Monday, September 17, 2007

The death of innocence

This is my column today at the Manila Standard Today.

Despite his continued defiant attitude and his vehement protestations, it was very easy to empathize with former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, his family and supporters last week. And not only because it is truly difficult to rejoice at the misfortunes of others, but more because despite the swagger, the bravado, and the many blunders, there is no denying that Estrada strikes people as a man whose heart is in the right place.

There is a part of me that takes some measure of relief that this country’s justice system has been able to take on the supreme challenge of making a former president face up to crimes committed while occupying the highest seat of power.

Thus, I agree that to a large extent, the verdict was a triumph of the Philippine justice system, if not of justice itself. Of course, this point is lost on Estrada’s son, Senator Jinggoy Estrada, who lambasted the wisdom and impartiality of the judges and the decision, and yet nevertheless celebrated his acquittal from the same justices and the same judicial process.

There is a part of me that takes pride at the fact that we were finally able to make someone powerful accountable for wantonly violating his oath of office.

Thus, I agree that the verdict is a wake-up call for those who abuse the power of their office. I agree that the verdict sends a strong message to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the powers-that-be of this administration whose running tally of questionable transactions now reaches outrageous proportions. If a popular former president could be tried, found guilty, and meted out life imprisonment, the odds of these happening to an unpopular president are even greater.

There is a part of me that takes comfort in the validation that justice in this country is not subject to external pressures.

I know that there are people who continue to insist that the verdict was a result of the manipulative hands of some unseen powers, presumably from the current occupants of MalacaƱang. But if we come down to it, the tremendous popularity of the accused and correspondingly, the immense unpopularity of President Arroyo, not to mention the possibility of a backlash, could also be construed as external pressures that could have weighed down on the crafting of the verdict.

I have said this many times in the past and I will say it again now: I am not a fan of former President Estrada’s. I have never written his name on a ballot. However, one does not have to be a diehard Estrada fan or an ardent loyalist to feel sad at the man’s downfall from grace.

This is, after all, a man who offered a lifeline to the poor and the downtrodden, a man who offered himself as a hero to the masses. Estrada was a President who rose to power on the wings of hope and the promise of change and redemption. Those who have had the privilege of interacting with him personally swear by the man’s inherent charisma, of his gift for engaging people, of being touched by the man’s simplicity and supposed sincerity.

Estrada was the President who could have made a difference in this country. And I mean this in a positive light, not as someone who will be held up as an example of what awaits those who are found guilty of plunder.

Estrada may still win on appeal, get pardoned, or manage to stay out of jail. He may take comfort in empty declarations of having been vindicated on the bar of public opinion, even take the higher moral ground and wear his conviction as a badge of honor. He and his supporters might take consolation in the assertion that because Filipinos are a forgiving people noted for short-term memory, the stigma will eventually fade.

But there is no escaping the stark naked truth: He has been convicted of a major crime. He will go down in history as the first President of this country with a disgraceful footnote attached to his name.

There are many facts that are beyond debate. Even his most ardent supporters no longer hinge their cause on the veracity of the accusations. Their lamentations are now grounded on two other major points that, to their mind, indicate guilt on lesser crimes. That the millions of pesos in question were not government funds (and therefore not covered by the law on plunder) and that others are more culpable of similar, if not graver, crimes. In other words, Estrada’s most grievous mistake was that he got caught. That he was mortal.

I know this borders on the melodramatic, but to some extent, Estrada’s conviction represents the death of innocence. Estrada’s assumption to power—and his eventual fall from grace —is not just a tale of one man’s travails but of a people’s betrayal.

It reminds us that even the purest of hearts and the noblest of intentions cannot be justifications for greed and recklessness. Estrada and his supporters continue to believe that Estrada’s most grievous mistake was that he was very generous and trusting, that there was no malice or intent to defraud, that he was a victim of circumstances. Perhaps.

Perhaps these explain the utter recklessness and brazenness that permeated the whole sordid chain of events—from the way economic decisions were supposedly finalized over bottles of $1,000 Chateau Petrus by members of a shadowy midnight cabinet, to the way the construction of those mansions in Wack Wack and New Manila were so shamelessly flaunted.

It reminds us that it takes more than an iconic image, charm, and street sense to become an effective leader. Being President goes beyond championing the cause of the poor through empty rhetoric.

There is no denying or escaping the facts have been laid bare for all of us to see and evaluate from the time of the impeachment trial, to Edsa 2, to the recent events. Of Estrada’s disdain for the day-to-day tasks of running the government. Of his utter inability to differentiate presidential obligations from his personal lifestyle. We may have forgotten the many embarrassing details of Estrada’s lack of management skills, focus, and discipline.

But we do know this in our heart of hearts: Despite his compassion and his many personal gifts of character, the fact is Estrada was simply unprepared and unqualified for the highest post in the land.

Estrada’s conviction is therefore a bittersweet event for many reasons. On one hand, it gives us occasion to pat ourselves on the back presumably for the powerful lesson that can be extracted from it. But on the other hand, it also reflects on our dismal failure as a people to produce and nurture the right leaders to lead us.

I know I am going to get a lot of flak for saying this, but the whole Estrada phenomenon is our creation as a people. I know a number of people who blame the whole fiasco solely on the people who supported and voted him into office. I refuse to ascribe Estrada’s ascension to power only to the people who voted him into office. Estrada became President because we made him President. We created the conditions that made him President.

It is my hope that the death of innocence paves the way for more maturity particularly in the selection of leaders.

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