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‘Steady Eddie’ romanced the media

December 18, 2010

(Editors’ Note: For 25 days, we will be telling stories about the Philippine Daily Inquirer to mark the paper’s 25th anniversary on Dec. 9, 2010. Some are little inside stories but impacting on how we cover unfolding events; some are mark-the-day stories that become talk-of-the-town types; others are turning-point stories that have changed the landscape of history; still others, big or small, seize the heart and never let go. But whatever, the Inquirer will tell you the story.)

MANILA, Philippines—The atmosphere was tense, officials were nervous and reporters were edgy. After all, how do you ask the President of the republic about a rumored love affair?

In October 1993, the Inquirer ran a series of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism about then President Fidel V. Ramos’ alleged affair with socialite Rosemarie “Baby” Arenas.

A top Palace official pleaded with reporters not to raise the issue during FVR’s press conference. He said World Bank officials were in town and we didn’t need the embarrassment.

FVR himself ended the agony of his press officials. He read a statement dismissing the series as “a compilation of innuendos and gossip … trivializing the affairs of the state.”

When reporters asked about the one topic that peeved him most, a smiling FVR gave them a pat on the back (the kind that hurt a little).

But during his term, no reporters were banned from the Palace, sued for libel or threatened with subversion. There were no ad boycotts against critical newspapers.

Ironic indeed that it was the military general—and not the housewife, the actor-politician, or the professor-economist—who proved to be the most media-friendly of the post-Edsa Presidents.

24/7 schedule

Reporters who covered the FVR presidency found more than a Malacañang that was “open for media coverage.”

They needed the stamina to keep up with a hands-on President who had a 24/7 schedule, traveled far and wide, went about governance with a cheerleader’s enthusiasm—and wanted maximum media mileage.

Reporters were rarely idle at the Malacañang press office, unlike in the administrations that followed.

“Steady Eddie” was always on his feet, and for the media there was always an event or two, or more, to cover.

If he was not traveling abroad, FVR was crisscrossing the country at least three days a week. And his efficient press office staff made sure the media were there.

“Press buses” hauled reporters at the crack of dawn for long road trips to Ilocos or Bicol. For trips to the Visayas and Mindanao, reporters were allotted two of the presidential choppers. Or they hopped into the military C-130 plane.

Straight from horse’s mouth

On overseas trips, reporters were allowed to join the presidential flights, with FVR chatting with them. Or playing pranks: Those who fell asleep later received souvenir pictures of him beside them, grinning and flashing a thumbs-up sign.

Reporters rarely needed FVR’s press secretary or spokesperson as sources of news. They got it straight from the horse’s mouth.

FVR was the one President who held weekly press conferences. He adlibbed in his speeches and allowed “ambush” interviews, which was why reporters followed him even on backbreaking trips.

The press office was at Kalayaan Hall, a good vantage point for reporters. It gave them easy access to the Palace and allowed them to see the comings and goings.

They saw when FVR reported for work, and could “ambush” him on his way to tee off at the back of Kalayaan Hall as early as 6 a.m.

During the Arroyo administration, the press office was moved to the New Executive Building outside the Palace proper.

16-hour days

In her book “From Macapagal to Macapagal-Arroyo: My 42 years inside Malacañang,” former Press Undersecretary Carmen Suva wrote that FVR wanted every project, big or small, written about in the papers.

“He wanted the people to know he was working and to infect people with his work ethic,” Suva wrote.

Then economic planning chief Cielito Habito, in a recent Inquirer column, said FVR made tough demands on his Cabinet and led by example—working 16-hour days, even on Sundays.

On a Sunday that FVR took his Cabinet for an out-of-town meeting, Habito asked if he could bring his family because Sundays were the only time he could be with them.

“Most of us experienced receiving phone calls from him as early as 5 a.m., by which time he was already on top of the day’s news. I recall frantically scanning the front pages of the major dailies before taking an early-morning call from him whenever they came, to make sure I knew what I might have to answer to,” Habito wrote.

It was also FVR’s habit to write marginal notes on newspaper clippings that he gave to his officials.

