Saturday, October 18, 2014

Is this fate or coincidence?


LET’S grapple today with some intriguing facts and curious tidbits of history, which seem to belong more to “Ripley’s Believe it or not,” than to a newspaper column.

First: The United States and the Philippines historically have each had only one bachelor president. James Buchanan in the case of the US. Benigno Aquino 3rd in the case of the Philippines.

Second: By an odd coincidence, both Buchanan and Aquino are the 15th president of their respective countries.

Third: Both Buchanan and Aquino have no known progeny. Aquino will likely leave office without begetting a child, although his fans still hope that he will.

Buchanan seriously courted the daughter of Pennsylvania’s leading ironmaster, who didn’t like Buchanan and tried to break up the courtship. After he fumbled the romance, she committed suicide.

Aquino was in a much-publicized courtship of a councilwoman and TV host early in his presidency. When the courtship bombed, she rushed off to marry a congressman.

Bidding for worst presidents
Fourth: Both Buchanan and Aquino are seriously in the running for the title of worst president in their respective country’s history.

Buchanan for bungling America into civil war. Aquino for wasting billions of public money, assaulting the rule of law by attacking the Supreme Court, and setting the stage for the possible dismemberment of the Republic.

In October 2000, the Federalist Society and the Wall Street Journal jointly asked an ideologically balanced group of 132 prominent professors of history, law, and political science to rate the US presidents on a 5-point scale.

George Washington was ranked number 1 (Abraham Lincoln came in second.)

James Buchanan came in dead last at number 39. (George W. Bush and Barack Obama are not included in the rankings.)

No similar evaluation-ranking of Filipino presidents has been attempted yet. But there have been plenty of opinionated propaganda purporting to put down or raise certain presidents.

Treating as an informal survey letters and comments sent to the Times and to this columnist in this year alone, BS Aquino is increasingly seen by plenty of readers as the worst president in Philippine history.

Only yesterday, I got the following reaction to my column of October 14 (“Aquino;The Hoity-toity president”) from Mr. Roldan Guerrero:

“I still consider ‘WORST’ is the right word because he [Aquino] is the most unfit president I have ever known. [Of] all legally elected Philippine Presidents, he is the least in performance, who always talked of accomplishments he did not do. His abuse of the DAP is one of the heinous crimes he did and this makes him the worst.”

On the other hand, reader Mr. Kulas says Aquino is “the best the country has ever had since Marcos.”

Stand-in hostesses
Fifth:. Because of their bachelorhood, Buchanan and Aquino turned to female relatives to stand in as hostesses in official banquets and receptions.

During Buchanan’s presidency, his orphaned niece Harriet Lane, then in her middle twenties, served as the official White House hostess. She had been placed in her uncle’s care following the death of her mother, Buchanan’s sister Jane.

During Aquino’s presidency, his four sisters — Ballsy, Viel, Pinky, and Kris — have taken turns serving as Malacañang hostess. Kris, a TV celebrity, is the most intrepid by Aquino’s side, even shedding tears on cue.

Were they fated to match records?

Were James Buchanan and Benigno Aquino 3rd fated to mirror each other and approximate each other’s level of success and mediocrity?

In a famous essay on Buchanan, historian Jean Harvey Baker offered the following explanation for his failure as president:

“Despite his caution and prudence, James Buchanan was an erratic trimmer who twisted this way and that, and once he made up his mind, he stubbornly adhered to his positions. Having filled his administration with southerners, he was hardly the kind of impartial leader the country needed in the 1850s….Needing self-assurance, he ultimately found it during his retirement, when with exculpatory vehemence, he asserted that he had warned the nation about northern abolitionists. The war was their fault.”

But Buchanan was blamed for the US Civil War. Vandals kept defacing his portrait in the US Capitol, requiring it to be removed for safekeeping. Posters calling him Judas were plastered on walls.

Aquino has mirrored Buchanan in his dependence on friends and cronies, in freezing in indecision in the face of crisis, and in fiercely exculpating himself from blame for every failure of his administration. It is never his fault when public services break down, people die, and government cannot do the job. He cannot fire any of his officials, fearing that he will be seen as the one to blame.

Imploring the public to believe him, he persistently points to his predecessor Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as the culprit for every unsolved problem and every shortcoming of his government.

Soulmates in mediocrity
Is bachelorhood to blame then?

Hardly. Although having a family would probably have enabled them to connect better with their constituents.

Junihiro Koizumi, former prime minister of Japan, was a bachelor while in office. He was a highly popular leader and an economic reformer. He made the hard decisions that started Japan on the road to recovery from years of stagnation.

The most that can probably be said is that James Buchanan and Noynoy Aquino are soulmates in ineffectiveness as their nation’s leaders.

It’s pure chance that they each became the 15th president of their countries. But what each one did in office is his own making and a reflection of character.

It was probably Buchanan’s bad luck – and America’s good luck – that he was followed in the US presidency by the great and revered Abraham Lincoln. He shrank in comparison.

When Benigno Aquino 3rd rides off to the sunset in 2016, will the Philippines be gifted by Providence with a new president destined for greatness?

People of the Philippines, dream on.

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