ADVOCACY MINDANOW: On apologies and palace resignations

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/14 July) — Being ready to make apologies, admit mistakes or say “I’m sorry” are traits that show humility and good character. It also re-affirms human vulnerability and remorse. In some instances, it can be a badge of good faith. Or a false facade of uncontrite double speak.

For instance, a priest in Cebu had to humbly apologize for giving a tongue lashing to an unwed teen-aged mother during the baptismal of her baby that went viral in the internet. Even the Redemptorist Order where he belongs also profusely apologized separately. I remember, with luscious fascination, how former US President Clinton expressed his own apologies for the Monica Lewinsky under-the-table-oral-sex scandal that violated the hallowed chambers of the White House. Heads of states usually apologize for war crimes committed as acts of national atonement. I just read about a contrite erring official in Japan who publicly wept and resigned for abusing taxpayers’ money.

ATENEO APOLOGY — Recently, the Jesuits of Ateneo de Manila had to issue a clarification and a public apology for having invited former First Lady Imelda Marcos, one of the early big benefactors of an Ateneo scholarship program. The Jesuits were evidently trying to “save face”, by expressing belated guilty feelings of impropriety only after their photos went viral. The Jesuit apology somehow eased the critics and some self-proclaimed “do gooders”. But by so doing, the Ateneo hosts unduly dishonored their own invited “honored guest”. Although clearly judgmental, the apology was well taken. That reminds me of another Jesuit. When he was asked to make a judgmental statement on gay marriages, he merely said: “Who are we to judge?” He happens to be His Holiness Pope Francis, an SJ.

PGMA’S “I AM SORRY” — I have an unforgettable story about another public apology. I was working then in Malacanang when former President Arroyo was facing a crisis situation due to the “hello Garci” tapes. She was agonizing on how to show she was sincerely contrite about the phone call that admittedly was a mistake and “inappropriate”. She was also evidently trying to save her government to keep it afloat and prevent a collapse. In one cabinet meeting I attended, President Arroyo left the room to allow her cabinet members to discuss freely, without her presence, the implications of saying “sorry”. The cabinet was heavily split. There were those who felt that the nation deserved a spontaneous and contrite admission of improper conduct from the president no less who was caught in a bugged telephone conversation with Comelec Commissioner Garcillano asking about her one million votes lead in the polls. I remember PGMA’s favorite ladies in the cabinet, Secretaries Dinky Soliman (DSWD) and Ging Deles (OPAPP) argued that nothing less than a contrite admission from the president herself would suffice to show remorse and “heal the nation”. However, there were others who strongly felt that there was nothing illegal in the phone call although conceding that it was indeed a serious lapse of good judgment. They further argued that for the president herself to apologize and say “I’m sorry” would demean the presidency that could trigger an irreversible slide of the people’s trust and seriously undermine her government. Somehow, there were airing of opposing views but there was no clear consensus. One early morning, I woke up surprised on seeing the nationwide telecast of President Arroyo, with downcast eyes and contrite demeanor telling the whole nation in evidently rehearsed way: “I AM SORRY”. Some colleagues in the cabinet, in hushed tones, believed that Secretaries Dinky and Ging seemed to have influenced greatly the president’s decision. Ironically, in the later days ahead, when the going went rough for the presidency as an aftermath of that presidential apology and other issues hounding the Arroyo administration, the two ladies, joined by Secretary Butch Abad and seven others (famously called the HYATT 10) were the first ones to “jump ship” and abandon the president. They resigned irrevocably en masse ostensibly as an expression of indignation and their public avowal of their seeming collective sense of propriety, although with obvious expectations that the staged cabinet hemmorhage would lead to the collapse of the Arroyo government. Of course, to their “boss” the President who entrusted to them their high positions of honor and confidence and who took their advice to heart, it was simply an act of betrayal. The rest, as I always say, is history.

ON RESIGNATIONS — Fast forward to the present. The recognized “brains” behind the DAP, Secretary Butch Abad had tendered his resignation which the President quickly rejected. I can understand why. A cabinet resignation at a time of crisis, however well-intentioned and honorable, can greatly undermine a government. On the other hand, quiet and well-timed resignations protect the presidency. I know whereof I speak as I had intentionally timed and calibrated my own several resignations from Malacanang too.

