By Carolyn O. Arguillas
DAVAO CITY (MindaNews)– I was attending a funeral at the memorial park Saturday morning when I received a message if I was “ok for a presscon with PRRD tonight?”
On what, I did not get an answer, but since this was the first ever press conference with the former PRRD (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte) after he stepped down on June 30, 2022, I asked for the time and venue.
I had two other reasons why I wouldn’t miss it: to remind him about my request for a sit-down interview, and to give him a copy of Patricia Evangelista’s book, “Some People Need Killing,” one of the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2023 and among the 15 Favorite Books of 2023 of former US President Barack Obama.
I did not want to go through his cordon sanitaire for both because the request might not be forwarded and the book might not be handed over.
I have reported on Duterte – Digong as we call him – since he was OIC Vice Mayor in 1986-1987, Mayor from 1988 to 1998, 2001 to 2010, 2013 to 2016, Representative of the 1st district from 1998 to 2001, Vice Mayor from 2010 to 2013, and President of the Philippines from 2016 to 2022.
In a community setting, reporters and news sources inevitably become friends but early on in our lives as reporter and mayor, the lines had been clearly drawn: you have your duties as mayor, I have mine as reporter.
I have been at odds with him on several issues, especially on human rights; I have written reports that irked his supporters; he would tell his friends mao ni sige’g away sa ako” (she’s the one who always fights me) but he would grant my requests for sit-down interviews while he was mayor and even when he was President. He has publicly described me as a “dedicated journalist for so long” and a “serious journalist.”
I had never attended any of his Christmas parties when he was a city official but in December 2017, in his first Christmas party for the Davao media as President, I did to get past the cordon sanitaire and personally remind him about the sit-down interview he had said yes to a year earlier, on his first year in the Presidency.
From the podium in that Christmas party, he told the audience I had been hounding him for the interview but“ayaw ko siya” (I don’t like her), paused for a few seconds before adding, “kasi malupit yung report niya” (her reports are cruel).
When he returned to the table, he told me from across: “January 1.” The day of the interview would be on January 1. “New Year’s day?” I asked.
I went to his Special Assistant, Bong Go, and brought him to Duterte. Go asked the same question, set the date close to New Year’s day of 2018 but reset it for the next week.
I have never liked press conferences with Duterte because he performs before a crowd. In one-on-one interviews, there is no performance act, his answers are more candid, honest, and the off-the-records are something else.
“Niabot na ang cripple” (the cripple has arrived), he said in jest as he approached the presidential table at the Whitefield function room of Grand MenSeng Hotel on Saturday, arriving there at 8:31 p.m. for a supposed 7 p.m. schedule. No one explained why he called for that press conference. The giveaway was when he made a pitch for Pastor Apollo Quiboloy when no one was asking.
We were lucky our waiting time was only 91 minutes. Our longest wait when he was President was 12 hours – noon to midnight – August 6 to 7, 2016. That’s just the waiting time. The coverage part was two more hours, with the 44-minute press conference starting at 1:33 in the morning.
Duterte is turning 79 on March 28. When he was thrust into politics as appointed Vice Mayor in 1986, he was 41. When he was elected mayor in 1988, he was 43, with three young children with wife Elizabeth Zimmermann — Paolo was 13, Sara was 10 and Sebastian was just a few months old. Kitty, his daughter with Honeylet Avancena, was born in 2004.
Today, according Honeylet, he is a grandfather to 11 and great grandfather to four.
He now walks slowly with a cane, admits he is hard of hearing on both ears, is accompanied by nurses, and assisted by his close-in security aides in getting inside or disembarking from his vehicle. While walking short distances, all sides are covered by his aides to ensure somebody catches him in case he loses balance.
A far cry from the gun-toting, big-bike riding Mayor of yesteryears, he who would man the traffic, prowl the night as a taxi driver, threaten his enemies with expletives and “I will kill you” declarations, or the foul-mouthed President who would deliver very long, extemporaneous, expletive-laden and “I will kill you” speeches.
Several times during the press conference last Saturday, he asked reporters to repeat the question, citing his hearing problem. Surprisingly, it was not an expletive-laden presscon. Only twice did he say “put___ina” during the 88-minute presser.
