‘Stupidity is invincible’

NOT TOO widely known is the fact that the Greek language is not only a precise, nuanced language, but it has a treasury of aphorisms. The beauty of these adages is that one would have to do some thinking to understand them. But when understanding dawns, one realizes how rich the proverb is.

Think of President Aquino’s very first order as head of government, Memorandum Circular No. 1, which would have paralyzed government. It was rescinded, as his officials put it, just “to fine-tune” it. Think of Dinky Soliman boasting that yes, the President was in command during the hostage crisis in August because he had a command post—at the Emerald Garden restaurant. Think of Mr. Aquino antagonizing the United States by saying that its travel advisories warning of terrorist attacks in the country are merely pressure connected to the Visiting Forces Agreement. Think of the incompetent tourism secretary, Alberto Lim, arrogantly saying that there wasn’t any plagiarism in the design of the slogan he wanted since Poland doesn’t have a copyright on it.

I can’t help thinking of the Greek saying, “Stupidity is invincible.”

It is the kind of invincibility a motorcyclist refusing to wear a helmet feels, or the Magdalo coup plotters thought they had when they occupied two hotels inside the financial district, inanely and arrogantly believing their action would trigger another People Power revolt. The arrogance displayed by many administration officials as they commit boo-boo after boo-boo illustrates the insight in that adage.

I hope that they will instead follow Deng Xiao Ping’s adage that guided China’s economic boom: “I don’t care if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” If it’s only yellow cats Mr. Aquino trusts, he better make sure they can catch mice, and not of the same species as Black and White Movement convenor Vicente Romano, who still must explain how P4 million was spent on such a half-witted slogan.

Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. has been telling his close friends that he never wanted his post, that right up to the last minute of his appointment, he had thought that he would merely be the President’s private counsel who would be the last to vet documents he would be signing.

As the Aquino administration commits a faux pas at the rate of once every month, Ochoa is claiming that he has been left out of the loop, even as he seems to have a knack for having media forget his role—or non-role—in the Executive Department.

Observers of the Philippine presidency can’t help but sigh when they look at Ochoa in his trademark denim jeans and untucked short-sleeved shirt and recall the role, qualifications and gravitas of past executive secretaries like: Marcos’ Rafael Salas; Cory Aquino’s Joker Arroyo; Estrada’s Ronaldo Zamora; Ramos’ Teofisto Guingona; and Macapagal-Arroyo’s Alberto Romulo, Eduardo Ermita and Leandro Mendoza. Sen. Miriam Defensor’s claim that lightweights populate the Cabinet is an understatement in this case.

Now we have an inarticulate executive secretary giggling in an interview with Arnold Clavio, and reportedly seen hanging out and drinking in hotel lobbies. “It would be fun to watch him preside over the Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council, and the other bodies where by law the executive secretary is the chairman of a committee of distinguished officials,” one former executive secretary says.

There is much truth to the moniker for the executive secretary of “Little President.” Nearly all documents signed by the President have, by law, to be signed by the executive secretary. He approves even the most mundane things, from the travel abroad of public officials to the release of government funds. He is in fact the government’s chief executive officer, equivalent to the US White House chief of staff, with the President analogously the chairman of the board. He is the whip-cracker in the Cabinet. He represents the President in many inter-departmental committees and corporations.
The real Little President is starting to look like Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, who is known as the President’s intellectual tutor. It was Abad’s draft of MC No. 1 which Aquino ordered Ochoa to issue rather than the one prepared by the executive secretary’s staff.

Indeed, it was a deft move by Abad to have his daughter Julia head the Presidential Management Staff (PMS). The PMS, which I headed for nearly two years, is a low-key but potentially the most powerful organization in the Executive Department. I say “potentially” because its power is determined by how much the President trusts the PMS. Organization-wise, the PMS has no rival in the Executive Department as its 300-plus staff has the expertise to quickly prepare a briefing for the President on any issue he needs to know. It is also the PMS that undertakes background research on any official the President plans to appoint to a position. And it is the PMS which coordinates with every entity in Malacañang, including the Presidential Security Group, on the President’s appointments in and out of the Palace.

The 31-year-old PMS head, whose last post was as Dinky Soliman’s girl Friday, is a kid in a highly professional, veteran institution. No matter, it is obviously Papa who is really running the PMS, getting reports from, and giving orders to, her over the family’s dinner table.

Abad is not only holding the purse strings but is in command of the staff around the President. Ochoa is left to proofread the documents Mr. Aquino signs to make sure they are free of plagiarism.

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer