by Jojo Robles
“Optics matter,” said one Facebook friend, referring to the absence of President Rodrigo Duterte at the ceremonial flag-raising at Manila’s Rizal Park during yesterday’s Independence Day celebrations. He was throwing out the inside-the-Beltway term for public perception, appending the still-cool “matter” to it, even if he made it sound to a lot of people like Duterte had committed some serious if obscure ophthalmological transgression.
But I understood why Duterte’s critics were once again on the attack. As Leah Navarro, the former singer who sold her soul to the Yellows, explained in a tweet, Noynoy Aquino “never missed a single Independence Day flag-raising.”
It was a perfect opportunity for the opportunistic anti-Dutertes, who had fallen silent for the most part because they were afraid of catching the so-called Senator Risa Honti-virus: Appearing, in their hatred of the president, to be siding with the terrorists laying siege to Marawi City – and paying dearly for it.
Besides, because Duterte was not at Rizal Park, only Vice President Leni Robredo was there to give a snappy salute to the national tricolor in her updated Filipiniana terno. And Leni, who has been eerily silent in the past couple of weeks, got to pretend for a few minutes that she was actually the Commander-in-Chief.
This was Independence Day that Duterte had trampled under his Marikina-made shoes, the Yellows thought. Surely, there was no way this failure in political optics could be forgiven.
But the Yellow “opticians” were wrong again. And they really should’ve gotten a clue when Duterte canceled the traditional Independence Day vin d’honneur at Malacanang, the formal toast with the diplomatic corps in Manila on the eve of the high national holiday.
Duterte canceled the event for the same reason that he decided not to go to Japan for a scheduled trip, and for the same reason that he cut short his visit to Russia when the Marawi conflict broke out: He had to be close to the troops who were fighting the war against terrorism on home soil.
It turned out that Duterte had once again met with the families of the soldiers who died in Marawi, spending the night condoling with them as had become his custom since the fierce fighting for the city began. Duterte chose to be with the kin of the latest batch of the 58 soldiers already slain by terrorists and with his generals to oversee the war in Marawi instead of being with Leni in raising the flag at Luneta.
Duterte ignored the photo-optics of a ceremony, which were suddenly of primordial importance to the Yellows. Was that really a bad thing?
Less than two years ago, the president who never missed an Independence Day flag-raising had a great chance to come up with an optical illusion of his own. But Aquino, as is his wont, decided to be himself and to stick to his peculiar set of priorities, optics be damned.
When the bodies of the 44 members of the elite PNP Special Action Force arrived at Villamor Air Base after being collected from a blood-soaked corn field in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, Aquino was nowhere to be found.
It turned out that Aquino had chosen to be present at the opening of a car assembly plant of Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi in Laguna when the bodies of the massacred SAF members—whom he had sent to their deaths in the hands of Moro separatists. Aquino’s reason for not being present at the air base made for equally bad optics (in the correct, instead of the optician’s, use of the term): he said he did not want to intrude on the grief of the slain soldiers’ relatives.
This is the difference between the two presidential absences. One decided that he had to be with his slain soldiers and their families, forsaking ceremonial events by doing so, while the other dreamed up an excuse not to be with his dead troops and their grieving kin —especially because a foreign car company was going to give him a guided tour of the wonders of their car-making facility.
What made it worse was that Duterte chose to be with soldiers who died fighting off terrorist attackers in Marawi. Aquino was merely scared of facing up to the consequence of his sending an elite force to its extermination on orders from his foreign patrons in Washington to get terrorist bomb-maker Marwan—after he had abandoned them when they ran out of ammunition without artillery and air support as they were withdrawing.
Mamasapano was very bad optics. And yesterday at the Luneta was supposed to be good press for Leni, for a change—until her sympathizers turned it into terrible optics by trying to make Duterte look like he had somehow failed to perform his job by not standing on ceremony to be where it really mattered.
Teddy Boy Locsin, the acid-tongued pundit who has made it his life’s work to expose the hypocrisy of the Yellows, said it best, as he often does. Replying to an online critic of Duterte’s, who noted the President’s absence at Rizal Park, Locsin tweeted that the flag-raising ceremony was “[n]ot important. He is where the flag is embattled, the Commander-in-Chief of those fighting for one indivisible Republic.”
Yes, good optics are good. But leadership and empathy in times of war are way better.