Remembering Noynoy Aquino: ‘He abhorred corruption, couldn’t forgive it’

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Benigno Simeon 'Noynoy' Cojuangco Aquino III, who served as the country's 15th president from 2010 to 2016, died on June 24, 2021. Photo by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Tina Del Rosario was a member of the Speechwriters Group of Noynoy Aquino from 2011-2016, and the only female speechwriter from 2011-2014. She currently works as a management consultant.

The first time I met PNoy — 75, as we referred to him — was sometime in June 2011; it was supposedly a meeting to begin preparations for his second State of the Nation Address (SONA). I was new, which meant I ran around printing inputs from government agencies, the outline the other speechwriters had prepared, and making enough photocopies for everyone the boss might bring with him.

Those photocopies went unused, at least for this particular meeting. We spent less than ten minutes discussing the SONA, and the rest of the hour watching YouTube videos that Boss wanted to show us. I think one of them was about The Beast, the limousine of the President of the United States.

There’s always an impulse to go back to the beginning when someone’s life ends — and you’ll probably read something from a colleague of mine about the first time he met PNoy — maybe to assess how things have changed, how relationships have evolved. Not so for us. It was always clear: we were his writers and 75 was our boss.

In some ways, the relationship was as transactional as that. Whenever he called, we ran — imagine a horde of speechwriters sprinting across Malacañang with laptops. We wrote two-line thank you notes and Christmas messages, and we wrote SONAs and speeches on investment and foreign affairs. We made revisions on his demand, early in the morning and late at night. We waited, keeping our frustration to ourselves, while he tore through the speeches we had prepared with his guidance. We learned not to challenge 75 on his opinions, because that meant incurring his anger and derailing our meetings. To be honest, he got angry at us anyway. Sometimes, if he didn’t like a speech, he would abandon it altogether, telling the audience, “Hindi ko nagustuhan ang inihandang talumpati ng aking mga speechwriters.”

At the same time, there was also a curious kind of trust — deep, but at arm’s length; professional, but also somewhat unguarded. It was inevitable, I suppose, given the amount of time we spent with him.

First, about the job: 75 was a reluctant statesman, but you wouldn’t have known it from the way he acted. He was obsessed with details and had an incredible memory. Any inconsistency in a presentation or meeting meant facing a litany of his questions; if targets weren’t met as promised to him, he demanded an explanation. For him, it was simple: you gave me your word.

More than anything else, 75 was consistent. He abhorred corruption, couldn’t forgive it. He didn’t mince words and wasn’t afraid of publicly criticizing those he believed to be in the wrong. He was proud of the fact that his administration was investing in the Filipino people — even providing updates on the Conditional Cash Transfer program to Gilas Pilipinas, who probably didn’t expect a lecture on government policy when they paid him a courtesy call. He did not want his name or picture on billboards announcing new infrastructure projects. When he spoke about the Filipino people continuing the fight for change, he meant it — his trust in us was all-encompassing.

When I first heard about his passing, I didn’t think about these things. I thought about how, on a working visit to the United States, he went to get McDonald’s instead of In-N-Out. How, as intermissions during our meetings, he would play “Dadalhin” and admonish us to listen carefully to the lyrics to appreciate how bittersweet the song actually is. How he put on samba music during a working session with the Department of Foreign Affairs late one night to “help us wake up” and did a little dance by himself in front of his Music Room. He was in pambahay then: basketball shorts, a plain white t-shirt, and slippers. Once, he asked me for my opinion about his love life. He enjoyed telling other people that I ate six pieces of fried chicken when Max’s had their Chicken-All-You-Can promo — although at some point, six became eight. That was perhaps the most he ever learned about me.

When I first heard about his passing this morning, I cried — but could not fully understand why. I can’t claim to be particularly close to him; he was the Boss, after all. I certainly didn’t agree with everything he did, and once, came very close to resigning. I became much more cynical after working for him. In writing this, I thought I could begin to make sense of what I was feeling, to understand why I have been on the verge of tears the whole day. I was wrong.

Perhaps for now it will be enough to say that I grieve the loss of this ordinary man who, for a time, I wrote speeches for. He found amusement in watching random YouTube videos and liked to poke good-natured fun at others. He governed by a simple formula: work with integrity, begin the change, and leave the Philippines in a better state. He made mistakes and plenty of them. He was an ordinary man, but he always tried to do better — to, in the words of St. Paul, fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith. And he will always be remembered for it.