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So who adjusts, country or president?

/ 11:16 AM April 21, 2020

I have read the argument explaining why President Duterte’s late-night news conferences should be understood as a deliberate communications strategy: It creates its own news cycle, it prevents real-time expert criticism, it broadcasts the image of a leader working late hours; not least, it allows the President’s us-versus-them rhetoric to forge stronger bonds among the members of his base, the “us” he speaks for.

It’s a welcome analysis, in that it raises important factors to consider, but I am wary of mistaking personal idiosyncrasy for strategic acumen.

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There is a simple reason why the President hosts news conferences late in the day, or even past midnight. That’s when he is at his best. It had been like that when he was mayor; it has been like that since he was elected president. One example out of many: When he made his infamous boast that it was his (illegal) practice as city prosecutor to plant intrigue and evidence on a suspect, it was during a news conference that had run well past midnight.

So it may be true, or possible, that there are advantages to these “late shows with Rodrigo Duterte” (as both supporters and critics have sometimes called them). But the President, or any president for that matter, creates his own news cycle when he speaks; the 24/7 nature of the internet allows real-time criticism, even by experts in other parts of the world; and the President’s ostensibly populist language can be received by his supporters at any hour of the day. In other words, President Duterte can speak at say the decent hour of 6 p.m., and he will enjoy the same advantages. Perhaps the only new factor is the reinforcement of the pity effect (“luoy” in Bisaya, which I wrote about in “Digong, pataka,” in my column of Oct. 17, 2017); the lateness of the hour may tend to reinforce a supporter’s existing belief that the President is a hard worker.

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But at a time of great peril, in the middle of the worst health emergency in a hundred years, would it kill the President to address the nation when most of the nation is still awake? Yes, we understand; his body clock runs in a different time zone. So who should adjust, the country or the President?

Now I have criticized the President’s last several news conferences. Am I criticizing him now for not speaking early enough, after I criticized him for even speaking at all? I would not like to be misunderstood. I would rather that he forbear from speaking, because he has an able spokesperson for the government’s response in Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles. I am also aware of the amply documented fact that, more often than not, President Duterte gets carried away when he’s in front of a microphone. (See, for instance, my column of July 25, 2017, on “The transformations of Rodrigo Duterte.”)

But if he cannot forbear from speaking, let him speak, to all of us, at a decent hour. And let him speak with greater self-discipline: the one thing he promised, or pleaded for, at his mother’s tomb a few days after his election, but which a lifetime of bad habits and the company of enablers have overwhelmed.

Let him speak early — and quickly, mindful that an already anxious nation does not need a rambling stream-of-consciousness “diskurso” but a clear, tightly structured message, running 10 minutes or less. Let him speak quickly — and thematically, devoting one short, well-written speech to only one theme or one set of related updates each time. Let him speak thematically — and with a sense of common purpose, unifying the nation rather than dividing it, broadening the “us” that he speaks for to include every citizen of the republic. Citizenship is its own “ambag,” or contribution.

I realize these suggestions require the country’s oldest ever President to change his already set ways. But who should adjust, country or president?

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