For example, when I resigned as chair of the government peace panel with the MILF in 2003 after a two-year stint and getting some landmark agreements sealed, I purposely timed and delayed it when things got quieter following strong protest by the MILF and Malaysia that I “annotated” (“corrected” was more apt) the minutes of a meeting in Malaysia which contained some sensitive GRP commitments that I was not privy about as chair. Later on I got word that fellow Cabinet member Bobi Tiglao described my leaving as has having been “fired” by Malacanang to possibly assuage the ruffled feelings of the MILF and the Malaysian facitator. A well-publicized resignation to protect my name by exposing the real reasons would however inflict damage on the whole peace process. So I kept my peace and just disappeared in the shadows. Later in 2006, I re-emerged this time over-seeing the whole peace process as presidential peace adviser to replace Sec. Ging Deles because of the Hyatt 10 incident. Again, when I was Malacanang press secretary, another resignation had to be properly managed. This came due to my paux pas of having unduly put the presidency on the spot that shook palace confidence on me for my playful and controversial cabinet prayer that reinforced public speculations that President Arroyo was preparing to prolong her stay in Malacanang, beyond 2010. On hindsight, perhaps other shortcomings for such sensitive and important job of speaking for the president piled up for me to do the honorable thing: to resign. But I waited several months later to cool things down to hand in my resignation. Otherwise, it would unnecessarily be at the expense of the president. ( It was also propitious as it coincided with health issues of my wife Beth). Again, in 2010 when I expressed to newly assumed President Aquino of my intentions of voluntarily relinguishing as chairman of the Mindanao Development Authority to give the new president opportunity to choose his Mindanao point person, although I was entitled to a fixed 5- year tenure, I did it as quietly as possible. Going back to the Abad resignation, there must be other considerations why President Aquino immediately thumbed down Sec. Butch’s resignation that many of us outsiders are not privy about. So let that be.

NO EXCUSES — President Aquino will face again the nation and give his side on his constitutionally-infirm disbursement acceleration program or DAP as ruled by the Supreme Court. There is no doubt, by the way, that he is totally entitled to claim good intentions and purity of purpose. There should be no question at all that some of those DAP funds have helped tremendously some beneficiaries. We can even concede that the President himself is “clean” and perhaps has not personally benefited or pocketed money from those funds as Malacanang continues to drumbeat. We need not even dwell on the claim that this fund strategy even pre-dated the Aquino administration and that previous officials even dirtied their own hands with similar schemes.

The question still remains: will President Aquino say “”I’m sorry” for violating his sworn oath to protect, defend and uphold the Constitution to the extent that the Supreme Court, unanimously, declared some portions of the DAP as unconstitutional? By twist of fate, many of those in the Hyatt 10 who abandoned the Arroyo government for reasons of propriety are now in the Aquino cabinet. I now wonder whether the same group that now surrounds the president is also giving him the same advice they assiduously gave to PGMA during her own time of crisis. Or have the standards suddenly changed?

PRESIDENT’S JUDGMENT CALL — Whether President Aquino apologizes in the end is his own judgment call to make and no one else’s. He must weigh his options well not only on a personal level but having the strategic interest of the presidency and of the nation as a whole first and foremost. He could not do less. And when he makes the call, we must give it to him.

NO ROOM FOR EXCUSES — But the bottom line is: when the constitutionality issue is settled with finality by the Supreme Court, there should be no more room for maneuverability or excuse. Whether we like it or not, irrespective of the good intentions and benefits it brought, whether or not the funds were properly used or not, and whichever side of the political spectrum we belong to or political color we identify ourselves with, at the end of the day, we must all reckon with the basic issues of constitutional responsibility and accountability — hopefully with the same intensity and rigor that the Aquino administration is admirably making others accountable for their alleged wrongful acts and misdeeds.

” What is good for the goose should also be good for the gander.” No ifs and buts. And no escaping. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Lawyer Jesus G. Dureza was government peace panel chair in the negotiations with the MILF under the Arroyo administration from 2001 to 2003 and was later named Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (2005 to 2008). He heads Advocacy MindaNOW Foundation, Inc. and was recently named publisher of the Davao City-based Mindanao Times. This piece is from his syndicated column, Advocacy MindaNOW.)