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Commentary

Duterte’s tastes

Past articles on President Duterte by Malacañang officials allowed rare glimpses into the persona of our leader. They humanized the stern and acid-tongued President who, despite being a lawyer, is more prone to short-circuiting legal protocols which, he deems, diminish presidential prerogatives and stymie his promise of change. Cynics viewed the articles as a marketing tool, mainly because they were written by minions of Malacañang.

Let me invade the “territory” of the President’s propagandists and volunteer my own observation and initial impression of the man whose management style is unorthodox, to say the least.

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I have had two brief encounters with the President, the first occurring when I was undersecretary of tourism and shared a role with then Mayor Duterte in inaugurating a tourism project in Davao City. He struck me then as a strong, no-nonsense leader (the legend about him was then just beginning).

The other encounter was in Cairo, when I was Philippine ambassador to Egypt. Then Congressman Duterte was with a delegation of other lawmakers led by then Speaker Manny Villar; they had just come from Saudi Arabia. By tradition, the embassy had to host a dinner for visiting government officials. In our sincere desire to impress our guests—most of them were my colleagues in the 9th Congress—the embassy contracted a popular hotel-restaurant to prepare a “Class A” menu.

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Before dinner, Mr. Duterte approached me to ask if we had canned sardines in stock. (It was reported that sardines were part of the repast when the President hosted a recent merienda for celebrity Sharon Cuneta.) I was surprised at his unusual food preference. There we were, agog in preparing the best spread we could offer, and a congressman-guest was requesting that canned sardines be served. (We have a popular anecdote down south about city folks visiting a remote barrio, where the host seeks forgiveness because he can only serve chicken instead of sardines, premium food for the hoi polloi.)

I was perplexed and worried, because who would expect that a man of his stature would prefer sardines over a rich meal served by a popular caterer? But one of our staff saved the day for us, offering sardines she had stocked for personal consumption.

Then there is the President’s sartorial “nonelegance,” which endears him to the masa.  He visibly disdains occasions where formal wear is de rigueur. He looks uncomfortable, if not irritable, attending formal state dinners, as during Asean and Apec summits, or state visits. You can see his discomfort wearing a suit. (At the recent UP Law Alumni Homecoming, I ribbed his chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo, who is known for sartorial taste, about the President’s loose necktie. Panelo’s explanation was that the President feels like choking if he tightens the collar of his shirt or his necktie.) He looks macho and at ease wearing a leather jacket and his signature checkered shirt.

This nonconformance with men’s fashion trends endears the President to ordinary Filipinos who have long been exposed to suave and sweet-talking leaders who wear dinner jackets over black bow ties but bring nothing to them but misery. Mr. Duterte is the kind of product that sells easily to the masa, who dominate our population.

This is not to ingratiate myself with Malacañang; this is just saying that Mr. Duterte’s appearance and actions speak volumes of the kind of leader we have: a man with simple tastes in food and clothes, but with big dreams for his people. Unfortunately, that simplicity is being obfuscated by his impatience with bureaucratic protocols. His sustained popularity may have given him a false sense of infallibility to disregard legal safeguards that seem to obstruct presidential powers.

Macabangkit B. Lanto (amb_mac_lanto@yahoo.com), UP Law 1967, was a Fulbright Fellow at New York University for his postgraduate studies. He has served the government in various capacities—as congressman, ambassador, undersecretary of justice and of tourism, etc.

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