At home, he said, he reads four national newspapers, named the first two as Manila Times and Tribune (The Daily Tribune) and had to be asked if he was referring to the Philippine Star or the Philippine Daily Inquirer for the other two. “Papalit-palit yun… Pero apat yun”
Duterte was a voracious reader before but I wasn’t sure if he still has enough attention span to read books so I asked during the presser if he still does. Yes, he said, but “hindi ako masyado sa fiction” (am not much into fiction). Make-believe kasi eh.”
I asked if he has read Evangelista’s book and other “Duterte books” (books written about the Duterte Presidency).
He said he has not.
In July 2022, three weeks after he stepped down as President, MindaNews listed at least 30 books published between June 30, 2016 and June 30, 2022 on Duterte as a populist leader, his bloody war on drugs, his human rights record, even his jokes.
Most of the books I listed were published abroad but can be ordered online.
After the presscon, I approached him to ask what was the last book he read.
“Ngayon? Ah nakalimutan ko. I-text ko lang sa iyo tapos ipasa ko sa iyo pagkatapos ko” (Now? Ah, I forgot the title. I will text it to you. I will pass it on to you after I’ve finished reading it), he said.
Unsa nga Duterte books imong nabasa? (What Duterte books have you read?), I asked.
He said he prefers reading documentaries now.“Hindi ako nagabasa ng fiction” (I do not read fiction).
“You should read the books about you. Mga 30 na siguro kabuok na,” (there are around 30 already) I said.
“About me?” he asked.
“About your Presidency,” I replied.
“Bad reviews siguro yan. Wag na” (They’re likely bad reviews. Never mind), he said.
Have you read the book of Pat Evangelista? Patricia Evangelista?,” I asked again. “Kadtong ‘Some People Need Killing.’”
His eyes lit up upon hearing the title.
“Hindi yan fiction (It’s not fiction) … You should read it. It’s very well written. Well, it’s about the killings during your war on drugs,” I said.
“Asa man nako na makuha” (Where can I find a copy), he asked.
I told him I brought a copy and would give it to him. “Mudawat ka?” (You will accept?), I asked.
“Oo” (yes), he answered.
I had actually bought an extra copy the first time the book was available at the Fully Booked in Abreeza Mall in early November (the first two batches of copies of the bestseller sold out within a week; the third batch is now available, according to the bookstore on January 8).
I bought the extra copy with the intent to give it to the former President so he would know the impact of his administration’s war on drugs from the stories of the relatives of those who were killed. Digong would understand why I would give him that book. His cordon sanitaire would not.
In his early years as mayor, I remember telling him “some people, in trying to help you, are not helping you at all.” I would recall that when he became President and his cordon sanitaire was screening what he should or should not know, what he should or should not read, etc.
This was not the first time I gave Duterte a book. I sent him, through somebody in his inner circle, a copy of Earl Parreno’s then newly-released book, “Beyond Will and Power” (I had it autographed). I attended a pre-departure presser at the Davao International Airport (he was bound for the Middle East then), to give him something to read during the long-haul flight: the complete set of books on the report of the Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission, on dealing with the past in the Bangsamoro and ensuring accountability, serving justice, and achieving reconciliation.
I would have actually wanted to hand him a copy autographed by Pat Evangelista but she’s out of the country.
I opened my bag and took out the book, already covered with thick plastic (I usually do this when gifting books) and handed it to him. He flipped through the pages and returned the book to me.
“Bigyan mo ng dedication,” he said. “Happy reading or something. For your kind thoughts or something,” he suggested.
Having seen the looks of some supporters around him and having been surprised by what he asked, I only managed to write, “Please read this po.”
He read the note and handed over the hardbound book to an aide.
I hope the book was not intercepted by the cordon sanitaire and I really hope Duterte has started reading it.
As for the sit-down interview? “For what? I’m retired. I cannot discuss issues anymore. I have no credibility,” he replied.
But that’s not what the sit-down is for. It is about looking back, to seek answers to so many questions only he can answer about decisions and policies made during his six-year Presidency, and how retirement is like for this grandfather to 11 and greatgrandfather to four, after nearly four decades in politics.
I hope he will set the date. I really would like to know, too, if he read the book I gave him. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)
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