Free Press cover story
August 3, 2000
Erap brings home the bacon
By Manuel L. Quezon III
IT wasn’t very fatty, in fact it was rather lean, but contrary to expectations President Estrada will be able to say, upon his return from his visit to America, that he’s brought home the bacon. Of course he wouldn’t have gone home at all if he hadn’t been sure of being able to brag about being able to bring back something in the first place; but a hundred refurbished trucks, eight second hand helicopters, and prospects of a much-needed addition to the Philippine navy’s fleet (and spare parts to boot, for the “new” second-hand largesse of Uncle Sam as well as for the PAF’s grounded Hercules transports) in this day and age aren’t anything to sneeze at. But the biggest piece of bacon of all was one no one expected: the President made a decent impression abroad.
Questions of timing were what had hounded the President right up to the moment of his departure for America. Why a trip now, of all times, when Bill Clinton is as lame a duck as a lame duck president can get, and when the Democratic party is too busy worrying about the candidacy of Al Gore? The President’s critics questioned the usefulness of a trip that had been earnestly wished for, but which now seemed destined to reap few benefits, if at all. In the end, what had been lobbied for from the start of Estrada’s administration only became possible now; that was all there was to it. It was now, or perhaps, never. Besides which, Filipino leaders have always had a feeling they do better with Democratic administrations, and far better to get a little from a sympathetic Democratic administration in office than possibly nothing from the next, possibly Republican, administration.
One thing is sure: Joseph Estrada is a lucky man; and all questions on the timeliness of his trip became academic when the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks collapsed at Camp David and Bill Clinton found himself with nothing better to do than play host to the President of the Philippines. Instead of being overshadowed by larger, geopolitical concerns, President Estrada became more of an honored guest than one just sort of squeezed in between other, more pressing appointments.
What was supposed to be a paltry 15 minutes with Bill Clinton became 20 minutes shy of a three hour session with the American President.
In typical Filipino style, Mr. Estrada arrived at the White House late; delayed by his visit to the Arlington National Cemetery.
He was immediately whisked off to hold a one-on-one meeting with Clinton at the Oval Office. This was followed by an extended bilateral meeting with legislators and Cabinet officials, government-speak for a quick run through a reception line.
The press further reported that Clinton and Mr. Estrada emerged from the Oval Office at 12:20 p.m., passing through the Rose Garden, to have lunch in the residence wing of the White House. The President said he enjoyed the “very modest lunch” of just salad and chicken, though he did note he managed to gobble up two drumsticks.
Then came more photo opportunities, with Estrada being able to brag that Clinton “virtually became my tourist guide at the White House.”
The two emerged on the front lawn of the White House at 2 p.m. Clinton shook hands with our President near the door and went back in as Mr. Estrada walked to a podium to give his statement.
The result was a President Estrada so brimming-over with delight that he ended up burbling to reporters that he was “on cloud 9” after having been to the White House. Or, to be precise, Estrada said, “I didn’t expect it to be like that…when I left the White House, I felt like I was walking on clouds.” The President continued to regale reporters with ecstatic sound bites that sounded like reviews of films: sort of Joseph Estrada rating his latest tour de force, “Erap goes to Washington.”
In the lingo of showbusiness, the Presidents’ reviews of his own performance were what can only be called raves: “It was more than I expected”… “ most meaningful official visit I have ever had since I became president” … “Indeed, this is a significant way to start the third year of my presidency,” Siskel and Ebert could not have outdone our President on that day in lavishing praise on himself.
There were good words for his co-star, as well: “I was so impressed with the warmth and hospitality accorded me by the president of the most powerful country in the world,” President Estrada told representatives of the Fil-Am groups. And like a good Hollywood extra, Philippine Ambassador Ernesto Maceda couldn’t help but provide his own thumbs-up:
“All the purposes of the visit had been achieved,” he gloated to the press. And, for that deliciously attractive human interest angle, Maceda even managed to recount that “They were like soul mates,” with Clinton noting that he and Mr. Estrada were both left-handed.
“President Clinton said that according to a brain doctor, the most intelligent people in the world are the left-handed,” Maceda said, thought whether or not he told this story with his tongue in his cheeck the press was unable to detect, just as Maceda’s noting the two Presidents immediately hit it off by talking about golf and basketball “among others” included the sort of things the rest of the public (American and Filipino) considers among the prime interests of their presidents.
But what did the President get, besides the usual military hand-me-downs? $20-million food aid for Mindanao, for one; and expanded health and medical benefits for Filipino war veterans, or at least promises of efforts for such, was another, to the extent of Clinton’s assurance that he would support the lobbying going on for the passage of a bill filed by US Rep. Robert Filner for additional benefits for the Filipino war veterans. Estrada even got a promise from Clinton that the United States would try to live up to the expectations of their little brown brothers vis a vis the thorny issue of toxic waste in the former US bases in the Philippines.
Most significantly of all, Estrada was able to say that the United States was foursquare behind the government’s efforts to fight the Abu Sayaf in Mindanao. As the President’s jolly official version put it, “We considered the situation in Mindanao, [and] I informed President Clinton of the Philippine government’s commitment to peace. [Clinton] assured me of America’s support for our peace process.” President Estrada managed to condense things and make his summary of American policy toward Philippine policy in Mindanao even more concise later on: “He was happy about it and I told him we are opening talks again. He was very happy about it.”
How lucky can a Philippine president get?
And Estrada’s luck continued to hold; the threats of virulent protests by environtalists, both Filipino and American, either didn’t push through, or fizzled out altogether.
Nothing too embarrassing happened at home, except for the usual coup rumors that sprout whenever a President leaves home. And every single thorny issue –veterans’ benefits, the environment, Mindanao- that his critics thought Estrada would either not address or would find a frosty reception in the White House ended up being both discussed and supported by William Jefferson Clinton.
The President’s trip was a lobbying effort in the tradition of similar trips undertaken by Filipino leaders since the 1920s; indeed, Clinton’s enthusiastic support for veterans’ benefits and the resolution of the toxic waste issue are the sort of things lame duck presidents gladly say to visiting leaders: Clinton’s much earlier predecessor Woodrow Wilson unequivocally announced support for immediate Philippine independence in the closing days of his own lame duck administration.
Which means whatever Clinton has promised that’s not written down remains nothing but a feel-good statement of potential political benefit to himself and to Joseph Estrada; but nothing that should be considered binding on his successor, Republican or Democratic. But Joseph Estrada knows that, he is a player, too. The end of the matter –and what should be said of the President’s trip, is this: it went well, with hardly a hitch, and the bacon was delivered. That is good enough by any President’s book. There are more trips to look forward too, including that still-coveted State visit.
The rest? It’s like the movies. Look at the pictures accompanying this article and see our President at his best. Amiable. Affable. Smiling; even, despite his girth, looking rather dashing.