While his presidency from 1992 to 1998 was not as tumultuous as the other three, it was the time when the price of rice skyrocketed and people queued for it. There were the power blackouts, which gave rise to the controversial independent power producers. Filipino maid Flor Contemplacion was executed in Singapore, stirring public anger.

There was the Centennial Expo scandal, in which he was implicated but eventually cleared. And the attempts to prolong his term through Charter change.

But there was peace with the secessionists (FVR sealed the peace pact with Nur Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front), rightists and communists.

The economy grew steadily, until the Asian financial crisis derailed FVR’s dream of turning the Philippines into a “tiger economy” by 2000.

‘UST’ and ‘CSW’

Habito said the economic boom was due to the fact that the government under FVR worked well, with high morale and teamwork.

FVR, Habito said, made it clear to his Cabinet on Day One that he expected “UST”—unity, solidarity and teamwork. Officials were told: No public feuds. Those who disagreed with policy decisions should shut up or quit.

He demanded “CSW”—complete staff work—which meant thorough study, consultation and documentation for anything requiring his action.

Interagency coordination was a religion, Habito said, and endless meetings consumed much of the Cabinet’s hours.

FVR extended his consultative style of leadership to the other branches of government. He formed the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council, through which he worked out his legislative agenda with Congress.

Chomping on an unlit cigar and wearing eyeglasses with no lenses, FVR brought an upbeat approach to governance with slogans like “Go, go, go!” or “Kaya natin ’to (We can do this)!”

People empowerment he likened to cooking bibingka: You need fire on top (the leaders and the private sector) and fire under (the grassroots) to make a perfectly delicious rice cake.

Traveling the world as the Philippines’ No. 1 salesman, FVR was aghast to discover during a US visit that American news networks still used the image of the garbage dump Smokey Mountain.

His close-in writer Jojo Terencio recalled that FVR promptly directed then Press Secretary Hector Villanueva to distribute positive images of the country, like its busy financial districts.

4Ks

Monetary Board member Ignacio Bunye, press secretary of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and an FVR admirer, was a mayor seeking reelection when FVR shared his “secret.”

Just practice “4Ks,” Bunye was told, and “you will be mayor forever.”

The first K is “kawayan” (waving at a crowd), followed by “kamayan” (handshakes). To further impress a group, start a conversation or “kumustahan” (asking a general question, like “how’s the family?”). This will inevitably lead to “kodakan” (picture-taking).

Before the age of Facebook and the cell phone camera, FVR had made miles in photo ops.

Suva wrote that she considered FVR “the country’s most loved President, especially by the Malacañang staff and the media.”

She wrote that of the six Presidents she had served, only FVR called her by her nickname “Ching,” and that he and his wife Amelita “Ming” Ramos treated staff like family, giving financial help to those in need.

Terencio, for one, had an ear problem and could not afford a hearing aid. Somehow his predicament reached FVR, who paid for it.

Terencio also recalled how a Palace staff member forgot to remove a post-it note on his birthday gift. The socials secretary had recommended a cake as a gift. FVR inserted the word “BIG,” and that was how Terencio got his big birthday cake.

There was charm in FVR’s unobtrusive family. The low-key first lady fussed only about her Pasig River cause or when serving as gracious host to reporters.

FVR Jr.

Like my colleagues in the Palace press corps, I have an “FVR anecdote.”

In March 1997, he greeted me during a press conference hours after I delivered my firstborn.

Three days later came a handwritten letter on the presidential stationery with a message that was truly personal. Addressing my husband and me by our first names, FVR said “what good timing” the birth of our son was. It was on his own birthday.

Years later, whenever I ran into him, he would ask (to my embarrassment) how “FVR Jr.” was doing.

My son got to meet FVR in the flesh because Palace reporters, their families in tow, had reunions at the Ramoses’ weekend home in Tagaytay City.

We not only enjoyed good food and company but also went home with gifts from Ming Ramos’ garden—pots of anthuriums, bromeliads and yellow bells, some of which bloom in my home to this day. With a report from Inquirer Research

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