told us how Jiggy once kidded him—“Mauuna pa ba ’ko sa ’yo?”—if only to rub in the fact that his uncle has been taking quite long and many a generation to find a life partner.

Indeed a private joke between us is how his mother’s fashion designer Auggie Cordero had tried designing already a bridal gown for Aquino’s longtime girlfriend, ages ago, and how today—fashion being a cycle—the design is in vogue again, although the fabric has already “yellowed.”

“Picky” is a mild word to describe his choice of a relationship. His priority seems to have always been his family’s unique place in contemporary Philippine history. His love relationship takes a backseat—as if that isn’t obvious by now. And a marriage timeline has always been a movable target.

“But I think it (marriage) will be part of God’s plan, His blessings. God knows what’s in store for me,” he told us, sounding as religiously philosophical as his mother. “If I had children, would I have been so focused and remained strong (in the nation’s fight), I thought.”

One recent Sunday morning, upon waking up, he walked around aimlessly on their home on Times Street. ‘I thought, we used to be five (siblings, in this house) … Ngayon, isa na lang. Tiningnan ko ’yung room ng Mommy, locked nga pala. Buti na lang’

Well, at least he relented to a makeover for his presidential campaign, although he’s not the type to lose sleep over it. Even fashionistas agreed that sister Kris has done a very good makeover of her brother. His shirts and pants have a good fit, neither too loose nor snug, and thus make him look younger. Kris has tapped the services of both the seasoned and young designers—JC Buendia for his shirts, Joey Samson, Randy Ortiz (suits), Paul Cabral.

His hair is always cropped short. However, a family friend said that not even nephew Baby James’ repeated cries of “Botox, Botox!” could convince his not-vain uncle to undergo the beauty procedure.

Since the presidency of his mom, he has experienced the rise and ebb of power and, it seems to us, he’s not blind to the presence of transient hangers-on. He’s kept the same set of friends from his high school days, and these friends didn’t necessarily hover over him when he was in Congress or in the Senate. They’re there only when he asks for them, like in his presidential campaign.

But he told us, on the last day of the campaign, that not all of them could necessarily be around when he goes to Malacañang. “One is even planning to migrate,” he said of a close friend.

His siblings, of course, will be around him when he assumes the presidency, but he said, he may not necessarily pass on the First Lady duties to them. Getting them involved in his presidency, he said, is “like setting them up as targets. I have asked enough of them already.”

What will his celebrity sister Kris do during his presidency? “Probably nothing,” he said, “She will have to make up for time lost (in her career).”

In recent months, just about the only normal enjoyments he’s had were to soak himself one night in his mother’s Jacuzzi, and to drive from Manila to Tarlac one no-traffic night. Long drives are his form of relaxation. (He can say goodbye to those now.)

The country never even gave him the time and space to grieve for his mother.

One recent Sunday morning, upon waking up, he walked around aimlessly in their home on Times Street. “I thought, we used to be five (siblings, in this house),” he told us. “Ngayon, isa na lang. Tiningnan ko ’yung room ng Mommy, locked nga pala. Buti na lang.”

At least he was spared the sight of his mother’s room and of the memories it brings.

He told us that soon after her death, the pain of missing his mom became acute when, one time, he glanced at her pair of slippers arranged by her bed. No pair of feet would slip into them now. How ironic, but it is he who must fill in her shoes now.

In the next six years, he must prove that he is no mere beneficiary of fate.

If during his mother’s presidency, he spent his life in her service, today as the imminent president himself, he has committed his mid-life to fulfilling his promise of good governance.

He spends his days, 24/7, focused on the nearly-impossible task of trying to undo the ill effects of generations of corrupt rule and of carrying the mission to restore hope and faith in the Filipino and in the cherished values of the race. Doing this, he demonstrates, curiously, a strong religious faith.

To him, the task, while it is daunting, is basic—to do what is right for and by the people, and then he can sleep well at night. “At the end of the day, you leave it to God,” he always tells us about this invincible combination of political will and divine providence.

Noynoy Aquino is living proof that the presidency is destiny. And for the sake of our children, one prays that this man’s personal destiny is but a realization of our country’s great destiny.

He’s raring to assume the presidency to bring his philosophy of servant leader to it. “I will not enrich myself,” he said, “and I aim to bring my methodology of politics to it. As the campaign showed, one doesn’t have to buy (the presidency); you can go direct to the voters, the people.

“Pag patuloy nating binababoy ang pulitika, pag umupo ang pulitiko, baboy na talaga siya (If we continue to turn politics into a pigsty, the politician really becomes a pig).”

He stood up from our dinner table as he said that. Our dinner over, we all posed for souvenir shots on this last night of the campaign, then streamed out of the restaurant.

It was getting late at night. Staff, volunteers, and friends swarmed around him outside the restaurant. Over this commotion, he called aside his friend to ask who would take me back to Manila. He and his retinue were sleeping over in Tarlac, ready for the next day’s election.

He called me to his side to tell me who would drive me back home, and to say goodbye. Nothing much was said anymore, just a quick glance at each other. In a few days, he and I somehow felt, he would be the 15th President of the Philippines.

2010

Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III was elected the 15th President of the Philippines, with an overwhelming mandate, and proceeded to enjoy the highest approval ratings of a President for his anti-corruption platform.

In 2012, then President Aquino onstage at book launch of Thelma San Juan (in black), with Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras, Inquirer chair Marixi Prieto, Inquirer CEO Sandy Prieto-Romualdez (From Thelma San Juan Facebook)


Credit: RTVMalacanang/YouTube

About author

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After devoting more than 30 years to daily newspaper editing (as Lifestyle editor) and a decade to magazine publishing (as editorial director and general manager), she now wants to focus on writing—she hopes.

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