The magazine cover that predicted a Duterte presidency

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The March 2015 cover of Esquire Philippines was a rare glimpse into the mind of the then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Erwin Romulo, the magazine's then editor-in-chief, wanted the image, photographed by Jason Quibilan, to evoke something out of Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz from "Apocalypse Now."

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Esquire Philippines crew arrived in Davao very late. Erwin Romulo, the magazine’s editor-in-chief at the time, with its managing editor, Patricia Barcelon, and a photographer, Jason Quibilan, had to meet their cover subject in a Filipino-Italian restaurant somewhere in the city. When the team had settled in, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte walked in, and at that exact moment, by either some stroke of curious coincidence or a planned grand entrance, Nino Rota’s theme for “The Godfather” played. “I turned to Jason and Patricia,” Romulo recalls. “And I said, ‘Do you think that plays every time he walks into this restaurant?’”

They never got a clear answer, but the following day, during the cover shoot and interview, Duterte answered some controversial and hard-hitting questions — ranging from the most brutal thing he’s done to anyone to whether he’s a fascist or not — coming from a pool of submissions from Esquire’s contributors such as the director Lav Diaz, the journalists Randy David, Teddy Boy Locsin, and Atom Araullo, and even the actor John Lloyd Cruz.

Romulo has been told the interview was quite prophetic, seeing as it was published months before Duterte finally announced his intent to run for president. He’s told that even people in the Supreme Court have been referring to the text, as it contains all the formative ideas of what the now President Duterte has to say and his notions of governance — from reformation of the government if he’s head of state to strategies on ending poverty.

The opening spread of Esquire Philippines's cover story on Rodrigo Duterte from its March 2015 issue. The image on the right was one of the first cover options during the shoot. Screenshot from ESQUIRE PHILIPPINES

The cover, which appeared in March 2015, is simple: a black and white photo of Duterte in a jacket, holding a gun while surrounded by scrawny kids. There are two other lines aside from Duterte’s name: the issue’s theme and the quote “If I were a president,” which Romulo admits to having pressed on Duterte to say during the interview. The images are in stark black and white, recalling Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” and his descent to madness. But what Romulo envisioned for the cover had been something a lot less sinister. “At the time, what he was saying was so unlike everyone else,” Romulo shares. “I said, ‘I really believe that what you’re espousing can be maybe only what the future generations will appreciate. That’s why I wanted to put these kids behind you.’”

The cover has been influential in itself, being one of the rare shoots that Duterte has done, and accompanied by a two-hour interview with a string of tough questions — as if it were a job interview at that.

CNN Philippines Life recently sat down with Romulo to talk about the iconic shoot with Duterte. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

How was his demeanor the whole time? The interview made it sound like he was just saying all of these things as a matter of fact.

He was very straight to the point. Like that, crossed arms. But then you could sense that there was an intelligence there that was really working. You know he had really, really thought about these things. He’s been asked these questions before, but never in one go. But he knew what he was talking about. I didn’t get the sense of a man who was not sure of himself. He was very sure of himself.

It seems that he’s thought about these things for a long time already.

To be fair to him, he’s been very consistent. And I was also shocked kasi there were not too many interviews of him that I knew of. I’d read a couple, but, you know. Patingi-tingi, eh. This was the first time na really …

Were you the only one then who had had a sit-down, two-hour interview with him?

No kasi he has a show for two hours where he just sits down and talks. But from Manila, I think so. Kasi I had also the benefit of having questions from Atom Araullo and others. No question fazed him. Yung kay Lav Diaz nga, “Are you a fascist?” I didn’t see any kind of panic or ano. He didn’t dilly-dally. No offense at all. He was very, very sure of every answer, and he wasn’t afraid to talk. As far as I know, ‘cause I tried to research, no one had asked him in one go about all these things.

How did it feel that, as he was doing the campaign, all the things he was saying in the interview were actually the things he was saying to the media?

I can’t take credit for it. That was him, and he never changed. You have to hand it to the guy. He never wavered, or he never added anything to his advocacy. It was that from the very beginning. Even before my interview, maybe no one had done an interview in recent memory — I think it’s always been in my head that that’s what he was. The one thing is, during the campaign, people would be sending me screencaps — I don’t have social media — but every day, mga two or three times, people would send me screencaps of how that image was used on social media, on fansites, artwork. And ako, sabi ko nga kay Jason: “You should’ve put it out there. You should’ve sold it. Sayang.”

What do you think it was that made the Duterte cover such a memorable cover? Except for, you know, the fact that he’s posing with a gun. But there’s more to it than that.

We always thought of the cover as an editorial cartoon or opinion page. The thing is, we really built in that it wouldn’t be definite that he would get one thing out of it. Every image naman that we tried — we’ve failed more times than we succeeded — but every cover image had to have that level na what I’d really like to say talaga. I’m not sure I would like this or not. Kasi for me, honestly, I thought the image was scary.

Especially with the military stencil font.

Yeah. But with people like Robin Padilla, they found it inspiring. They reacted positively. And a lot of people reacted positively to it. Basta it’s just not one thing. That’s always it. There’s always an element that had to be something where you’re not quite sure what you’re thinking.

