Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Up close, not personal

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.

Last Monday I wrote about my impressions of the Kadayawan Festival held in Davao City last week. The occasion also provided an opportunity for me to observe at close range the public behaviors of certain politicians who have been in the news lately.

I was actually in Davao for a conference where the keynote speaker at the opening ceremonies was the honorable mayor of the City, Sara Duterte, more popularly referred to as Inday Sara (for those unfamiliar with the nuances of the Visayan culture, Inday is both an honorific and endearment title. Thus it denotes both social status and supposedly a measure of charisma). Duterte shot to national prominence a couple of months ago on account of a very public display of temper—she pummeled a sheriff in front of her constituents and in full view of television cameras who were more than happy to record every single millisecond of the incident. What triggered the incident was the sheriff’s refusal to heed the mayor’s request for a two-hour extension of the demolition of a row of shanties, which resulted in violence. The unprecedented behavior became subject of intense debate. There were those who condemned the mayor’s actions as unbefitting an elected local executive. There were those who praised her for taking up the cudgels for the poor and the lowly. I wrote about the incident in this space basically calling the behavior wrong and unjustified without necessarily condemning her motivations for doing what she did.

Duterte and I had a few minutes of interaction at the conference as we waited for our cue to enter the conference hall, as we sat next to each other at the presidential table, and later as we waited for her official car to arrive at the entrance of the Hotel. I wouldn’t say we got to know each other, but it was my first time to actually observe her up close.

Duterte arrived at the conference without a coterie of assistants although I was told there were bodyguards nearby who made themselves scarce. She was wearing a no-frills turquoise blouse, ordinary khaki slacks, and open-toed emerald shoes. Her only accessories consisted of a pair of south sea pearls on her earlobes, a plain silver watch on her wrist, and a Nokia cellular phone, which she clutched in her hand. She only wore a lipstick. She had very clear skin that glowed. The whole packaging screamed “no-nonsense person.” She was also quite soft spoken and struck me as almost shy and introverted.

She didn’t complain when people mobbed her afterwards and gamely posed for pictures like a celebrity. She wasn’t chatty, but she wasn’t snobbish either. In fact, she was quite gracious. When she learned that I would be staying on in Davao for the Kadayawan, she offered me a seat onstage at the main staging area of the festival. But for the most part, she just listened and smiled politely, nodding at conversations and making short and direct-to-the-point responses.

The mayor and I were on our way out of the hotel lobby when we bumped into Tagaytay City Mayor Maita Ejercito and her posse of city officials and assistants. Ejercito was on vacation mode, which probably explained her very casual get up of tight jeans, even tighter yellow t-shirt, huge sunglasses, and baseball cap. But the contrast in personality was very evident as the two lady mayors interacted. Ejercito was bubbly. She chatted everyone up, in the process drawing attention to herself. Duterte was calm and collected.

I had the opportunity to observe Duterte’s public demeanor during the streetdancing and the floats parade as well (I had to take up the mayor’s offer of a seat onstage after suffering for two hours on the streets crushed amidst a sea of people pushing around barricades). Whenever she had to give instructions, she would stand up and go to where an assistant was rather than calling someone to come to her. When someone started serving food, she asked the server to serve everyone else. Probably noting that she was in full view of thousands of people who were probably hungry while suffering under the intense heat of the noonday sun, she didn’t take a bite of the sandwich offered to her. She took a sip of water directly from the bottle. By the way, lugaw was served to all participants and spectators of the events—nothing fancy really, but at least they were able to serve most everyone.

On both days of the Kadayawan, she wore maong jeans and a simple collared t-shirt, pretty much the same outfit she was wearing when television cameras caught her at that most unguarded moment a couple of months ago. During a lull at the floats parade, she climbed down the stage to talk to a little girl in ordinary houseclothes who was perched on top of a makeshift scaffolding. She probably was cautioning the little girl to be careful lest she fall and injure herself. Or she was probably just bored and wanted to stretch her legs. And then she held the little girl’s hand and taught her to wave to the cameras.

People get elected into office today on the strength of visual images—how candidates come across as individuals rather than based on verbal messages or what they are actually saying. People observe behaviors and make judgments based on how the behaviors come across to them—whether the candidate is sincere, caring, aloof, motherly, etc. People want to see action, not listen to lectures. People want leaders who reach out and are seen walking the talk.

No wonder then that public perception of Sara Duterte among those who have seen the lady up close is that of a hardworking leader with a heart that beats for the masses. Listening to many Davaoenos’ interpretation of that pummeling incident was very insightful—most thought it was wrong, but it seems everyone was in agreement that what she did was commendable because it showed the extent of her commitment to fight for the poor. If elections were held in Davao today, Duterte would definitely win hands down.

How can one argue with perception? Truly, there is immense power in body language and visual packaging. And either Duterte is operating from sincerity and therefore behaving naturally or she has mastered the craft of impression management.

There are many things we can learn from the Sara Duterte phenomenon, foremost of which is that people are hungry for strong leadership and are grateful when they witness manifestations of such. One can only wish our national leaders are listening.

Politics, the nauseating kind, was centerstage at the Kadayawaan as well. Senator Chiz Escudero and former senator Juan Miguel Zubiri were guests of honor during the streetdancing competition and they were asked to say a few words of greetings to the people of Davao City. Escudero very wisely kept his remarks brief and limited himself to greeting everyone and wishing the people of Davao a meaningful and relevant celebration of the Kadayawan. Unfortunately, Zubiri chose to go into full campaign mode. He used the occasion to once again explain why he resigned as senator basically indulging in shameless self-promotion talking about his virtues as a person of integrity, honor, and honesty. And then he went into full sipsip (apple polishing) mode and talked about his closeness to the Duterte family.

The people around me started muttering about how the festival was being cheapened by Zubiri’s politicking. I got the feeling people were about to start hissing but mercifully, Zubiri remembered his manners and shut up.

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