Motions and demotions
What Manny Pacquiao did not get from his government, he got from his countrymen. After coming home not to a ticker tape parade but to a tax evader’s charade, he flew to Tacloban City where he was hailed, despite somber skies and the still somber mood of a stricken population, as a returning hero.
Tacloban was not without its own version of greeting a returning hero. In ancient Rome, when conquering heroes came home, they didn’t just have a parade thrown their way down the Appian Way, they also had a slave standing next to them on their chariots whispering in their ear, “All glory is fleeting.” What Tacloban had in lieu of an ego-deflating whisperer were decomposing bodies that lay under the debris, driving home in a macabre way how truly fleeting all glory was. Or at least how all of our yesterdays have lighted fools the way quite literally to dusty death. Pacquiao and entourage espied a couple of those bodies in a remote village they went to, showing quite incidentally how the body count is still rising.
Still, Pacquiao’s descent into hell, or Tacloban, was not without its triumphant and moving moments. Nenita Badida, 64, had lined up since early morning in part to get some relief goods which Pacquiao was reported to have brought with him, but in greater part simply to catch a glimpse of her idol. She was not disappointed by what she saw. The sight of him, she said, took away some of her grief and pain.
Couple Roland and Corita Ubal, both 35, echoed the sentiment: “His visit made us forget the calamity for a while. Thank you for visiting us, Pacman. We will never forget you.”
Before he left, Pacquiao of course delivered the inevitable speech: “Don’t lose hope. As long as we live, there is hope. We can manage to return to normal living. Never forget God. He will never abandon us. I know you can rise again just like me. In the past, I, too, fell. But I persevered to get up and I rose again.”
This was not without its uplifting or inspiring aspects, and Pacquiao did well to visit the devastated and despairing city and sustain a little more the survivors whose spirits he had sent soaring a week before with his thrilling victory over Brandon Rios. But this was also not without its disturbing or unsavory aspects, Pacquiao having gone there not just as inspirational figure but also as a political one, not just as a transcendent boxing hero but also as an leaden politician with not very secret presidential ambitions.
It did not help that he went around in the company of the Romualdezes, who showered him with praise in lieu of garlands along the way, and who basked in his shining light. The Romualdezes might not have been completely to blame for the swath of destruction “Yolanda” left behind—true enough, nobody could have anticipated the depth of its fury—but they are to blame, too, for not having prepared their constituents better for it. Alfred Romualdez would come out on CNN later telling his heroic tale of how he survived the howling winds by the skin of his teeth, but what in God’s name was he doing heroically inspecting some structure offshore when the world had been warning that this was going to be the worst storm of the year in all the world? If the mayor of Tacloban himself could, and would, not take the warnings seriously, why should his fellow Taclobanons do otherwise?
And in the aftermath of the nightmare, their disappearance. A disappearance as vast and utter as a tomb.
This is what has always made Pacquiao a hugely difficult person to admire unstintingly or without reservation. The fact that his politics sucks, and the fact that he has turned himself into a politician. He has moved around with the seediest characters in politics, with Chavit Singson, with Lito Atienza, with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. He rose to international acclaim under the auspices of the last, and it’s not idle speculation to wonder how long Arroyo would have lasted had Pacquiao not been there to lend her some luster. It got to a point that when you became ambivalent each time he had a fight, not knowing whether to cheer or jeer him. Until he stepped into the ring, when you remembered you were a Filipino and cheered him lustily anyway.
He continues to hew to the same path, his choices in political life marked by the seediness of the company he keeps.
Frankly, I don’t know why he became a politician at all. It’s a demotion. It’s just a testament to our sorry culture that most of us like to imagine that becoming a public official is the pinnacle of success, the ultimate goal of human striving. Pacquiao was, and is, already bigger than a politician; he was, and is, already more influential than a secretary or a judge. He should have gone on to become a living ambassador of goodwill, someone who motivated the poor, as he himself had been, to be the best that they could be in whatever they applied themselves to. He should have gone on to become a mythical figure, someone who could have inspired the down-and-out, which he once was, to reach beyond their grasp.
Instead, he became a congressman. That is not a bang, that is a whimper.
The message Pacquiao has carried with him to Tacloban is a powerful one. His rising from the ashes like a phoenix does resonate—and has resonated, loudly—not just with the survivors of Yolanda but also with the survivors of other disasters, natural and manmade, with the people of this country. A pity that has to be weighed down by other conflicting messages. Had Pacquiao stayed out of politics, his message would have rung loud and clear. As transcendent boxer, he would have given relief and hope to this stricken land. As mediocre congressman, he’ll just be giving relief goods to us.
Pacquiao’s greatest foe will never be Mayweather. It will always be himself.
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