So why does Rodrigo Duterte represent the Filipino man? There’s a lot of things you could say about Duterte. But not being a man is not one of them.

What do you think it is with Filipinos and their desire for a strongman to discipline the nation?

The cover was just based on what we knew of him. That he was a tough guy, he had a military unit, alam mo yun? And that was the closest amalgam we came up with. Because some people called him crazy. So we thought that. I think it’s a trend around the world. The far right almost got into power in Austria, and Scandinavia, and Philbert Dy [Esquire Philippines’s former writer-at-large] was the one that — I was talking to him about a month ago, we were discussing, “What is this thing with strongmen around the world?” I think Philbert’s theory is good. I think it’s the response to global terrorism. Parang democracy has failed us; it can’t keep us safe. So we’re retreating to these strongmen, these fascistic figures.

So we really have to resort to someone who has a strong will ...

Yeah. Since 9/11, and remember Brussels, and all the Paris attacks, it just seems like, maybe that’s it. I think it’s a referendum on the past 30 years since EDSA. So that “DU30” looms more prophetic than you might think, might mean more than you might think. But I think a lot of people on the side of the majority think — or the silent majority has spoken. Not the liberal party people. It’s all these people who have felt that the promises of EDSA have not materialized and have failed them. So if somebody says that, “You know, I have not felt the promise of EDSA,” then what has happened? You know, my father was in the opposition. He really thought tapos na, eh. I mean, we were going to a golden era. Parang things were going to be all right after all the darkness of the Marcos years. And then, yun, you have to admit, maybe majority of the voters thought that their lives did not get any better. After two Aquinos …

You know, Alan Peter Cayetano had a good speech in 2010, where he said that in the last 50 years, only four families have held Malacanang. You have two Macapagals; Fidel Ramos and Marcos, who are cousins; and two Aquinos. Erap was the only outlier. So I think a lot is going for it. A lot of history behind it.

You mentioned that he struck a nerve with Filipinos. Was it part of the original idea to include him in the “How to be a Man” theme?

Part of being Esquire is taking Esquire themes. That wasn’t really our theme for that month. We always thought that we always wanted to — we didn’t want to just get content. A lot of the other editions, especially in Asia, they really just want to aggregate content from elsewhere, because it’s free. That’s the agreement. Why would you want to read that? We always decided that we would be representative of who we were as a country. From what I’ve seen in publishing, people want local content. Just done well.

So why does he represent the Filipino man? There’s a lot of things you could say about Duterte. But not being a man is not one of them.

During the shoot, Esquire Philippines's then editor-in-chief, Erwin Romulo, wanted to put kids behind Rodrigo Duterte as he believed that what the ideas that the then Davao City mayor was espousing could only be appreciated by the future generation.

Some of his supporters are these traditional macho men.

Yeah, and he’s brought that out. And like it or not, the best and the worst aspects of being a man, he represents. And I think what he represents as a Filipino man is somebody who basically knows what he wants. Or the best Filipino man. It’s very resolute. He has no qualms about doing whatever it takes to get what he wants. So I thought that was one virtue I like. It didn’t seem like he had qualms about — you know if he wanted something, he was decisive. And I’m not the first one or the last one to say this. There’s an appeal to a guy who just takes charge and also admit his frailties. And he’s funny rin; you have to admit that. So it’s not a roguish kind of character. And you always have to like somebody who’s so sure of himself, and there’s an integrity to that.

Especially for a politician.

It’s very rare. Whether you agree with the morality or not is something for the people to decide. But you have to admit that he abides by a code. His own code, maybe no one else’s, and he adheres to it.

What do you think happened — because, you know, he was burned by the media. They’re saying he was taken out of context or what he said was lost in translation. Because they say he’s from Davao, that’s his humor. But in your interview, he was really straightforward. There were no hindrances to what he was trying to say.

I don’t think he likes being censored. He’s used to saying what he likes or what he thinks, bahala na kayo. Of course that leads to a lot of criticism, and now that he’s becoming president, there’s a lot of people telling him, “You should mellow down,” and I don’t think he’s used to that. Because he has a daily show on the radio and TV in Davao where he basically says anything. So if you’re in that region, he’s a very consistent figure. His voice is very recognizable to people. Because he just sermons like he’s done in the press conferences.

I don’t know what’s happening there, but I think he’s just tired.

How do you think he’ll be as a president?

One thing I’ll say, all the other candidates, if they had won, you kind of knew what was going to happen. He’s really the unknown. If he were mayor of Davao again, or any locality, you would know eh. But on a national level, I have no idea. He’s the first, eh. Apart from Cory Aquino, he’s the first local official to jump to a presidency. So I don’t know.

Do you think that’s good or bad?

I can’t say if it’s good or bad. But you know what? The time to be a journalist is now, despite everything. Because a lot of my friends were kind of scared to stay because of his reputation, what he’s saying. But ako, no, it’s more important to be here now. Kasi this is where I think it is, and I think he’s going to be the most popular head of state in the world, because of the things he says and the way he is. I mean, it’s just so unlike anyone.