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Duterte’s speech writers and other thoughts

Presumptive President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has rightly earned the moniker “The Mouth” because of the expletives and strong words he issued during the election campaign. Analysts of every color and odor who have come out of the woodwork during this season of surprises even attribute to Duterte’s foul language the voters’ attraction to him. He was supposedly saying for them what they could not say out loud. Including his cursing of the Pope and the Pope’s mother? Including his rape wish?

Foul language has so punctuated social media postings on the elections that even the young have taken to it. What a pity. So young and already so foul-mouthed can aptly describe these nubile cyberdenizens who post before they think.

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Having taken the lead in the <@!*&%#^-^> language department during the campaign period, Duterte should now sanitize his mouth a bit without entirely losing his penchant for colorful language. I heard some of his handlers say that it behooves their principal to sound more presidential now that he has gotten the majority’s mandate.

Duterte is known to ignore prepared speeches and go extemporaneous. We saw that when he spoke before members of the Makati Business Club who were eager to hear him speak about broad economic policies, but toward the end, he instead perorated on the so-called “5-6” scheme of Indian moneylenders in cash-strapped communities. He left no time for an open forum—a subtle but smart move to avoid questions.

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But now that Duterte is going to be the president of this once-woebegone nation now out of its sickbed—a development for which President Aquino is not getting enough credit—will there be a makeover, at least in Duterte’s way with words? Who will be his wordsmiths, the writers who will second-guess the Duterte mind and articulate what he needs to say to 100 million Filipinos? Who will be burning the midnight oil for next day’s oral delivery?

What will Duterte’s speeches now be like? For starters, his inaugural speech? Will his speeches be in elegant language—Filipino, English or Cebuano—or will they be deliberately gruff, made to sound off-the-cuff, with pauses for grunts while he chews his cud? (Is he into gum or does he need a denture change or something?)

Some might say that words are just words and that concrete deeds on the ground are more important. Sure. But we also need to hear about them first. The way the British Royal Navy needed to hear Winston Churchill roar, “Sink the Bismarck!”  And, in a call to arms, call Hitler a “maniac,” a “monstrous apparition,” and end his speech with “march[ing] together through the fire.” It’s on YouTube.

Those who diminish the importance of the written and spoken word need only to consider the Bible and those who wrote the stories in it, the writers who inspired revolutions, the poets who stirred patriotic passions. As the biblically inclined would often say, quoting scriptures, “In the beginning was the word…” Think of Rizal’s novels. And who is not moved by a recitation of Amado V. Hernandez’s “Lumuha ka, aking bayan…” or the singing of Andres Bonifacio’s “Aling pag-ibig pa ang hihigit kaya?”

One of my all-time favorites is a line from Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech on the eve of India’s independence in August 1947. “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”  I first read it in “Freedom at Midnight” (by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins) when I was in my 20s and was smitten by the sound of the words.

Remember President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address?

But we have ours. Before me now are five CDs that contain “20 Speeches that Moved a Nation,” speeches delivered by Filipino men and women during their time and worth listening to by generations. For the recording, the speeches were recited by theater people mostly. Each CD has the transcript of the speeches.  The “20 Speeches” were compiled years ago by Manuel L. Quezon III, grandson and namesake of President Manuel L. Quezon. He produced the set before he took a post in the Aquino administration, a hidden position that meant giving up his column in Inquirer Opinion (his space was right below mine) and to which, I hope, he returns. Only now I remember and see that I had written a blurb to go with the set; that’s why I was given one.

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I am curious as to who will be writing Duterte’s speeches and how he will deliver them. At 71, Duterte is the oldest to be elected to the presidency, and old habits die hard. Will he read from paper or does he have to learn to use a teleprompter? President Aquino appeared at home with the gadget and, with his good speaking voice, delivered relatively well in both Filipino and English, sarcastic punches included.

Speeches, like homilies, are meant to be heard. Delivering a speech is talking to an audience. Content is important, but so is the sound of the words, the length of the sentences, the rhyme, the rhythm, the cadence, the syntax. The tone of voice. There are four big reasons for a speech, says author George Plimpton: to inspire, to persuade, to entertain, to instruct. Also, to inform.

Those who invite us to speak think that because we are writers, we can just show up tomorrow and spew out the words. Mark Twain said, “It takes three weeks to prepare a good ad-lib speech.” Writing to be read is different from writing to be heard, although as writers, we want our words on the page to sound as if spoken, to sing as if sung.

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Send feedback to [email protected] or www.ceresdoyo.com.

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