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Pimentel’s legacy, contra Quezon

/ 04:05 AM October 29, 2019

I hold the historian Manolo Quezon, a colleague and friend, in the highest regard. But I found his column on the legacy of the late senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. driven by unconscious condescension, the kind that I think is, even today, reserved by the traditional elite for the provincial upstart, the outsider.

I am provoked into a response.

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Let me begin by saying that I am not taking issue with his considered judgment of Pimentel: as a statesman defined by not one but two “finest moments” — both characterized, generously but also accurately, as a turning away from power — but also as a politician “frustrated into silence” in his latter years. I am also not taking issue with his considered opinion that “the system of local government” in the Philippines that Pimentel was substantially responsible for creating “became the biggest stumbling block to effective, cohesive party-building on a national scale.”

Those are important insights; they are substantive enough as to generate, or accommodate, contrasting positions. One can respect Manolo’s reading of frustration, as I do, without agreeing with it. Indeed, I see Pimentel’s refusal in his last years to intervene in the affairs of the party he cofounded, PDP-Laban, as yet another difficult instance when he chose to turn away from power. For better or for worse, the party was now in the hands of his son and namesake, also a one-time Senate president like him; it was not for him to intervene anymore.

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But Manolo’s reading of the Pimentel legacy made me cringe, because of the way he framed it.

In the first place, in an attempt to place his column in the context of the wave of obituary-writing that inevitably washes over our shores after a consequential personality passes away, he situates it, by implication, as separate from “the embalming with honey that takes place after statesmen like him die.” This in itself is not only not objectionable, but in fact a necessary part of the public discourse. After the honeyed statements, come the detailed analyses.

But—my first point—even the honeyed statements have a necessary function in the economy of stock-taking. It is a robust republican impulse to greet the death of our representatives, especially the good or historic ones, with as much generosity, breadth of perspective, or compassion as possible. They represented us, and we want to see them—
and therefore ourselves, too—in a good light.

Manolo and I have done our share of “embalming with honey” in the wake of important deaths; for instance, we both wrote immediate perspectives on Corazon Aquino when she died in August 2009, seeing in her the larger truths of our democratic restoration. (For my part, I also wrote four columns over the course of that month to try to understand the legacy of the Aquino family, including the hapless Kris.)

That Manolo approaches the death of Pimentel without the jar of honey is as much a reflection on him as it is on the late senator. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course.

But it was the first paragraph of his column that jarred me. “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.”

This is, I think, written as praise, but the praise is not only faint; it is based on a patronizing view of the political outsider.

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Can anyone imagine a column on the death of, say, Claro M. Recto starting with a recognition that he did not look like a matinee idol, or an obituary of Sergio Osmeña based on his lack of eloquence?

My second point: It is a terrible misjudgment to use the presence or absence of good looks as a category of comparison; I mean, Pimentel was popular in his own circles even before he became known nationally. Who is to say his circles did not find him attractive in the sense that Manolo used?

But in truth I do not think Manolo meant to use appearance or eloquence as a factor, only that Pimentel seemed like an unlikely politician to win national renown despite having “neither looks nor a gift for gab.” And there, precisely, is the rub.

I do not think it would not have occurred to Manolo to describe the great Jovito Salonga or the essential Lorenzo Tañada or the folksy Neptali Gonzales as lacking looks or a gift for gab, when in fact they were not orators like Jose Diokno or matinee idols like Rogelio de la Rosa. It would have been absurd. “Neither looks nor a gift for gab” seems to me to be code, for “promdi” politicians rising above their expected level.

In Pimentel’s case, it was his radical but reason-based resistance against the Marcos juggernaut, his undoubted courage during dangerous days, that eventually recommended him to national office. We are drawn to those who fight for us.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: Aquilino Pimentel Jr., john Nery, Manuel L. Quezon III, Nene Pimentel, Newsstand
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