The unfortunate Bong Go
President Duterte is the absentee landlord of Philippine politics. In his absence, Sen. Bong Go, his personal aide of two decades and the erstwhile special assistant to the President, often serves, all at the same time, as source, bearer, and filter of the President’s thinking.
Other national politicians have been actual absentee landlords; some landlords have won high political office without spending too much time away from their properties. But in the history of the Philippine presidency, no one has been AWOL as much as Rodrigo Duterte. Even Joseph Estrada, not known for an ethos of hard work as a politician, respected the office enough to be present for most important occasions; he did not embarrass the country by flying to summits only to go missing.
President Duterte, on the other hand, really cannot care less. Let me correct that; he did once, a few days after his election. One night he said he would change his conduct, watch his language, now that he was president. The record since then has been one of relentless self-indulgence. Go is an enabler of that indulgent behavior, by serving as the President’s self-described utility man — and his real spokesperson. (Note the difference between the legalistic speculation of presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, the glittering generalization of Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar, and the specific, confident, if banal, statements of Go.)
I was at an event recently, hosted by a civic organization, where Go was a featured speaker. An awardee for government service, he was supposed to speak on behalf of all the winners, representing diverse fields. Instead, he spoke for himself and especially for President Duterte (who was not an awardee); he repeatedly made uncalled-for and unfunny jokes about “the yellows” (meaning of course the opposition); he brought a Duterte impersonator to perform on stage; he made the same promises he made during last year’s senatorial campaign. In other words, in accepting the award on behalf of all the awardees, he gave a basic, and mediocre, campaign stump speech. He did not honor the organization with so much as a mention of its high ideals (which in my view was betrayed by the very selection of Go as an awardee); he said nothing substantial about the other awardees, many (but not all) of whom deserved the recognition; he offered no inspiration or sense of purpose. It was crass — talentless, tactless, triumphal — politicking.
Its only object was to paint him as the President’s closest ally. He started by saying he and the President did not believe in awards, because their work is public service (yada yada), but in giving him the award, the organization was honoring the President too (more yada). He said he ran for the Senate last year because Mr. Duterte had a feeling (“may kutob”) that he would win — but he did not mention that that feeling was backed by massive ad spending paid for by supporters even before the campaign started, by the re-alignment of government projects to lend him a higher profile, by the President’s order to local government officials to ensure that Go place in the Top 3 or else face his wrath. On a night meant to honor achievements that cut across all divides, Go made senseless “jokes” designed to highlight political division; one of them, for instance, was based on the absurd premise that he cannot open an ice-making plant in Manila — because, of course, ice in Filipino is “yelo,” or yellow.
This is the sort of idiocy we hear far too often from Go, who presumes to set policy for the entire country; he is in that position solely because he is, and remains, the President’s aide: the one who controls access to him, the one who can anticipate his mood or sentiment or decision. It is not because he is a senator; without Duterte, Go would not only be rudderless in the Senate, he would be powerless in politics. Unlike other factions in the increasingly uneasy coalition supporting President Duterte — those led by Mayor Sara Duterte, by former president Gloria Arroyo, by the Marcos plunderers, by the resurgent Villars, or by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano — Go has no real political base to rely on if the President is no longer a factor.
This puts his role as communicator or interpreter of President Duterte’s thinking in the right perspective. He is using his privileged position as a sickly President’s virtual caregiver not only to direct policy as the President would see it, but to create a political future for himself. The news media should report his statements in that light.
In the absence of Mr. Duterte, we have, not a caretaker government, but a caregiver government. Go is the President’s amah.
[On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]]
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