Not-so-distant memories

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    ‘Even something as simple as a phone call involves protocol, and that was one thing that PNoy always found counterproductive…’

    FORMER President Benigno S. Aquino III has received more than his fair share of criticism (and hate) during his incumbency, and even post-presidency. I sent out a public birthday greeting for him on the occasion of his 61st birthday, and was quite surprised at the replies I received, I suppose primarily because of the anecdote I shared about him. You see, me being diminutive in height, I usually wore heeled shoes to compensate. I always got ribbed by my colleagues whenever they would encounter me in flat shoes, including the former President, who would always jokingly remark that I seemed “short” that day. It went on when he found out that my colleagues in RTVM made an apple box of sorts for me to stand on during the daily press briefings, so the microphone would not end up in front of my face.

    “Kaya pala parang matangkad ka sa TV,” (That’s why you seem tall when I see you on TV) he said. “Isn’t that swindling?” he’d say with a smile.

    Almost five years after he stepped down from office, perhaps one regret I have is not showing his personal side enough to the public. Being in the public eye for most of his life, I always held it as a sworn duty to help preserve whatever modicum of privacy he had to himself. He felt that issues of the State always came first, and whatever interest people had in his personal life was a matter not to be discussed on the people’s time. Even when news of his dates came to the fore, the next morning’s conversation would always be about pressing issues, and questions about the date will always be dismissed as “matters of the State, not of the heart.”

    That’s not to say that he didn’t recognize the interest in his personal life. I suppose he found it amusing, sometimes a little strange, that folks were interested whether he had a date for Valentine’s Day or not. The intense scrutiny led him to lock up whatever personal side he had, and we helped him throw away the key, believing that his reluctance to keep the personal side away from view would help focus on what the job demanded. Looking back, we should have been a little less guarded in this aspect, to help people see the man behind the Office. But as they say, hindsight is always 20/20, and there’s not much one can do about the past in that regard.

    I have plenty of memories about working as a presidential staffer, both good ones and bad.

    Perhaps one day, I can figure out how best these can be shared at the right time. For now, allow me to share one more story about the former president. You see, no other job in the world is as steeped in protocol as the one in Malacañang. Even something as simple as a phone call involves protocol, and that was one thing that PNoy always found counterproductive (exempting calls to foreign heads of state, of course, as these calls are always coordinated through both foreign ministries.) You see, one day, he was reading a report on the Labor Force Survey and had a question about a particular data set. He asked to speak to the person in charge of the division who prepared the report, and staff naturally scrambled to find then-Secretary Linda Baldoz. He said, “Let’s not bother Secretary Baldoz.

    Get me the number of the person who prepared the report.”

    Long story short, he called the trunk line of the office of the person in charge using his landline. I watched in mild terror and amusement as he spoke into the phone, and asked to speak to the poor bureaucrat. When the person on the other end asked who was calling, he simply said “Noynoy.” I held my breath for the few seconds that followed his reply, knowing how the person who answered could easily dismiss the call as a prank. I mean, come on.

    Who gets a call on a landline from the President, right?

    Thankfully the one who picked out the phone was nonplussed, and handed the line to the person whom PNoy had asked to speak. I breathed easy when they started talking, and if the officer found it strange that the President had called her directly on a seemingly random occasion, it didn’t show. He thanked her for her time at the end of the conversation, and had a smile on his face when he put down the phone. Soon after that, it spread like wildfire among the career public servants that yes, it was possible to be randomly put on the dock for your work, so everybody had to be ready in case that phone call from the guy who simply gives his name as “Noynoy” comes.

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