The tragic silence of Nene Pimentel
For a long time, Aquilino Pimentel Jr. was living proof that neither looks nor a gift for gab were requirements to be rewarded with national office by the people. All you needed, he seemed to prove, was a respectable brain, a fairly consistent set of ideals, ideas and principles, and some guts, and however humble your origin or far away from imperial Manila you came from, you could gain the trust and confidence of millions of your countrymen.
How he earned that trust has been recounted in many ways in the embalming with honey that takes place after statesmen like him die, but to my mind his two finest moments occurred early and late in his political career.
The first took place when he was a delegate to the ill-fated 1971 Constitutional Convention. On Nov. 29, 1972, delegates were called upon to ratify the Palace-prepared draft Constitution, which carried with it a Marcos-style sweetener: Only delegates who voted to approve the Constitution would become automatic members of a new interim National Assembly (another typical Marcos move: He subsequently had the provision deleted by referendum). But as Augusto Caesar Espiritu recounted in his diary, the “ratification” that day was a foregone conclusion; the real action had taken place two days before, on the final draft’s second reading:
“Fourteen people voted ‘No.’ The most sensational vote was that of Nene Pimentel, who was standing before the microphone waiting for his name to be called. When his turn came to vote, he started to deliver a speech…
“‘Because of the adulterous…’ his voice trailed off as presiding officer Abe Sarmiento banged the gavel. ‘Your vote,’ Abe ruled. ‘What is your vote?’
“Nene Pimentel continued to explain his vote, but Brod Abe ruled that he should make known his vote first. Pimentel shouted, ‘I refuse to vote on this travesty of a Constitution…’
“I heard later on that this was shown on TV.”
The second was also seen by the nation on TV, when Pimentel, by then Senate President, co-presiding over President Estrada’s impeachment trial (because senatorial egotism refused to accept their unique but modest role as jurors, they demanded instead to garb and treat themselves as judges), resigned the Senate presidency after the impeachment trial collapsed.
To my mind, these two were his finest moments, because the most difficult thing for any politician is to turn away from power: either not to accept it, or to let go of it; because it is always easier to rationalize embracing power. So: He would not become an assemblyman if the price was to abandon his role as an elected delegate to a convention; he would not hold on to the Senate presidency when the institution had failed the challenge to conclude the first impeachment trial of a president.
His finest moments, however, must be accompanied by acknowledging three ironies his political career came to represent. The first was that, for a man who began as a parliamentarist, he gained his greatest fame as a member of the Senate in a bicameral legislature under the presidential system. On the whole, he became living proof of the wisdom of having a second, much smaller, nationally elected chamber imbued with a national perspective.
The second was that, for a man who was not just a practicing lawyer but one who’d been a legal educator, his biggest and dearest-held idea, federalism, failed to prosper because the most elaborate legal schemes for organizing a nation can founder on questions proposed by other disciplines—in this case, economics. The question federalism’s proponents could never answer satisfactorily was that of the economic consequences of such a shift. And in the end, for all his efforts, his federalist proposal was just that: just one of a competing set of proposals, which meant that even as the idea enjoyed its greatest political backing, ever, neither its chief backer nor anyone else could quite convince the economic managers of the present dispensation of how it could possibly become a reality.
And the third was that, for a man who devoted himself to one of the two political parties (the Liberals and his own PDP-Laban) that tried to transition from the premartial law system of patronage to a more ideas-oriented organization, the system of local government he helped enact became the biggest stumbling block to effective, cohesive party-building on a national scale. As I’ve argued elsewhere, simply put, our political parties are torsos lacking legs, because barangays have been declared “nonpolitical,” which means our basic political unit has nothing to offer the grassroots in terms of party participation.
The result was a man frustrated into silence: beaten by the system into an acceptance that led many of his admirers to shake their heads over how he stopped fighting.
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