'Deus Ex Machina', Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s memory, and the unmaking of EDSA
By the first week of June in 2005, Malacañang was in chaos.
President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was walking back and forth from her office to a nearby smaller room held by some of her most trusted men, among them Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye and Transport Secretary Leandro Mendoza. They all looked bothered and bewildered, having received hours ago a copy of a tape recording of her supposed call to an official of the Commission on Elections inquiring about her votes during the week of the presidential election in May 2004.
Called the “Hello Garci” scandal, it triggered a series of events that called for Arroyo’s resignation, if not removal by impeachment, or by a military coup, with her critics and her own Cabinet members calling it the smoking gun, accusing her of having cheated her victory in the elections.
She was in a bad mood. She hardly talked, and if she did, she was touchy. She would later come out on camera, fed to TV networks, with a rehearsed “I’m sorry” spiel, all meant to calm the rising political temperature.
If she were somebody else, she could not have survived it all.
But she survived that crisis. She finished her term, amid the Garci scandal, and the subsequent coup attempts, the impeachment cases that disrupted, if not prevented her from focusing on her work, even if the ruckus zeroed in on that: She was allegedly an illegitimate president, and should not have been there in the first place.
Today, after 17 years, Arroyo penned a book titled Deux Ex Machina, A Memoir by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that details her point of view, how it was at the Palace, how she was at the center of her worst political storm.
Arroyo was the country’s 14th President, serving a total of nine years, the first three years being the remainder of equally controversial President Joseph Estrada, who was impeached and supposedly resigned when he left the Palace. She got reelected in 2004, and began her ordeal.
She never left the Palace, despite Cory Aquino and some Catholic leaders asking her to make a “supreme sacrifice” by resigning. All throughout it was no walk in the park until the end of her term. The next president, Benigno Simeon Aquino III, ignored her for the ceremonial turnover, jailed her for alleged corruption, and beat her black-blue in public after he triggered the impeachment of her choice chief justice, and she was in jail. If she were somebody else, she could not have survived it all.
Arroyo’s book is an interesting read, if only for the missing details it provided.
Arroyo walked her way back to freedom in July 2016, a few days after Aquino III left the Palace, with the cases against her subsequently collapsing one by one. Months later, she was up and about from her neck injury, but she didn’t fight back.
Thanks to her political skill, or as she put it—"Divine Providence” — she returned to the political limelight, but rather than turning the tables on her critics, she did a Mandela, as she made peace with some of her political nemesis, including Estrada and her father’s nemesis, the Marcoses, but not with the Aquinos, long-time family friends, though obviously, that was beyond her choice.
And now she has given us a book.
“Many felt I should correct many of the misconceptions that kept getting repeated. Some said that I had to share my experiences in politics and governance. Others wanted me to tell the story of being a daughter of a President,” she said of the book.
In ancient Greek, "Deux Ex Machina" means “god out of the machine, a plot device where a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and unlikely occurrence” — or divine providence. “Divine providence has played such a big role in my life,” she said.
Like most other biographies, Arroyo’s account was selective, choosing not to tackle many other glaring details surrounding her story.
Arroyo’s book is an interesting read, if only for the missing details it provided. Here is the book, providing the other side of the story, though when ranged against those of her critics, one can easily take notice that the book and her critics were talking about two sides of a seemingly different coin.
All the past Philippine presidents had been mired in scandals and controversies indeed—from Emilio Aguinaldo to Jose Laurel, to Ferdinand Marcos, from Cory Aquino to Arroyo, from Noynoy Aquino to Rodrigo Duterte.
They faced different circumstances that it would be unfair and uneasy to pass judgment without hearing their side of the story. The 17th president, for instance, is facing a number of issues, even before he could assume office. Like all other mortals, they all have feet made of clay
To be sure, the country’s 14th chief executive wants her version of events surrounding those controversies in her term as Malacanang tenant as detailed in her memoir to form part of the public discourse.
“This is my story as simply as I could write it,” she prefaced in the book, which summarizes her life story, covering her childhood, school years, marriage, teaching stint, and what it was to serve as president under siege from her own mentor former President Corazon Aquino, the Catholic Church leaders, the left and right-wing personalities, including US officials.
To say that she passed it with flying colors is proof that Arroyo was a cut above the rest.
Her childhood account, growing up in Malacanang was all colorful, full of juicy details, most of them never told. As a daughter of a former president growing up at the Palace, she had a privileged life, but it was all pale compared to when she herself joined the exclusive club of chief executives.
But like most other biographies, Arroyo’s account was selective, choosing not to tackle many other glaring details surrounding her story. Questions like: Why did her men wiretap her? Why did 10 of her Cabinet members choose to leave her? Who was behind the switching of ballots in Congress? Why did the political operators name her husband and a close official as among those behind the cheating in Mindanao?
But of course, this book is her account, this is her story. Deux Ex Machina is about her. And Arroyo sees what she wants to see, and she knows it.
“Much of what is touched on in this book are events that happened in the age of modern media and the internet, with the entire world as eyewitness and interpreters of what they see. As such, I cannot insist that my version of events are gospel truth. I can only write about my reflections on, and remembrances of, my experiences as they came to pass. Thus, if there are those who believe that I am inaccurate in any way, then I can only say there was no intent on my part to mislead or misrepresent,” she said in the book.
Why did she feel the need to call a Comelec official?
“That should be clear to any unbiased person looking at two straightforward facts: first, by the time of the phone call, all the votes had already been counted and the count accepted by the Comelec. Second, the certificates of canvass showing that I had won by a million votes were already used to proclaim the winning senators,” she said.
