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Ambition, Destiny, Victory: Stories from a Presidential Election


"Politics is the story of a handful of men reaching for the levers of power," wrote Theodore White, author of The Making of the President 1960, about that year's Kennedy-Nixon contest. While it remains the granddaddy of campaign books, all campaigns are about men and women who strive for years to get within striking distance of the prize and then strive as much again, but this time in the space of a few months, for the final assault.

Except in the Philippines in 2010. A handful of men and one woman did just that but a revered former President died, triggering nostalgia that turned into a movement to draft her son, who, by all accounts, no one ever thought would be President. Including, according to a new book, his mother.

Noynoy Aquino is the "destiny" in Chay Hofileña and Miriam Grace Go’s Ambition, Destiny, Victory: Stories from a Presidential Election. His rivals--a former President, a billionaire, and a young politician following the Kennedy-Clinton-Obama (and Marcos) example of not waiting for one’s turn--are the "ambition," thwarted.

The first person whose ambition was crushed was Mar Roxas, president of Aquino’s Liberal Party, who had been aiming for the presidency since topping the Senate elections in 2004. Then Cory Aquino died and her son's come-from-nowhere poll numbers made him seem like a surer bet for the Liberals than Roxas.

The book doesn't say much about the internal and external voices that may have haunted Roxas, but it does provide an account of how he gave up the ghost, at a dinner with Aquino and Butch Abad, now budget secretary.

"Noy, kita ko na eh. Sa 'yo pupunta talaga. Alam mo Noy, sa akin lang, I really think that you should take it." (Noy, I can see it already. It’s really headed your way. You know, Noy, I really think you should take it.’"

"Grabe, nagulat ako (Wow, that was a shock)," Abad said after Roxas left. "Ang bigat naman nito (This is so heavy)," Aquino said.

Hofileña and Go say they interviewed 60 people for the book. It has separate sections on each of the 6 main players, which means you have several climaxes and denouements instead of one sweeping narrative. But stories and dialogue like that are worth the price of admission.

Years from now, we may only remember that after Noynoy was included in the surveys, he held his lead through election day in May. The book reminds us that in January, billionaire Manny Villar pulled statistically even and presumably had the momentum. The book quotes an Aquino campaign insider as saying it was "heart attack time."

White said a campaign book is about "real men in real trouble" and that "the decisions of state are always, inevitably, prefigured by the politics that brought the leadership to power."

In other words, how the candidate dealt with challenges during the campaign is how he may handle challenges in office. The book recounts how Aquino regained the upper hand by allowing some of his supporters to take the low road.

*'Opposition research'

The "Hindi Ako Magnanakaw" line was remade into the winning "Kung Walang Corrupt, Walang Mahirap" slogan. Chiz Escudero joined the campaign, setting up shop on a Quezon City street named Samar. But these didn't help enough. So, according to the book, Aquino's sisters turned to Serge Osmeña, who aimed for "the systematic destruction of the Villar brand."

Villar's "brand" was his rags-to-riches story, promoted via a tune that had everyone suffering from Last Song Syndrome. The book recounts how a group within the Aquino campaign tore that apart by writing "their version" of the rags part of the story, used information from Villar’s Senate nemeses to tarnish the riches part, and linked him to unpopular President Gloria Arroyo with a devastating play on their names.

The book says Aquino was aware of this so-called "opposition research" operation. He just wanted it separate from the main campaign and ensconced at the Manilabank building in Makati where "not everything was black and white." The book says the group was led by political operative Lito Banayo, now head of the National Food Administration.

*Shallow campaign

Negative campaigning is part of politics, as is trying to distance oneself from it. It may be understandable when, a month after taking office, Aquino aimed much of his first State of the Nation Address at Arroyo. A year later, some think he still blames her too much instead of leading and executing. It bears watching how much blame will be in this year’s speech. (And if now Congresswoman Arroyo will ever sit through an Aquino SONA.)

The book reflects the lack of depth of the campaigns on the part of the candidates and their staffs, the press and ultimately the voters. We’re reminded of the candidates’ efforts to connect with the poor via slogans instead of policies, usually with the word kahirapan -- poverty -- in it. Estrada repurposed a proverb by replacing hirap -- hard work -- with Erap -- his nickname.

While the book talks about how young Gilbert Teodoro scored in debates, it doesn’t remind us of what Teodoro said or how he came across. It doesn't say much about any candidate trying to go beyond sound bites, slogans, images or "message." Nowhere is there a candidate or campaign leader talking about how they tried to raise the level of debate but gave up when it didn't resonate. So I can't tell if it didn't happen or was just irrelevant. There's little or no mention of policy differences such as Aquino's and Villar's positions on taxes or the reproductive health bill.

And it recounts how the press all too easily reported the negative propaganda--and positive press releases too.


It remains a mystery why Villar, who had the ability and agility to rise from average if not poor beginnings to the highest reaches of Philippine business and politics, didn't shake up his strategy, tactics or team as the demolition job took its toll and he was in "real trouble." Among the book's insights is that he didn't have his own "dirty tricks" unit. That may explain why the attacks on Aquino's psychological condition were clumsy and backfired, assuming the Villar camp was behind them, which it denied.

Maybe Aquino was unstoppable. Aside from the wave triggered by his mother's death, the book talks about former President Joseph Estrada's surprising energy, and how Villar's actions 10 years before motivated Estrada to deliver what the book considers the death blow to the billionaire's chances. But, having passed Villar, Estrada still couldn't reach Aquino in part because, the book reminds us, an ally with millions of command votes died just weeks after Cory Aquino.

In the end, as an Aquino supporter says in the book, "tawag talaga ng panahon eh. (It’s the call of the times.) That's why we say presidents are made in heaven."

By Chay Hofileña and Miriam Grace Go
Cacho Publishing House

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