Since it had been part of my job as a journalist (and for four years as a Malacañang official), I have intently listened to and analyzed, privately or publicly, 30 presidential State of the Nation addresses. And sorry to be a party-pooper, but I have concluded that these don’t matter at all and may even be a waste of everyone’s time. Maybe that’s why such annual addresses to the legislature by the head of government are practiced by only a handful of nations in the world — Russia, Luxembourg, South Africa, and Ghana. For us, it’s really a vestige of our colonial mentality, as we aped it from the American President’s State of the Union Address.
The SONA is mainly the one occasion of the year for the politico-economic and even cultural elite to get together to hobnob with each other, and for an aspiring political elite to be recognized as such. (I’m not sure this time, and I hope somebody checks, but the oligarchs, especially cronies of past Presidents, were conspicuously absent in President Duterte’s first SONA. Did he tell his people not to invite them?)
Except for Benigno S. Aquino 3rd’s sickening finger-pointing against his predecessor Gloria Arroyo in each of his SONAs, who remembers what any of the past five Presidents said in her or his speeches? Who remembers what they promised they’d do during their terms?
Worse perhaps, many of these SONAs had been performances that had only served to fool the masses. I don’t remember what President Estrada, the first President who delivered his speech entirely in Filipino, said in his first SONA, but only the feeling roused in me, that at last here was a President for the masses. Three SONAs later, the second people-power movement would force this dolt out of power for massive corruption. The yellow papers (see image) were ecstatic over BS Aquino, banner-headlining his preposterous SONA line “We can dream again.” His term turned out to be a nightmare.
Aquino may have been our most incompetent President, but he was a virtuoso in acting like a President in his SONAs, which were all delivered in a deep voice and in Filipino, as though in an attempt to connect with the masses. Yet, he was really a disaster for our nation, and barely a month after he stepped down, he’s been thrown to the dustbin of history, despised and ridiculed by most people.
A SONA is really a President’s performance in which he tries to project to the nation, and maintain annually, a particular, mostly invented image for himself. The SONA is really a theater in which a President tries as best as he can to act the particular presidential image he has decided to adopt. That is why action movie star Erap and the characterless Aquino were really so good at SONAs.
What made Duterte’s SONA different, though, is that he gave the show away through his adlibs, and by his references to his speech prepared by his staff, parts of which he dismissed as not worth his time reading out to the public. For those familiar with plays, it’s a bit like the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s strange, but brilliant, technique in which the actor reminds the audience that he is just acting, and that what they are watching is not reality but only a representation of reality. If that Brechtian technique has the impact of making audiences think critically, and not being lost emotionally in the play, Duterte’s version of it emphasizes his authenticity, that he is not making things up and he means what comes out of his mouth when he sets the script aside.
My old friend, Nelson Navarro, in his Facebook post very well described its impact on him:
“What this spectacle brought to my mind was (actor) James Stewart in (the movie) ‘Mr. Smith goes to Washington,’ the everyman who suddenly became president and got to speak his mind to the nabobs of power, reducing them to utter absurdity but with the lightness of satire that was truly lethal because the accuser did not exactly accuse or play hero. He poked fun at himself and above all, his social and political betters who were clearly villains the people did not deserve and who created the big mess of their lives in the first place.”
Most importantly, it was Duterte’s stepping out of the script, his adlibs that connected with the masses, convincing my friend Navarro to conclude:
“I loved best Duterte’s great heart for the common people, the Muslims, the rebels in the hills, the squatters, all the outsiders of our country who have simply been shut out of the equation but without whom no real country can be built or expected to arise.”
Optimists claim that a really very good SONA would inspire our people to unite as a nation. I don’t think it ever will: Just looking at the main audience of legislators reminds one that a rapacious political elite exploiting the masses blocks our growth as a real nation. Whatever is promised in the SONA is forgotten two days later.
I suspect Duterte, if given the choice, wouldn’t really prefer to do SONAs. Such speech as that he delivered yesterday could be his first and last. After all, SONAs consume a lot of a President’s precious time: the long discussions with his speechwriters and Cabinet members on what to include in the SONA, the back-and-forth process of finalizing the speech, and practicing its delivery.
It’s a myth that SONAs are required by the Constitution. All it requires (Article 7, Section 3) is for the President “to address the Congress at the opening of its regular session.”
To save us time, and spare us from boring SONAs, and for the President to instead have the initiative, it would be better for Duterte next year to instead use this “address” as an opportunity to tell these highly paid but mostly useless legislators what laws they have to pass pronto, and what bills they have been focusing on but will be useless for the nation.
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Former President Aquino’s absence in that SONA the other day, when all of the three past living Presidents were there, was so conspicuous. Was it his petty way of protesting that his candidate Manuel Roxas didn’t win? Was he so gutless and deathly afraid to see and maybe even sit beside Arroyo, whom he had detained and whose life he put at risk? Was he so insecure in his mind about the idea that his criminal negligence of the illegal drug plague has now been exposed? Or is it his way of saying, “Wala na akong pakialam sa gobyerno. Bahala na sila sa buhay nila!” He didn’t even bother to explain to the nation why he could not attend what the Republic considers as one of its sacred events.
Four weeks after he stepped down from power, Aquino’s absence from that event the other day tells us a lot about his true and very ugly character.