That fear of losing the elections?
“First, my presidency had already been the object of sustained destabilization. This ‘Hello Garci’ was the culmination of efforts that had been building up.
“Second, its very nature lent itself to being a juicy piece of controversy. A bugged phone conversation. An atmosphere of ‘please pass’ text messages and paranoia about ‘monitoring devices. A sitting president. A sitting Comelec commissioner. Great stuff for gossip and innuendo.
“There were all kinds of conspiracy theories. Who did the bugging? Who leaked it? Was the CIA involved? Was it rogue elements in the military intelligence network?
“Fourth, the handling of the controversy by my crisis team was awkward. It allowed the opposition to hijack the narrative against my favor. All in all, ‘Hello Garci’ was a perfect storm of controversy, gossip, and intrigue. And for my critics, it was convenient ‘proof’ that I cheated my way to victory in 2004, contrary to all objective facts.”
Looking back, Arroyo said she was far from perfect.
“Where do I stand on the question of ‘I am sorry’ now, some 15 years later? In the long run, it is better to own up to one’s self-inflicted error. It was a lapse in judgment, which is a (gentle) way of acknowledging that the phone call was a mistake.”
But through it all, Arroyo the economist was in her element at the Palace, daring, to say the least, in fixing the economy, raising taxes despite her unpopularity, including E-VAT, the centerpiece of fiscal reform management, perhaps the greatest and most lasting achievement of her presidency.
After E-VAT, Fitch Ratings, an international credit rating agency, immediately revised its rating outlook on the Philippines from negative to stable on May 26, 2005. With the improved credit rating, the interest rates on our country's debt went down, from 33% to 17%, which was a difference of P100 billion! Second, the pie got bigger. The Philippine peso became for a time the strongest currency in Asia.
There are many, many more worth reading about, including her accounts on the ups and downs of her relations with Cory Aquino, the Catholic Bishops, the Left, and her civil society supporters, the military and the US, the Big Business, with fellow politicians.
She was touchy then, but she now sounds like she has been tempered by time.
“Victory is a powerful word,” she said, "but it often reeks of pride and hubris. Vengeance is sweet, but it is hateful. Vindication is my preferred word.”
Will the book settle all political questions about her presidency? Her vice president, broadcaster and Bunye did the book’s foreword, all expectedly praising her account and her presidency. In sum, they say Arroyo was the most unpopular, perhaps the most misunderstood president, compared to her predecessors and successors, but she delivered on the economy where it mattered most in her time.
De Castro recognized all the “speculations and inside stories behind those critical and crucial moments” of her presidency, but he supported her because of her “qualities that the nation needed at that time.”
“Many times, she got the best deal for her people,” he said. “And in more ways than one, at that time, she was the best deal we had.”
The book ought to be read and placed on record where it may, later on, be analyzed more critically. So should her critics’ account. Both deserved a closer look now for it has a great value, if not in law, in history.
Never mind that De Castro, who until the end of Arroyo presidency, was a loyal vice president. Never mind that it was Bunye who allegedly bungled the handling of the supposed two Garci tapes.
Arroyo’s book is worth reading. The book ought to be read and placed on record where it may, later on, be analyzed more critically. So should her critics’ account. Both deserved a closer look now for it has a great value, if not in law, in history.
History is full of loose ends left untied. Let it be, but let it be, not because all protagonists fail to write their own accounts. Let these accounts stand the wind of change, even if their authorship shall have vanished from the people’s fickle memory.
The fact that the country’s oldest newspaper, considered by a prominent TV anchor as the one with the shortest memory, would publish Arroyo’s book, apart and away from when the story was unfolding, is a testament to the point that there are people who would want to know her own account of her odyssey.
The television network shut down by the dictatorship in 1972 sponsored many, many years later the launch of a book on the life story of the man dubbed as the implementer of martial law, with an accompanying, equally glowing TV documentary, though both the book, its writer, the TV documentary, came under fire from other martial law victims. It was a great surprise to so many. Unimaginable, in fact. But the network’s new generation of owners would now say, weeks after it was shut anew in May 2020, that their elders’ fight is not theirs.
Every generation has its own memory.
Perhaps, other people’s accounts were unimaginable to be true for those on the other side. But the recent political turn of events in the Philippines only shows our own generation’s memory was likewise frail and evanescent.
What we held revolting then couldn’t be as revolting for the next generation. That the dictator’s son was elected overwhelmingly a generation after they were thrown out of Malacanang lives up to that rhapsody.
The pendulum swings. It has undoubtedly swung to the other side of EDSA, or whatever it collectively means. It is uncertain for now if at some future time it will swing back.
Who in my generation can forget the photos of Jackie Kennedy and her children, especially the young John F. Kennedy Jr., clad in a tiny blue coat, saluting his father’s passing coffin, one of the most enduring images in US History. His father, the 35th president of the United States, had been assassinated a few days before in November 1963.
American writer John Updike couldn’t help recall those images when JFK Jr. breezed through the limelight anew after launching his glossy, monthly magazine “George” only to be told a generation later by no less than the young Kennedy himself that those November 1963 images were “your memory,” not his.
Deux Ex Machina is Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s memory.
LOOK: Newly proclaimed President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. sits beside Vice President-elect Sara Duterte-Carpio, incoming first lady Atty. Liza Araneta-Marcos, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and former first lady and congresswoman Imelda Romualdez-Marcos. pic.twitter.com/UCdLbNzqEY— The Philippine Star (@PhilippineStar) May 25, 2022