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GMA’s gifts to the Obamas

/ 10:43 PM December 29, 2011

Transparency in government and government records is something we need to learn in the Philippines, but a system must be in place to preserve records for posterity. All government agencies consume a lot of paper during the year, the equivalent of many denuded forests, and that fact should make us rationalize what to keep and discard. What records are kept for reference? What records are kept for historians?

There are many reasons given to explain why Malacañang is slowly sinking into the banks of the polluted Pasig River. One of them is probably the accumulated weight of paper it supports. Fortunately, there is a team that sifts through all these records to come out with the online Official Gazette that informs the public of all important government issuances. I can only hope this project continues and that a way will be found to save everything on CDs or online.

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The gifts received by US government officials from foreign governments in 2009 were listed and made public in January 2010. The State Department details all these gifts and their value, listing all the gifts received by President Barack Obama all the way down to insignificant people hidden under the general heading “An agency employee.” One does not need WikiLeaks to get this or to invoke the Freedom of Information Act to access it. It’s available online and makes for an engaging read.

While browsing through the list of gifts presented to President and Mrs. Obama, I saw that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo presented gifts on July 30, 2009. Obama got a “set of white mother-of-pearl cufflinks with blue sapphires in 18 karat white gold in a box made from shells and leather” valued at $875. Michelle Obama received gifts worth a bit more at $938, consisting of an “18 karat yellow gold brooch decorated with cultured pearls and yellow citrines presented in a green wooden jewelry box and one book entitled ‘Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine’ by Michaela Fenix.” One can only wish that the State Department list came with photos, but the above are well-thought of and thoughtful gifts.

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What does one give to a couple who have “everything” during their stay in the White House? This is a challenge that faces the social and protocol staff as well as the foreign ministries of heads of state who make official or state visits to Washington. It is significant that the simplest gifts came from the woman who has everything, the Queen of England. In April 2009, she presented “one framed photograph of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; one framed photograph of Prince Philip” valued at $775. I presume these photographs are inscribed and come in silver or mahogany frames.

Pope Benedict in July 2009 presented Obama with a loot bag that contained “a gilt framed and matted mosaic depicting St. Peter’s Square; decorative gold coin with the inscription Benedict XVI Pont Max Anno IV with the profile of Pope Benedict XVI; booklet entitled ‘Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions’; book entitled ‘Enyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI”; and a silver keychain” valued at $7,905. I presume that if the Obamas were Catholic they would have received something much simpler but priceless like rosaries and a solemn pontifical blessing.

The gifts received by the Obamas were a mixed bag, mostly books or things that reflect the culture and history of the country of the gift-giver. Some like the Japanese prime minister played it safe by giving Obama a choice between: a Mikimoto desk clock or a black basketball jersey whose combined value was $1,495.

What caught my eye though were the numerous presents from Europe. The flamboyant Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gave Obama 12 silk ties valued at $1,680; German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave Obama a black leather Montblanc briefcase worth $760 in April and a Meissen tea set with floral design and book entitled “Meissen in Meissen” valued at $415 in June.

The most fashionable gifts came from the fashionable French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his beautiful wife Carla Bruni. In April 2009 the  Sarkozys presented the Obamas with an S.T. Dupont fountain pen with a book entitled, “S.T. Dupont Limited Editions,” and a Daum perfume bottle valued at $1,185. In September 2009, Sarkozy presented Obama with a bronze replica of the Edgar Degas sculpture “Halter Horse” valued at $2,635. In June 2009, Carla Bruni presented Michelle Obama with a black Christian Dior handbag estimated at $4,500. In September, the Sarkozys presented Michelle Obama with a white leather Chanel notebook, an S.T. Dupont white gold pen set and a book on Andy Warhol valued at $4,500.

The 2009 State Department list is far from trivial. It underscores the fact that these gifts are perks of the office but are not personal gifts to the temporary White House occupants, who receive them gratefully as gifts to the United States and its people. Declaring gifts and their value is like declaring donations to an electoral campaign. It is made for transparency and meant to eliminate a warped sense  of utang ng loob that can lead to graft, corruption and the wang-wang  mentality.

Will we ever adopt the same system?

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TAGS: featured columns, gifts, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Obama, opinion
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