The clueless President and Palace cordon sanitaire Manila Bulletin

The clueless President and Palace cordon sanitaire Featured

“PRESIDENT Digong is clueless about what’s happening in his administration. Those around him feed him the good things and set aside the bad…” (Ramon Tulfo, “In My Line of Sight,” The Manila Times [TMT], Sept. 5, 2019). This must be serious — Mon Tulfo, the special presidential envoy to China, calling PRRD clueless. This may not be an affront, but in some ways it contains a kernel of truth masking the incompetence of those who compose the Office of the President (OP). Tulfo may also just be taking a dig at Executive Secretary Salvador “Bingbong” Medialdea with whom he has a running feud.

But in his column of September 10, “Which is worse, being tanga or corrupt?,” Tulfo further obliquely hit DU30 while accusing “…Faeldon is tanga (its English equivalent is clueless or ignorant, but it does not convey the full flavor – RT)”

Clueless or tanga

This is sensitive territory, putting the Deegong and Nicanor Faeldon in the same breath as clueless or tanga. Mon must be careful to place things in context, though I agree with him that DU30 is being made clueless when you have Malacañang people, like “…the ‘little president’… [not] caution[ing] the President against appointing [Sen. Ronald] ‘Bato’ [dela Rosa] or Faeldon to that sensitive post?… I’m told by some Malacañang insiders that Medialdea doesn’t have the verve for work as he always looks sleepy. The President’s mistake, if I may say so, is in not surrounding himself with Cabinet members who are intelligent enough to advise him against appointing bureau directors who are incompetent.”

To put all of these in proper perspective, PRRD being “tanga” is really attributable to his Palace clique “…Presidents do not operate in a vacuum. To do what he thinks he must do, Duterte can only operate through what we call the state, the ensemble of institutions, especially the bureaucracy, that manages a nation. Unfortunately, we have a weak state, and there are already indications that the bureaucracy has been too weak or has even been captured by the elite — even by criminal and provincial elites — as to block Duterte’s reforms.” (Rigoberto Tiglao, TMT, Sept. 11, 2019.)

In-house strategist

To complicate matters, there exists a vacuity of another indispensable person in the presidential coterie; a deep thinker, an analyst, a confidant to the president and strategist combined in one office: the National Security Adviser (NSA). This brings to mind a paragon, the likes of Henry Kissinger who also served as Secretary of State, and intellectual foil to President Nixon (as the internationalist, not the crook), who initiated the policy of détente with the Soviet Union and opened up relations with China. In contrast, PRRD is personally carrying the country’s diplomatic cudgels with China, burdening him with all the awkwardness and forced mendicancy in his dealings with Xi Jinping. We couldn’t help longing for a tandem similar to President Fidel V. Ramos (FVR) and his adviser Gen. Jose Almonte, a strategic thinker, who despite his egoism, helped FVR see his way clear through the diplomatic minefield and helped fashion a politico-economic storyline for his regime and beyond. We don’t see this today among the intellectual eunuchs at the Deegong’s OP.

Tulfo and Tiglao’s reflections touch the very core of the OP and has far-ranging effects that impact the body politic. This is where the role of the Executive Secretary (ES) becomes critical.

A gatekeeper

Several columns back I wrote a critique on an excellent book using the same as a backdrop to this administration. “The book, The Gatekeepers (Chris Whipple, Barnes & Noble) is a non-fiction political work describing nine American presidencies from Richard Nixon’s to Barack Obama’s. But the interesting part was that the focus was on their chiefs of staff (COS), from Nixon’s H.R. Haldeman to Obama’s first COS Rahm Emmanuel to his fourth, Denis McDonough.” (TMT, Sept. 28, 2017, “Part 1, The Gatekeepers”). I asked Secretary Ernie Abella, the then-Palace spokesman, to procure several copies and distribute them to the President (if he does read), to the ES and to the Deegong’s circle. If indeed Sec. Ernie procured and distributed them, empirical evidence shows that the lessons of the book were left unlearned, or the books remained unread. Whatever!

Whipple’s thesis is basically centered on the COS, The Gatekeeper. In this administration, the ES acts as one. As I described then, the Philippine presidency is a multi-dimensional office further complicated by an occupant like DU30, an alpha male prone to spew out curses, vomit out misogynic repartee, inanities and statements calibrated for maximum shock effect. Oftentimes, one is befuddled as to the intentions of such presidential histrionics though at the same tempo occasionally spouts a rare gem of an idea — but only rarely. Is this merely for show? Is this his native communicative way to inspire/inflame his base? Or are these simply worn-out apothegms or aphorisms from his presidential script. Invariably this requires an ES/COS who not only is attuned to such type of personality but firm enough to handle the volatility and moderate the profanities. Among his essential attributes should be fierce loyalty, selfless and protective of his principal but with one eye out for the common good, and morally anchored. This is of course herculean for one man; but the ES/COS is precisely what the Deegong needs. This is where the mettle of the Gatekeeper is tested. The President in choosing the right ES/COS could define his administration, and in so doing, also characterize and demarcate the presidency and his legacy. With that, their relationship is a symbiotic one. Unfortunately, both are failing.

Time is of the essence

As I wrote in my critique, “The presidency’s most valuable asset is his time. It has to be hoarded and dispensed with sparingly. He has to have more of it for himself to discern and think through the myriad concerns that bombard the office daily. The ES/COS job is to allow access only to a few important people with ideas that can add value to the Presidency. The dictum ‘bring to my office only solutions, and seldom the problems’ could very well be applied.”

This is not what’s happening. DU30’s pronouncements which have the force of official policies are not well pre-processed, which lays himself bare to contradictions from even his own cabinet and subalterns. The President is a singularly driven man who tends to dominate while his minions cower. From a political management viewpoint, deadlier is the perception that the OP is in a disarray. This government is merely coping.

The Deegong is an excellent parochial politician thrust into the rarefied air of national prominence and global politics. His glaring flaw is surrounding himself with pedestrians as advisers, “recruited into the national political stage, naïve about the arcana of national politics, perforce elevating them to their level of incompetence.” In the second half of his presidency, with eyes toward his legacy, it’s time for a drastic overhaul and an upgrade. Tame your sycophants, “tsokaran” or school batchmates if you must but engage patriotic professionals who can say ‘no’ and “speak truth to power”!

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