Awed by octogenarians

MAYBE IT’S because another year is passing this month for me, but I can’t but be awed by some people who are decades older than me: Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, 86, former President Fidel V. Ramos, 84 and Sen. Joker P. Arroyo, 83.

These octogenarians are the living Filipinos I admire most, and to paraphrase a child’s compliment (revised for my phase of life): I’d like to be like them when I grow up (to my 80s). They certainly inspire me to look forward to my coming decades. I hope our new generation of leaders will emulate their patriotism and political wisdom.

At an age when 70-year-olds spend their remaining years doting over their grandchildren or, worse, just waiting it out in a Golden Acres kind of place, these three are still playing major roles in our national life and discourse, still concerned over the future of our nation. The new Senate had to fall back on Enrile to be the Senate president again to avoid a paralyzing squabble in the chamber. Ramos just published his nth compilation of his politico-economic essays. Arroyo hasn’t lost his rapier-sharp, yet civil, mode of criticizing government policies.

Active octogenarians are certainly a deviation from normal humanity. My three heroes, however, would certainly be delighted to know that Sean Connery turns 80 this month; Clint Eastwood did three months ago; and of course, the (sex) revolutionary Hugh Hefner is 84. A few of humanity’s titans were alive and kicking in their eighth decade. Michelangelo was still at work building St. Peter’s Cathedral when he died at 89; Benjamin Franklin joined the US Constitutional Convention at 81; Goethe at 83 wrote “Faust”; and Winston Churchill turned 80 during his second term as UK’s prime minister.

The lives of our three octogenarians became intertwined starting in the Marcos years: first, Joker against the two pillars of martial law, Enrile and Ramos; the trio united in the People Power Revolution; then Ramos and Joker against Enrile in the tumultuous Cory years; and now, the three, I dare propose, are forming the pillars of political stability in this era.

Just a decade ago, I would have been the last person to write a paean for Enrile and Ramos: I bore for three decades a personal grudge against them. Why shouldn’t I? A memento I keep is a letter in 1973 by martial law administrator Enrile to my father denying our request to free me and my late wife Raquel from a military prison. Consequently I spent two years of my life jailed in an army camp. The chief of the Philippine Constabulary, Ramos, had command responsibility over the infamous 5th Constabulary Security Unit. That dreaded crack unit jailed me and my wife— with my two-year-old daughter Andrea in tow— together with most of the Communist Party of the Philippines’ Manila-Rizal Regional Committee I headed, including Benito Tiamzon, now the alleged CPP chair, his wife Wilma and three others who went on to become Politburo members. The torture inflicted by the 5th CSU only served to inflame our revolutionary fervor for years—and obviously for Tiamzon and his comrades, until now.

But to understand is to accept. It was after all, a war, and communist chieftain Jose Maria Sison indeed called it a “People’s War.” In any war, fear and hatred draw out from the hearts of men the most primeval, brutal instincts.

Arroyo was with a group of idealistic lawyers, led by the late Jose W. Diokno, that included a lawyer barely out of law school, Jejomar Binay. They fearlessly represented opposition leaders and activists who were formally charged in the first and hopefully last military tribunals in our country.

However, the energy of Enrile, Ramos and Arroyo in their 80s only reflects their pluckiness when they were in their 20s. As they moved into adulthood, Enrile, Ramos and Arroyo, each in his own way, strived to create the lives they envisioned, and not just what was presented to them. Most dramatic was Enrile’s life, with the poor illegitimate son demanding his birthright—and funds for his college and law education—from his rich father. Each of them didn’t really seek heroism, but simply stuck to humanity’s cherished principles as they understood it, when events demanded a response: for Arroyo, martial law in 1972 and Ninoy’s assassination; and for all three, the 1986 People Power Revolution.

All three didn’t—and don’t—see the world and Philippine politics in the Manichean mind-set that is fashionable these days among a few politicians and columnists decades younger than them who have lately been proving themselves to be curmudgeons. They have been sober in their wisdom, and they have not turned into frothing-in-the-mouth moralists claiming a monopoly of truth.

Enrile had his detours, yes, but he eventually joined Ramos and Arroyo in the belief that the single most important thing for our country is stability and the rule of law, that the anger of lynch mobs never metamorphoses into nationhood.

I admire the three for having a life of the mind, a predilection that I fear is fast vanishing among our leaders. When I visited Enrile in 2005 in his Senate office, he was reading a book on Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. Ramos’ Peace and Development Foundation is a real think-tank, its office becoming a library of studies on economic development. In Athens two years ago when he visited with his family, Arroyo was like a little boy in the archaeological museum, awed by the relics of a great civilization.

Perhaps I admire these three non-saints most for living their personal lives to the fullest, never forgetting that there is life outside and beyond politics. Now what could be wiser than that?

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer