Monday, March 01, 2010

Up close, not personal

This is my column today.

Liberal Party presidential candidate Senator Benigno Aquino III recently expressed exasperation that the issues discussed in the series of presidential forums have become repetitive and tended to focus too much on populist shtick rather than on the more substantive issues hounding the nation.

He then challenged Senator Manny Villar, the candidate who is widely seen as his closest rival for the presidency, to a one-on-one debate; a challenge Villar immediately accepted. Villar shot back: Name the place and the venue. A sidelight to that verbal scuffle was Brother Eddie Villanueva’s attempt to insert himself into the picture saying that if Aquino and Villar were going to debate mano a mano, then he also should be there even if only to serve as a referee.

I cite this back story because it just so happened that the professional organization of which I am currently vice president, the People Management Association of the Philippines (the national organization of human resource management professionals in the country) was also at that time organizing its own series of presidential forums. What we had in mind was a format involving two or at most three presidential candidates at a time. Coincidentally, the plan was to invite Aquino and Villar to the first forum. So we jumped at the opportunity and made the necessary arrangements.

I say this with no malice intended: Inviting Aquino and Villar was a complicated and nerve-wracking experience. Up to day of the forum, we were never really sure if both, or either, or neither would show up. I’ve organized quite a number of national conferences myself and I familiar with the difficulties involved in getting the rich, the famous, and the notorious to speak or show up at a public event. Nothing prepared me for the kind of backroom negotiations that had to be made. But after a lot of wheeling and dealing, both camps accepted the invitation. There was also a lot of briefing and coaching on the talking points and the format of the forum. I don’t really know anymore how it came to pass but somewhere along the way, Brother Eddie Villanueva’s participation became part of the arrangement.

Aquino and Villanueva did show up. Villar chickened out at the last minute. If Villar thought human resource managers can easily be dispensed with, he has another thought coming. We directly influence millions of workers—we’re the gatekeepers of information and learning in industry, we’re also the people directly responsible for managing and developing those employed in the private sector.

A friend in media who covers the presidential candidates intimated to me that notwithstanding the bravado he displayed in responding to the Aquino challenge to a one-on-one debate, Villar is actually uncomfortable in forums where Aquino is also present because the crowd inevitably gravitates towards the latter.

This was exactly what happened last week at the PMAP forum. I take my hats off to Brother Eddie Villanueva who must really be such a humble man not to take offense at the fact that people mobbed Aquino and relegated him to the sidelines. I can understand how such a spectacle would be a blow to Villar’s ego. Whether it is on the wane or not, the Aquino magic is a real phenomenon.

The general perception is that there is an ocean of difference between the public persona and who a person really is up close. Television, which is the most popular medium today, brings candidates into our bedrooms and living rooms and magnifies their supposed strengths and weaknesses —their brilliance, nervous gestures, warts, thinning hair, and all. But for all its vaunted power, television has limitations. For one, it has to appeal to as many types of constituents and therefore tends to be superficial in treatment. There is no substitute for small forums that function like town hall meetings focused on specific concerns and issues. In fact, town hall meetings have been staple fixtures in the presidential elections in the United States since the eighties.

But then again, it really still boils down to the readiness and capability of candidates to provide incisive and in-depth answers to questions asked of them. I have noted that even when our presidential candidates are asked direct questions that call for specifics such as action plans and timelines, they still tend to answer with motherhood statements and broad strokes.

I was a little disappointed that at the PMAP forum, Senator Aquino couldn’t be more specific with his answers despite the fact that he had just complained, just a couple of weeks ago, about what he thought was the lack of substantive discussions in the various presidential forums. When asked, for example, how long it would take his administration to fix the mismatch problem and at what cost, he hemmed and hawed and skimmed through the surface. The moderator had to try to pin him down to talk specifics. Still, it was the moderator who had to synthesize his thoughts to come up with a specific answer: About two years, with money to be sourced from the gaps in the tax collection efforts, which would be more than enough.

If Aquino was non-committal and tended to be superficial, Villanueva was clearly oblivious of the issues. His stock answer to everything and anything was a variation of the same refrain: The problem in this country is the lack of a sense of righteousness and that he and his party would lead by example. Villanueva had specific talking points, which he had clearly mastered—memorized even—and he never strayed from these points.

There is more about Aquino that does not register on television and in other mass media channels. He is far more eloquent and engaging in person although he does tend to display non-verbal messages that seem to indicate impatience. Others have labeled these as indicative of being “petulant.” I think the senator just needs to learn to be more tolerant of criticism. At the PMAP forum, he expressed exasperation at our political system which bred incompetence and stymied innovative and long-term solutions. When the moderator cut him off with the observation that inability to change the status quo and failure to get things done within the system could also be interpreted as failure in leadership, the senator continued to whine about what he had not been allowed to do. The senator justified himself by saying he chose not to be popular.

Aquino, however, earned brownie points from me for being sincere and authentic. What I liked most about him was the fact that he didn’t try to come across as a “know-it-all,” he carried with him a folder—presumably containing statistics and various data—which he flipped through during the forum. He drank water straight from a bottle, didn’t ask for star treatment (in fact he refused to enter the room when someone else was talking because he didn’t want to interrupt), and even stayed even if he was already late for another appointment just to accommodate members of the audience who wanted to have pictures taken with him.

I still haven’t decided on who to vote for President but I know this for a fact after having met Senator Aquino, sat with him on the same table, and listened to him parry difficult questions from our group: A Noynoy Aquino presidency would not be such a bad thing.


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