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The best card in the deck was a Joker

12:18 AM October 12, 2015

HONOLULU— Joker Arroyo was no joke, but he was a joker, with a moniker and a legacy like no other.

Named for the trickster in a deck of cards, the former senator, representative, executive secretary and human rights lawyer had been the bane of two Philippine Presidents, key ally of two others and a hero and defender of the abused.

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Batman’s villain notwithstanding, I’ve always thought the joker was the best card in the deck, and Joker Paz Arroyo was a joker like no other—an extraordinary lawyer, leader, legislator and lover of liberty.

The social media postings in response to his passing range from heaped-on praise for his role in ending 20 years of rule by President Ferdinand E. Marcos in 1986 and for setting the stage for the ouster of President Joseph Estrada in 2001 to angry denunciations that he was a communist or that he wrongly defended former Chief Justice Renato Corona and aligned himself with the unpopular President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (no relation).

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Some praise his work as a human rights lawyer and the role he played with President Corazon Aquino but don’t like his political shifts later in life. Yet, isn’t it in the nature and duty of trained lawyers to defend either side with equal passion? And, in the Philippines, there seem to be no permanent friends or enemies.

So, let us now praise this man for who he was and what he gave his country.

Friend to journalists

As a matter of full disclosure, Joker was a friend to foreign and Filipino journalists. We always found him passionate about injustice, joyful in life, accessible and eloquent. The biggest problem with him was convincing editors abroad that Joker was his legal given name in a culture where, to foreigners at least, everyone has a silly nickname.

As a journalist, I have to admit it’s tough to be completely objective about Joker—not just because of his staunch defense of media freedom or his role in challenging martial law or his effective opposition to political oppression and corruption, but because he had such a keen lawyerly intellect, generous heart and totally disarming wit.

One journalist who gave in completely to Joker’s intense charm was the late Teodoro Benigno, a cofounder of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines. It was at a dinner party that Joker publicly challenged Teddy to abandon journalism to become Cory Aquino’s first press secretary.

Like the rest of us, Benigno was struggling to maintain the integrity of our calling during those exhilarating post-Marcos days. He was bureau chief for Agence France-Presse in Manila and one of the most respected and objective journalists reporting on the Philippines for the rest of the world.

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But he was also a Filipino who knew when he was needed. The crossover was agonizing for him, but, with a public kick in the pants from Joker, he made it and served even longer than the man who forced his hand.

Joker represented journalists, including my Associated Press (AP) bureau and brave women writers. As far as I know, he never sent a bill for his battles on behalf of the press against the government and the military.

He was a dear friend, whom I always looked forward to seeing during our too infrequent trips to Manila after my AP career took me and my family to Washington, DC, and Honolulu. Personally, Joker’s passing will make the Philippines just a little less exciting and fun place to visit.

Joker also was a son of Bicol and a personal friend to me and my wife, the former Leonor Aureus, who shares his roots in Naga City.

If Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who was our neighbor in Parañaque in the 1980s and always friendly, can say he and Joker “eventually became friends,” I should admit at least as much.

Key roles

As a human rights lawyer, before transforming into a politician, Joker played key roles in bringing the country through some of its darkest hours, leading to the ouster of Bongbong’s father and the swearing in of the widow Aquino.

Ironically, Joker found himself chastised later in his public life by some of his closest allies as he defended those facing the same kinds of allegations he had once prosecuted himself against others.

My favorite memory of Joker was in 1980.

He had known my wife and her late father, former Naga Mayor Leon Sa Aureus, and was meeting me for the first time.

This loud and imposing man came up to welcome me as the new AP bureau chief in Manila, but on seeing Leonor, he stooped down, pointed his finger right in her face (something I had heard was not polite in most societies) and shouted out a phrase I had learned during sensitivity training as a US Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s was a borderline obscenity you reserve for your worst enemies.

He broke into his trademark high-pitched giggle and hugged us both.

How can you be objective about a guy who can be that politically incorrect.

Joker’s death brings reflection of the huge role he has played in modern Philippine history and how different politics in Manila is from what I went on to cover for 15 years in Washington, DC, and another 10 years in Honolulu.

Had Joker been born an American, he might have accomplished great things and even served in Congress. Certainly American has had enough abuse and corruption to keep him busy, and he surely would have made American politics more interesting.

Even the current chaos in America, including the rise of billionaire Donald Trump and the breakdown of the Republican party in Congress, pales in comparison with the smiling oppression of the Marcos years, the people power revolt, the military coup attempts against Cory Aquino and the ever-shifting alliances of the marathon zarzuela of Philippine politics.

On to highest court

Today’s enemies may always be tomorrow’s friends, and vice versa.

Like so many Philippine political figures, Joker often found himself at odds with old cohorts, praised by former enemies and tangled up in complex issues that continue to challenge and threaten the balance of life in a country I consider my second homeland.

In the Philippines, politics is always a high-energy, high-stakes game where everybody expresses an opinion—something Joker and the Mabini lawyers of the 1980s fought to protect.

He’s not around for any more complaints about whom he defends or any more bad jokes about his name. In the end, Joker Arroyo was an extraordinary man for extraordinary times.

His good friend, Inquirer editor in chief Letty J. Magsanoc, in relaying his death, said Joker had “passed on to the highest court in the great beyond.”

Sounds just right to me. Heaven probably needed a Joker.

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