President PNoy: ‘You look familiar’
While most mortals have to deal with running away from their own shadow, Benigno Simeon Aquino III had this problem four-fold. He was always in the shadow of his parents (and sometimes his controversial, attention-hugging sister Kris). Even as President of the Philippines, he was always “Noy” or “Noynoy,” the son of martyred senator Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. (1932-1983) and the saintly former president Corazon C. Aquino, whose untimely death from cancer in 2009 is largely credited with having created the groundswell of sympathy that delivered him to Malacañang. Friendly press called him “President Noy” or “PNoy,” while critics made fun of him as “Penoy” (unfertilized duck egg) or “Abnoy” (referring to either a stinky duck egg that did not fully develop, or a crazy unstable person). In the public eye, he seemed to have a lot more integrity that his predecessors Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo combined. His speeches were always in conversational Filipino; he seemed easy-going and uncomplicated, though he was seen by some as aloof and devoid of empathy.
His passing came as a shock, because he was young enough to be the son of his living predecessors, Fidel V. Ramos, Erap, and GMA. He was only 16 months older than me; he was a senior in Ateneo de Manila University when I was a freshman. If I had come across him in the corridors or in the cafeteria, I wouldn’t know, because he didn’t draw attention to himself. I first met him on National Heroes Day in 2010 when, as National Historical Commission chair, my interaction with him was limited to a handshake and the usual acknowledgement in our speeches. I was considered tarred by my association with the previous administration, so he was civil but cold to me as we sat beside each other at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
I met Aquino the second time during his 2011 state visit to Indonesia. I was in Jakarta on a research fellowship and attended his meeting with the small Filipino community. While waiting for a cab by the hotel driveway, I saw members of the Philippine delegation rush into their cars for the motorcade to the presidential palace for the state dinner. Security did not push me off the red carpet, so when he appeared, he shook my hand, looked at me intently, and remarked: “You look familiar.” Caught off guard, I blurted out: “So do you.” He got into the waiting limousine without the chief of presidential protocol, who had overslept from a power nap.
In 2013, I was teaching in Sophia University, Tokyo, and managed to have a conversation with him after he was conferred an honorary doctorate. My students were thrilled to meet him and take selfies. This meeting was more relaxed, as he was killing time with a few cigarettes before his next engagement. It helped, too, that he conferred the Presidential Medal of Merit on me the day before, for services rendered as outgoing chair of the National Historical Commission and former chair of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.
In 2018, we chatted on the sidelines of a party after Aquino had left his table to smoke like a chimney. When we returned to our seats, the inquisitive Thelma San Juan asked what we talked about and whether Aquino knew I had worked for nine years under the Arroyo administration. I don’t remember what that first conversation was about, but I requested Thelma to arrange a meeting. I just wanted to get to know him a bit more; it was a conversation and an interview I would never use. A date was arranged and Thelma accompanied me, for good measure. Our cellphones were collected before we entered his Times Street home in Quezon City, so there was no chance of making a recording on the sly.
He still smoked like a chimney and nursed an iced Coca Cola. Scanning his man cave, I spotted some snacks, including “chichiria” made by my sister. There were many hardcover history books on the shelves, many on military history, obviously worn and read. We had the same Ateneo professors, and we both endured 12 units of Spanish that began and ended with chapters on Mexico. We didn’t get far enough into the textbook to arrive in Spain, but we both knew “jugo de naranja” (orange juice). He related how college Spanish warmed his conversation with the President of Mexico, who was amazed that he knew the Avenida de la Reforma and the Parque de Chapultepec even if he had never set foot in them.
Writing this now, I know he was not the callous dumbo I thought him to be, and regret not getting a proper interview with him to know what it was like to be President firsthand.
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