(An advance excerpt of my coming book I WALKED WITH PRESIDENTS. I wrote this article during the presidency of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino when Fidel V. Ramos was no longer president )
ONE Monday, I dropped by at the office of former President FVR at Makati . He still holds regular office at his RPDEV (Ramos Peace and Development) enclave and presides over his staff, just like still being head of state – although to a much smaller “constituency”. I have not visited him for sometime. But dropping by, even unannounced, is always a welcome treat. You walk through the corridor and you feel like walking through history and memory lane. His office complex is a veritable museum with all the memorabilia, his books , his file photos and even collections of monogrammed golf balls from all over the world. All lined up on the office walls were autographed pictures with presidents of nations and the world’s VIPs, his collection of the EDSA revolution photos, state visits, memorable golf shots and long putts that show the ball dramatically in the hole — all kinds of events chronicling FVR’s activities in the service of the country. By the way, photos had lampoon captions for kicks.
By the way, those photos of long golf putts on the green with the ball almost about to drop in the hole were “simulated” photos. He would put two (2) tees on the lip of the hole to hold the ball and then took a swing from a far and asked the cameraman to take a shot! “Bingo”!
‘CSW’ –Just like old times when he was president, his still- unending schedules, printed and folded with red markings and scribblings are still tucked in his wallet, held together by a rubber band. His table is still up to one’s neck stacked with all sorts of papers, clippings and correspondence. The whole floor is half occupied by papers and materials, neatly piled and ready to go somewhere. Unknown to many, FVR keeps his being a stickler to documentation. Remember his famous “CSW”? No single decision or directive left his office without thorough study and research unless “complete staff work” (CSW) was done in writing. Every time he travels abroad, even when no longer president, he documents every detail, including media clippings, and blasts them off to almost all concerned, whether in government or in the private sector , complete with policy recommendations and all. He runs a regular Sunday column at the Manila Bulletin where his thoughts continue to free flow for the benefit of those in government and out. You can consider his pieces occasional “sermons on the mount” if you wish.
“I am now ‘kuya’ and will give advice to everyone , solicited or otherwise,” he usually tells visitors with his familiar grin while chewing on his unlit trademark cigar. He disposes –or consumes — a cigar that way, faster than by puffing it. And his advice: “cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.“ (Translation: “Cigars are ok!”)
WORKAHOLIC— You should see him at work when he was still president. At early dawn and still dark, his aides would already roam the streets and grab copies of the newspapers fresh from the printing press, ink probably still wet. Relevant news items were clipped then pasted on a clipboard that went to him the first hour. With his red pen, he jotted down instructions, with arrows and all, “cc”, “attention”, “NLT” (not later than) to all concerned. Then by sunrise, everyone got a copy in his/her fax machine. When FVR was still President, I used to wake up early dawn while still dark outside and already I could hear my home fax machine buzzing . His working style put him on top of everything that moved, anywhere in the country at any given time. His knowledge of the archipelago was extensive and grounded. From years of military service, he would know where one barangay road would lead or where one river emptied and where the next town was – like the palm of his hand.
MINDANAO LEGACY –Unexpected from a military officer who was schooled in the art of warfare and who fought the rebels in the front lines, he led the nation into a “peace paradigm” when he occupied Malacanang. The long-drawn peace negotiations with the Moro National Liberation Front ended with a peace agreement during his watch in 1996. He also forthwith started negotiations with the break-away Moro Islamic Liberation Front when the group decided to stay outside of the MNLF peace accord. Significantly, he “invaded” MILF camps with development projects even when negotiations were still ongoing. I remember then Mindanao pointman Paul Dominguez, upon FVR’s instructions, built a concrete road inside Camp Abubakar leading to Chairman Hashim Salamat’s doorsteps. Everytime I would visit the MILF camp then, a big water tank emblazoned “Philippines 2000” was conspicuously in Kagi Murad’s backyard. I failed to see it again years after when President Joseph “Erap” Estrada launched his all-out “war policy” and attacked MILF’s Camp Abubakar.
On the CPP/NPA/NDF front, on several occasions during FVR’s time , ( while I was Davao Congressman and represented Congress in the government peace panel as spokesman) we were dispatched to the Netherlands to engage Joma Sison and his Utrecht group. At one time, FVR even scolded panel chair Donald Dee, panel member Silvestre “Bebot” Bello and all of us over the speakerphone for allowing the difficult peace talks to “collapse”. He barked:
“Gaddamit! Who authorized you to collapse the talks? I only authorized you to negotiate but not to collapse the talks!” He ordered all of us back to the negotiations table. His book series “Break Not the Peace” is Peace-Making 101.
SOME FVR ADVICES —I cannot forget FVR’s advice about keeping faith with the peace process. He said that peace talks must be preserved at all cost until the end game of a peace agreement is achieved – however long and tedious it would take. According to him, there are three things a peace negotiator must have: First: patience. Second: more patience. Third: more and more patience. That’s his formula.
Another FVR advice is: one has to properly handle and contain a problem. Otherwise, it’s like picking up a small pile of “shit” and putting it in front of an electric fan. A small pile is spread and thrown with all its stink all around. Reversing it will be in futility. I recall this was exemplified by government’s sensitive handling of the moro rebel problem in the south during his time.
Then he loves to illustrate his idea of good governance and ideal citizenship through the example of a Filipino “bibingka”. You cook it with fire on top (which is government) and the fire below (which is the citizenry). Without that convergence, the “bibingka” is not well cooked. And of course, his usual refrain: “Kaya ba natin ‘to?” with his thumbs up sign. He expects a resounding “kaya”. And if the crowd response is not too loud, he then says: “Lakasin natin para mayugyug natin at marinig tayo sa Malacanang”. That’s classic FVR.!
