Many Filipinos watching the riveting exchange of words on the Senate floor last Wednesday between Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile must have thought that the chamber’s oldest member had gotten the better of the youngest. He certainly did, in both parliamentary and public-opinion terms, but in fact it was not only Trillanes who suffered a hubristic meltdown; Enrile, too, displayed an arrogance that was all the more stunning for its lack of subtlety.
All of us have reason to be outraged by their conduct.
Trillanes did not do himself any favors when he walked out of the Senate. While he must have thought he was doing the right thing by not participating in the reading aloud of a document he at that time considered classified (the so-called Brady notes, which he now questions, and which at that moment in their confrontation Enrile was about to read into the record), he forgot that the Senate, if nothing else, is a debating forum, an arena where words are the weapons of choice. So when he left the floor, Enrile lunged at him for running away, using the sharp blade of sarcasm: “He can’t take the heat. He’s a coward.”
And while the subject of his privilege speech, which provoked Enrile’s ferocious counterattack, was important, the series of events immediately before Trillanes read his speech and immediately after he walked out of the Senate suggests that he was reaching for something more than the undivided integrity of Camarines Sur. He now says he was in fact hoping to help unseat Enrile as Senate president.
The utter fecklessness of his attempt reminds us not only that, as it is often said, hope is not a strategy; it also reminds us of the inept adventurism he displayed during the Oakwood caper of 2003. Does one seize state power by taking over a serviced-apartments hotel? Trillanes does not seem to understand where the real sources of power lie, whether in society or in the Senate.
His backdoor diplomacy is marked by the same confusion; he thinks that because China is large the Philippines’ only viable negotiating stance is appeasement, and because Chinese officials are talking to him they are necessarily sincere.
Enrile, the master political survivor of our time, whose political influence and legal acumen have helped shape Philippine society for the last half-century—he was already a person of authority in the 1960s—suffers from a kind of confusion too. He thinks that, when he is sufficiently engaged, he can do no wrong.
During the impeachment trial of Renato Corona and especially during its immediate aftermath, Enrile’s disposition impressed many as the ideal combination of institutional dignity and personal humility. He spoke tellingly of his advice to Corona after Corona’s own attempted walkout, that it just so happened each of them had roles to play in the impeachment process—possibly one of the most important civic lessons we can draw out of the entire experience. He also spoke of doing the necessary homework to prepare for the trial, and of his readiness to step down from the Senate presidency if someone else could muster a majority.
But no political career could be as lengthy or as consequential as Enrile’s if it were based on humility or meek role-playing alone. The post-impeachment aura he now enjoys can obscure the fact that Enrile is a man of extraordinary ambition, with a sense of self to match.
The exchange with Trillanes is a timely reminder. Judging from the admiring press Enrile has received after “dusting off” the junior senator, in the words of one newspaper article, it is also a much-needed one.
Enrile responded to Trillanes’ repeated attempts to stop him from reading the Brady notes into the record with a flash of imperious anger. “Do not teach me about parliamentary proceedings. I’m not answerable to anybody about what I say in this hall.”
In fact, Trillanes was not teaching him an unfamiliar rule; he was, however inadequately, merely reminding Enrile of a procedural safeguard. If senators debating with Enrile cannot refer to parliamentary procedures, then who can?
And in fact Enrile is answerable for what he says in the Senate hall—to his colleagues (who could, if they had not been too intimidated or entertained by his counterattack, censure him for unparliamentary behavior) and above all to the public he is supposed to serve. If he is truly not answerable for what he says, he needs a title bigger than senator.