Persona

Paalam, PNoy: Those private conversations were
among my greatest gifts

He hired me as speechwriter—I learned more about my country
from him than from any resource languishing in the archives

Aquino doing last-minute edits on his 2011 SONA, with the author and Presidential Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang (Photo from Mai Mislang)

Aquino with his team in his Senate years: From left, the author, Julia Abad, Atty. Eloi Sy and Atty. Josel Mostajo (Photo from Mai Mislang)

‘A true democracy is consensus building’—your words gave flesh to my thoughts. Our people’s lives have been bettered by your sacrifice. Thank you.—President Noynoy Aquino, in a TIME cover dedication for the author

I can still recall the first time we met. It was supposed to be a formal job interview, but I could sense, in all my nervousness when meeting a public figure, PNoy’s effort to make the encounter as informal as possible. He asked light questions. He joked around. He made sure I was comfortable, even though that was impossible.

Then he hired me as his speechwriter, which meant entrusting one’s soul to a total stranger.

My family and friends could not believe my luck—and nor could I. The whole country knew him as the son of a former President. He had been a congressman for nine years, and was now elected senator with a fresh six-year term. How on earth do you get a gig like that?

But I did, and the hard work of proving I deserved it was no mean feat, like climbing the K2 of impostor syndrome. Writing copy, personal essays, letters—you can master the trade on some acceptable level. But when you write for and on behalf of someone else, and that someone else is a very important person, there is no way around adopting his way of thinking, moving inside his brain if you can, and predicting his views on a potential issue. Ideally, I had to be one step ahead of him.

To short-circuit the process, building a relationship was essential, and PNoy gave that his utmost priority. After Senate sessions, he would invite the entire team for dinner, and my favorite was a shabu-shabu place in Malate. Easy for a bachelor to do, not so for staffers who still had mountains of work to do, but we learned to adjust. PNoy knew the dangers of the arena and the hazards of playing political games that were part of his full-time job. He knew the importance of taking a break, laughing heartily, and drawing some sanity from that as a way of making the burdens of official responsibilities more manageable.

It is hard not to honor a person who feeds you, makes you laugh, and teaches you a thing or two that was never taught in school. In the early days of my Senate stint, I once called Marcos a monster in one of my drafts for a speech commemorating Edsa. He cautioned by saying, “We may not like the person, but we don’t have to call him names.” The former dictator was the Aquino archnemesis, and yet PNoy showed me a willingness to forgive. As I revised, I was also convinced that I was working for a good man.

His knowledge of history, memories of his utter shock when he saw his dad gunned down so publicly—these were hours of input

He was a frustrated educator, and it showed during our one-on-one meetings in the Senate where he lavished me with things he knew. His knowledge of history, memories of his utter shock when he saw his dad gunned down so publicly, thoughts on fiscal incentives and other bills—these were hours of input, from all over the place, that I then had to stitch together into a coherent message. The sheer volume of what he had to get off his chest would seem overwhelming for any journalist, but I was his apprentice. I needed all the unloading he could muster to do my job well. And by listening and documenting everything I could, I learned more about my country, and the endlessly frustrating process of bringing it back to its former glory, from him than from any other resource languishing in the archives.

Those private conversations were some of the greatest gifts of my life.

Rockstar PNoy
(as posted on Facebook)
During the presidential campaign, a volunteer made a special guitar for PNoy. The conversation that followed went something like this:
PNoy: Mai, anong gusto mong kantahin?
Me: –
PNoy: Led Zeppelin? (He knew I’m a fan)
Me: –
Because what do you say to a President who offers to back you up but doesn’t play the guitar? I couldn’t contain my laughter.

He no longer had the same luxury of time when he became President, when every lobbyist, legislator, election volunteer, and sycophant would compete for it. The snake pit that suddenly surrounded him was now a boiling cauldron of strange characters, many of whom I was convinced he didn’t even like. He knew that before taking the plunge; he had already experienced Malacañang before. But I went in blind, too young and politically naïve to know what goes on behind closed doors. He knew this, too, hence the decision for me to oversee presidential communications from a farther distance, but still close enough to keep an ear to the ground and help new writers shorten their learning curve.

We were in the big leagues now, with enemies standing by on all fronts, waiting for us to fall. When I did drop the ball early in the administration, my head was on the chopping block until he was reminded of my apprenticeship and all those years of loyalty earned. He defended me. He was a statesman with other more urgent business going on, but he chose to look after one of his own.

I will never forget it.

Most of all, I will never forget that we once had a leader who reluctantly ran for president in 2010 while the incumbent was busily squandering taxpayer’s money in a restaurant in New York City. I can still remember transcribing this paraphrased passage from one of his interviews: “My mother was attacked by around 20 newspapers when she was president. Why would I want to become one?” It was the results of a hastily executed poll, that showed roughly 60 percent of Filipinos would vote for him as president, that finally made him change his mind.

An ordinary man living in extraordinary times, just as his father had said.

PNoy was a prisoner of both his parents’ legacy and his duty to a country that did not deserve him—but which he served anyway

PNoy was a prisoner of both his parents’ legacy and his duty to a country that did not deserve him—but which he served anyway. The critics can believe social media and all the fantastic inventions it spews, plus the overkill playing up of his flaws. But none of that can override the concrete gains of his presidential legacy that will ripple throughout history.

Under whose leadership did the Philippines score a win on territorial claims against China? PNoy’s. Under whose leadership did the Philippines achieve investment-grade level? PNoy’s.

Under whose leadership were critical legislation such as the Sin Tax Reform Act, the Enhanced Basic Education Act, and the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act passed? PNoy’s.

He had his shortcomings—who doesn’t?—but those cannot and should not overshadow his and the Aquino administration’s many accomplishments. He played the long game in a country dominated by people unaccustomed to the fruits of delayed gratification.

During the eulogy at Tita Cory’s wake, PNoy was a nervous wreck. He had a prepared speech, but he was pacing about, still unsure of what he wanted to say, one speaker away from his turn. Then suddenly, he asked me to look for a verse in the Bible he wanted to add at the end of his speech. Luckily for me, Google was already invented, and I had Internet access on my BlackBerry. I wrote the following verse at breakneck speed and gave it to him just as he was about to mount the dais:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

Paalam, PNoy. It was my life’s great honor to have been part of your team. Thank you for letting me serve you and the country for six years.

To the Aquino family, Ate Yoly, Ivy, and everyone at Times—please accept my deepest condolences. I share your grief and hope these words offer some solace during this difficult time.

About author

Articles

She is a consultant, musician (lead singer, The Blue Rats) and entrepreneur. She was PNoy's speechwriter during his stint in the Senate from 2007-2010 and throughout his presidential campaign. She served as Assistant Secretary/Chief of Staff of the Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) from 2010-2013 before she pursued graduate studies at Harvard Kennedy School. During the lockdown, she started a weekend microbakery business; she makes sourdough (IG @riseartisanal).

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