“SPIKED” COFFEE –In his office today, coffee is immediately served, whether you ask for it or not. And it’s not the usual coffee one gets elsewhere. It is “spiked” coffee. A jigger of brandy in a steaming cup gives a twang – and a sip gives you the warmth until you wish for another cup. And of course later, it was Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) as coffee spiker and him whispering but really intended for all to hear: “VCO enhances one’s virility and sexuality.”
At times “Girl Friday” Mae Gaffud (bless her soul) peeps into the room then pops open a red wine bottle for the succeeding rounds. A steady supply of bottles of ordinary rhum, brandy or gin (I guess from friend Ramon Ang of San Miguel ) enables FVR to hand out some gift bags on your way out with freebie bottles. Nothing classy but “pang sundalo” drinks, he would stress. Then , after some “kodakan” with the customary “kaya ba natin ‘to thumbs up” sign, everyone gets an FVR-autographed photo of the visit as one heads for the exit door.
STILL BURLY AND FIT –You guessed it: FVR has not retired, far from it. He entertains in his 26th floor office at Landbank in Makati, a stream of callers and visitors almost everyday when he is not otherwise travelling somewhere in the world where his inputs and words of advice still attract attention – and generate traction — from all over. He’s one of the best salesmen of the country, everywhere he goes until now.
Still burly, fit and trim at his age (born March 18, 1928), he still maintains a respectable swing at the golf course – although his handicap must have also grown irreversibly with age. And here’s a fair warning to golfers: If FVR is in a locker room and you are nearby, you better be able to “drop” and do a few push ups when he says “Everybody drop!”. And when he starts counting, you’ve better count with him – to show you’re pumping as well. I’ve seen many friends after reaching the count of “10” continuing the count aloud but no longer pumping while FVR pushes the count to the limit.
Of course, his favorite “hi-tech” eyeglasses are still on his desk. He always highlights the great Filipino inventive capacity and then shows off wearing the glasses saying they’re unbreakable, ultra clear, can be worn in the rain, self-adjusting and good for both short and long distances, Made in the Philippines. Then he sticks out his two fingers through the “lenses”. That’s the only time you learn that they are all just frame minus the lenses. So at times, when I see him with glasses on, I cannot always tell whether they’re for real or just for vanity to give him that “intellectual look” – and of course camouflage, although in futility, those eye bags that come with age. (Sorry, sir.)
“COMFORT ROOM TEST” – I recall his unusual way of checking out a place. Whenever he got invited to a newly built building or visit a new golf clubhouse , he would go first check the comfort rooms. I learned of his formula many years ago when I joined him in a visit at the newly refurbished clubhouse of the Apo Golf & Country Club in Davao City. He was given a tour of the spanking clubhouse but then he asked that he’d like to see the comfort rooms first. He then told me aside that the true measure of a place is the condition of its comfort rooms. Come to think of it, indeed, the comfort level one gets in checking into hotel rooms, or restaurants or resorts, even hospitals or any public establishment is usually determined by the condition of comfort rooms. Yes, that’s FVR’s “comfort room test”.
FATHER OF BIMP EAGA – During my visit that week, he immediately asked about the latest on BIMP EAGA (Brunei Indonesia Malaysia East Asian Growth Area). He fathered its formation when he was still president by getting together the other three heads of state to give focus to the sub regional areas, like Mindanao and Palawan for economic development. He said he was in Kota Kinabalu recently to attend a BIMP EAGA event. (He was a bit unhappy though because the Philippine delegation was “sloppy” during that event.)
PRESS SEC RICKY CAME – I was chatting with FVR when Press Secretary Ricky Carandang arrived. He came to consult FVR on some current issues, among which was the on-going public debate on the Marcos burial. Ricky, by the way, was host/anchor of ABS-CBN ANC when I was press secretary of President Gloria Arroyo and I can recall his support in my not-so-easy task then. “Now you can exchange notes,” FVR told both of us when I said that Ricky somehow was a big help to me when I was press secretary and I wished to return the favour.
SEN. RENE SAGUISAG – Former Sen. Rene Saguisag also came and was part of the discussion together with Cris Carreon of the People Power Commission. My good friend, Adventurer Art Valdez of the now famous “Balangai” boat group also joined in. “Ilonggo” Art led Filipino adventurers in scaling Mt. Everest and traced the century-old route of early seafarers on board a replica called “Balangai”. I learned from him that he was plotting his next adventure somewhere. He was “Usec Art” of DOTC during FVR’s time.
“Manong” Rene Saguisag was still as sharp as ever. Although mellowed by age and still nurturing physical and perhaps moral wounds suffered from that car accident where he lost his soul-mate, wife Dulce, “Manong” Rene in the discussions about the Marcos burial issue exuded with institutional memories of the historic past which I found instructive. He was an active player then starting from President Cory until that accident years back.
UNSOLICITED ADVICES — FVR of course was in his usual elements. He volunteered his thoughts on the Spratlys issue, the Marcos burial, the present cabinet and other matters of the day. He emphasized the need for President Noynoy Aquino to consult some more – through more frequent cabinet meetings, the LEDAC (executive, legislative mechanism), the National Security Council where former presidents together with other high officials give their thoughts on issues. His advice, I’m sure, are still valuable to everyone – including, I hope, to Pres Noynoy. Sec. Ricky, hopefully will re-echo to his boss some of the unsolicited advices of this man who saw it all.
Here is one fellow who has stood the test of time – and age. He used to tease us all with: “Who knows, I may run for president again. However, I have a problem. What if I win.”
That’s what I call “trademark FVR”.